Category Archives: Theology

35th day of Lent. Attempting Clarity.

I thought I’d go back to the beginning of my last post, and try to do a better job of spelling out what I was trying to do there. Since I start these late at night–for example, I’m beginning this one a few minutes after midnight–the late hour in a way limits my ability to polish these. With polish comes clarity. That said, since it’s after midnight, this might not be much clearer. Caveats. There are always caveats.

Anyway I started by juxtaposing a sampling of hot button issues which I purposely tried to present in the way someone who believed whatever side they did, would recognize. The examples are limited, yes. There are rarely only two sides to any issue. Still, one of the things that keeps us from being able to have civic dialogue in the U.S. is that we reduce too many issues to two views. We’re very black and white, very either-or that way. It limits our ability to hold an opposite view to our own with any regard. Recently in conversation, a friend of mine told me that she’s taken to staying silent, rather than hear another friend say a version of “how can you believe that?” Hearing her say that I thought of  Carol Gilligan, and a quote that I think is from her book In a Different Voice, where she said: “The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard.” There’s no greater treasure than a person’s voice. We’re shutting each other down. Shutting each other out, and in what might be a greater sin, we demonize those who hold views opposite our own.

Why do we do that? As I said a few weeks ago, I like the anthropology of René Girard and his ideas about Mimetic Rivalry. Girard, says that desire is mimetic. People want what they see others as already having. The whole idea of the need to “keep up with the Joneses” points to this. You’re driving a seven year old car in great shape, and that you’re perfectly happy with. One day you see your neighbor has purchased a new car. What happens next? You start wondering if you should get one too. Before your neighbor made their purchase, you had no need. Suddenly you do. That’s what he means.

At a social level this rivalry can get so heated that it leads to violence. Of course, your new found desire for a new car that you may not be able to afford may not lead to more than an argument with your spouse, or your boss about your pay. Then again, there are bunches of ways the story of Cain and Abel can play out in our society. To avoid social violence, Girard says, societies developed the “scapegoat” mechanism as a relief valve. That’s why you see in many early religions that an innocent victim is chosen, and after the sin of the community is assigned to them, and they’re sacrificed. It’s under the guise of appeasing the gods/God, but what’s really happening is that the pressure towards violence is released.

Since Liberals scapegoat Conservatives, and Conservatives scapegoat Liberals–that’s how badly things have degenerated–it’s almost impossible to recognize that a person who holds a view different or opposite from our own has come to hold it as true through a process that is as genuine, honest, and legitimate as the way we’ve come to hold true what we do. We can’t get there. At the same time, there is common ground.

Here’s when I made the leap that’s hard to do because we’re entrenched the way we are. While we may not be able to see a view opposite our own has having value–that’s where the phrase “morally equivalent” comes in–this week in Christian circles we’re all, Conservatives, Liberals, Green, Libertarian, Black, White, rich and poor Christians are celebrating the murder of Jesus in the celebration of Easter.

For Christian theologians–and regular folk like myself–what makes Easter transforming, is that Jesus becomes the scapegoat of everyone. That’s where shouting “Crucify him” as we read the Passion is an act that can help us get in touch with the way we we’re still scapegoating people, and cultures different than our own. That’s a hard thing to grasp. You might say, I’m not doing that. I can’t see that. It’s at this point that I think invoking Matthew 25 is appropriate:

41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45 He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

Anyway. It’s one. I’m running on fumes. I hope that’s a little clearer. Tomorrow if I’m lucky I’ll dive a little deeper with the idea of Jesus as the scapegoat who forgives us. It’s a very different way of thinking about atonement. It’s a way–despite the way the passage I just mentioned reads–without an angry God.


34th day of Lent. God Can Only Be Reached When Our Hearts Are Broken.

What’s the issue, or attitude that pushes your buttons most? Is it abortion, and the inability of folks to see that it’s a baby’s life that’s lost, or that a woman has the right to choose? Is it poverty, and the callousness of the 1%, or the laziness of the 47% who just want handouts? Is it the sanctity of marriage being at risk, or the desire of LGBTQ couples to honor the sanctity of marriage? Is it the way “Black Lives Matter” helps us see that the Civil Rights movement needs to continue, or that saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t respect the struggles all other races endure?

Lent is about taking a chunk of time, and doing the work required to change your mind. To change an aspect of the way you live your life, or to change a behavior that you’ve lived into that you can see is wrong, or not true to your values. To do that, perhaps especially when it involves regret, you have to be willing to come face to face with your own darkness. Part of the the gift of doing that, James Alison says, is that it encourages us–since we’re people who struggle to be the people we want to be–to realize we’re “morally equivalent” to the people who are on the other side of our hot button issues. This is especially true because we’re all, Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Christians about to come together to celebrate a murder. We don’t call it that of course, but that’s what it is. A murder.

What follows are a series of quotes from a sermon James Alison gave on April 10, 2006 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, in Atlanta, Georgia. In the homily they all follow each other, except for the last one which comes at the end. The reading of the Passion that folks in many churches will do on Palm Sunday is pretty powerful. If you read this post before you go to church (or read Mark’s Passion MK 14:1-15:47), you might find the perspective it offers helpful as you hear the Gospel proclaimed. The breaks between them can function to separate Alison’s thoughts a bit. If on the other hand you read this after having heard the Gospel proclaimed, the breaks might be helpful as you reflect on what you heard earlier in the day. In either case, I encourage you to place yourself in the story, using your imagination and see what it does with you. Where is your attention drawn? What are you feeling, experiencing as you read?

“[W]e’ll be asked, as the days go by, to adopt various parts in that re-enactment of a murder. Crowds shouting, “Crucify him”. Crowds saying, “Give us Barabbas”. Different voices of participation in a murder. And we do this, not so as to recite some sacred text, but so that we may be inspired by the spirit of mourning to look around and see the other murders we participate in, to look at the other parts of the world where people are killing each other in the name of God, and saying, “Yes, actually that’s our story”. Another Shiite mosque blown up. “Funny how those religious people murder each other”. And what we’re celebrating is our moral equivalence with that, what it’s like to be people undergoing a murder that’s taking us by surprise.”


“In the story, which we’ll be dwelling in, there are normally three or four positions. One position is the crowd. I don’t know whether any of you were at Palm Sunday services yesterday. In the Catholic lectionary it was Mark’s passion that was read. The interesting thing about Mark’s passion is the sense of how speedy it all is. What a muddle. What chaos. The getting excited about someone coming in. The chanting at him, the words of the great high priest, the muddle, the confusion, the murder, the lynching, the way in which crowds whip each other up and whip each other down with enthusiasms, and how it ends up in a murder. And how it’s everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault. There’s something delightfully chaotic and fast-paced about Mark’s text. We have the luxury now of dwelling in some of that slightly more slowly. Because there are other voices. There’s the crowd which is normally our voice. And it’s the crowd that we are coming to learn how not to be.”


“Then there are the voices of the disciples. And they half get it and half don’t get it. They are half sticking by Jesus, and they are half running away. And another voice of course we hear in the text is the disciples’ retrospective vision. What they got afterwards that they hadn’t got at the time. And of course that’s what most of our Gospel texts are. It’s the “Oh, so that was what it was about” of the apostolic group.”


“But then there’s the fourth and most profound and important voice, which is the one we’ll be straining hardest to listen to, which is the voice of Our Lord, the One who is undergoing this. Speaking very gently and very quietly, not “shouting or crying in the streets” as it says in the Prophet Isaiah, not bullying people, but moving towards occupying a place that only He can occupy, a quiet but deliberate voice. Our surgeon. Our anaesthetist. The one who enables us to have an open heart, to live with our scandal. . . .”


“A word about “the Jews” because they’ll appear frequently enough during this week for it to be worth getting something right here. The word, literally “Judeans”, should not, by any of us, be read as referring to the people whom we now call the Jewish people. We’re talking probably about what would have been something rather like people who now call themselves Christians, since we’re in to moral equivalence. In other words, what had previously been rather a broad term was taken over by a group who wanted it to mean something rather narrower and tighter and more excellent. You know what I mean in that use of the word Christian. Well, the Hebrew people had quite a multifarious belonging and forms of belonging. And one of the groups, the people who had come back from Babylon with quite a strong religious line, was known by others as the Judeans. They were very keen on Moses and the Law and a particular interpretation of ways of belonging. This is by no means the same as the Jewish people. This is, if you like, much more of a cultural and religious group within the Jewish people. And they were clearly interested in Jesus. They were half tempted by him, hence the Chief Priests’ concern. They’re going to be with us, they’re part of the crowd, they’re part of us: – people who want a system of goodness; for whom Jesus is not going to give a system of goodness, but open up heaven. So let’s sit with these people, with these groups, over the next few days, allowing us, allowing ourselves to be approached by one who is about to be murdered. Allowing ourselves to be approached as murderers, not being scandalised. That’s the route Our Lord is taking us, gently, quietly, establishing justice, moving to the space of being the victim, without creating enormous waves of scandal, trying to allow us access to God, who can only be reached when our hearts are broken, and we look at our sisters and brothers as people equally involved, and therefore equally able to be called into new life. That’s our task for Holy Week.”


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