Monday, November 26, 2012

The Importance Of Not Being Scandalized

In my years BG (Before Girard) I understood scandal in a strictly moral way, i.e.a destruction of the spiritual good through public sin. Rene' Girard showed just how impoverished this idea is. The evolutionary anthropologist unpacked scandal not as a badge of shame, or just a paparazzi source of titillation. Rather it is a powerful structural relationship: a mutuality poisoned by violence. Most astonishing, Girard traces the structural concept to Jesus, who was the first clearly to articulate it.

Girard explains how Jesus conceived scandal as the "model-obstacle," a situation where someone shows another what to desire by means of a violent opposition. The case of Peter is the classic instance. He tries to stop Jesus going to Jerusalem to suffer and die: Jesus calls him a "skandalon," because Peter is trying to infect him with his violent desire in relation to Jerusalem and doing so through his own urgent opposition to Jesus' plan. Jesus says this is a temptation from Satan which can trip him (Jesus) up, for it seeks to turn his way of nonviolence back to the traditional anthropology of violence.

Jesus' ministry represented a concrete historical movement and so it was too easy for people around him, like Peter, to take it up with the standard anthropology of power and violence (see e.g. Mk. 10:37). Jesus had to insist again and again on the profoundly new structure of humanity that went with his breakthrough. He preached against the character of scandal itself, a relationship which insinuates violence into the heart of "little ones" causing them to stumble back into the violent world order. "Woe to the world because of scandals. For it is necessary that scandals come: but woe to that man by whom the scandal comes." (Matthew 18:6-7). This teaching is extraordinarily relevant to Christians in North America in these first decades of the 21st century.

We are scandalized by everything and everyone: Tea Partyers by Government, Liberals by Tea Partyers, Gays by Homophobes, Homophobes by Gays, Christians by Christians, Non-Christians by Christians, Spirituals by Religious, Religious by Spirituals, Secessionists by Obama, Progressives by Bush. The whole recent election was an exercise in acute scandal provoked by one side on the other, together with the constant zombie-like attempt to infuse everyone with the same outrage. Romney's 47% became a mantra of offense, and Obama was, of course, a closet Muslim Socialist. I recently came on a post-election political commentary imagining at length what it would be like if Romney had in fact won: almost as if were impossible to leave behind that endless satisfaction of scandal.

The gospel continues to lay bare the violence of culture. Because of it we are just like Peter. We are keen to take up the causes of Jesus but with the old anthropological structure intact inside us, and perhaps more virulent than ever. Because there has been a disclosure of violence but not a deep conversion to Jesus' new humanity of forgiveness and love we are susceptible to a tsunami of mediated hostility. And we shouldn't feel condemned in admitting this. The New Tesatament is keen to underline that the "greatest" figures are affected. John the Baptist is someone else who risked seeing Jesus in terms of violent opposition (probably because Jesus was not following through in the expected path of revolution, and was felt as opposing John's deeply religious desire). Jesus commented that John would be "blessed" if he could come to the point of not being "scandalized."

Scandal is now a normal structure of consciousness in the West, a seesawing back and forth of violent desire. Worse, it has become the self-justifying mind-set of those who take certain Christian values seriously, but do not go the whole yard in the new nonviolent humanity of Christ. In which case the Christian religion is caught as a self-tightening noose. It is falling tighter and tighter into a trap of its own making and which Jesus warned about a long time ago.

Jesus of course wasn't afraid to speak in opposition to the groups and institutions around him. But his opposition was not violent. He spoke from within a radical human newness, one that did not dwell in the dark caves of resentment and envy. He was prepared to give himself completely for the sake of forgiveness and love, and because he did he released this quality of relationship into the world for his followers.

The Holy Spirit is the peace he gives, "not as the world gives,'" but it is very much in the world, something that changes everything. Without a living sense of this new world we will only recycle the structures of violence when we speak.

The vital thing is to discover this space of the Spirit rising up in the world and its history, as an act of grace hand in hand with the increase of scandal. Eventually it must outstrip scandal. It has to be this way. because, paradoxically, it is the peace of Christ which helps provoke the scandal (as it did with John the Baptist), and every time there is an upsurge of scandal there is, deep in its undertow, the peace of a new creation. Our work is every time to find that true space behind the scandal.

For if a new humanity cannot be discovered existentially in the here, it would seem existentially impossible to find it in the hereafter.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Was the U.S. Election Legitimate?

The 2012 U.S. presidential election was the most expensive ever, coming in at over a billion dollars for Obama and Romney each. The cost for the whole election, including seats in the Senate and Congress, was six billion. Much of this money was spent on T.V. ads (a full million of them), blitzing Americans with a daily dose of manufactured opinion from both sides, most of it finger-pointing and destructive.

It was also by far the longest election, fought right from the get-go--the moment of Obama's 2009 inauguration--when Rush Limbaugh said he wanted the president to fail. From that point it was the declared purpose of the political right to de-elect Obama, and reciprocally by his supporters to forestall that outcome. The claim of the "Birthers" that Obama was not born in the U.S., and had not provided a valid birth certificate, further intensified the sense of an ever-open election season.

The endless election was indeed a denial of legitimacy for Obama, and the last four years have opened up the question of legitimacy in a general way. What in fact makes for a legitimate president? The notorious "Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court, allowing "dark money" to pour into the election campaigns, has undermined the traditional piety of "government by the people for the people." Individuals or corporations are allowed to throw unlimited cash into the candidate's war chests and often without duty to disclose who they are. Such unaccountable money cannot possibly be democratic. Hundreds of millions of dollars are not spent to facilitate free exercise of judgment on the part of each citizen. They are intended to influence and buy the crowd.

An excoriating piece by Chris Hedges, the S&M Election, denounced the presidential election as an exercise in cruelty, abuse and violence. Hedges quotes Gustave Le Bon, writing on the phenomenon of the crowd: “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

The sociologist Le Bon is recognized to be a forerunner of Rene' Girard. According to Girard's thought crowds can never have legitimacy, because they mobilize as crowd against the single victim, blaming that figure for their own mimetic violence which they then unleash. The mob that turned against Jesus is the textbook example. Thus when a politician mobilizes the violence of the crowd against an individual or group, by a biblical definition he loses legitimacy.

The amazing thing is that the huge glut of private money funneled into the election did not seem entirely to work. Americans, to some degree, seem to have made their decisions despite, not because of the adverts. The biggest single donor in history, the casino billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, plunked down millions of dollars supporting eight candidates in Tuesday's election: none were victorious.

Which suggests there might be another source to democracy apart from the dynamics of the crowd, and there might also, therefore, be another, genuine source of legitimacy. Might it be possible there was actually a sense of common interest and even the common good which helped mobilize the electorate last Tuesday?

Before we get carried away, we must also remember that it was one of the constant boasts of the Obama side that he killed Osama Bin Laden. A couple of days before the election the organization "Obama For America" sent me an email listing the top twenty five reasons to re-elect their man. Number Four was: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." As Adam Ericksen so well points out Obama has "fostered a culture of violence," continually using drones in Pakistan, terrorizing a whole population and the generation of its children. There is inescapably violence at the source of the favor in which the crowd holds him.

In this respect the Christian finds all presidential legitimacy a very ambiguous thing indeed. It was something foreseen by Augustine of Hippo. In The City of God Augustine describes how the Christian people are invested in the peace of the human community, including its political realization, sharing that goal with the political state. But Christians are not invested in the means by which the state achieves its ends. Augustine describes nations as consumed by "libido dominandi," a violent lust for power. In contrast the Christian community seeks to promote the political ends of peace by its own proper means, which are the non-violent means of Christ, the love of God and neighbor.

So what does this election teach us? Once again the surprise is really that so much of the negative mobilization against Obama did not work. So, despite the fact that Obama himself engages in the standard mobilization of the crowd against the enemy, is it also possible that the long soaking of West in the gospel of Jesus has resulted, at least to some degree, in another kind of legitimacy, one that comes from Christ. The willingness to care for each other, via some form of universal Health Care, the acceptance of difference, including in sexual orientation, as the necessary path to love, the rejection of money as the sole standard of human meaning, via progressive taxation, all this can justly claim to be an effect of the gospel. (And, yes, I know I have not mentioned abortion, the anti-Obama rallying cry of the Catholic bishops, but as Nicolas Cafardi argued Obama was more pro-life than Romney. The Affordable Health Care act will provide economic support to vulnerable pregnant women and so make abortion less likely.)

In sum this Christ-inspired legitimacy does not belong to Obama, or to any one party. Its fault lines go across the parties, right through communities, and down the middle of U.S, self-consciousness itself. It does not in fact identify itself with any one party or candidate. Its existence is a question much more of the Christian movement continuing to provide a new basis of legitimacy, within a secular world increasingly nervous of the dystopian power of violence. Its function is to be salt to the earth, telling the story over and over again, insisting in season and out on the apocalyptic (i.e. humanity transforming) principles of contemporary Christianity. It seeks to arrive at the point where Obama and presidents after him will regard killing people not as a claim of legitimacy but, according to the revelation of the Christian Messiah, a source of de-legitimation.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian