Category Archives: Key Ideas

Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept Crucifixion?

  1. To rescue us from fear of the judgement of others – what Jesus calls ‘the world’ (John 16:33) – by overthrowing, without violence, the judgement of the world of his time, and all time. This fear of judgement, which comes not from God but from the Adversary, is the root of all Status Anxiety (fear of ‘what people think’), status seeking, inequality and violence.
  2. So that we might follow him out of love rather than fear.
  3. To teach us to forgive as He did.
  4. To reveal to us the origin of all violence in Status Anxiety – and the Satanic historical pattern of the accusation and scapegoating of the innocent that arises from the Status Anxiety of those seeking or wielding punitive power.
  5. To give us a limitless horizon – beyond mere consumption, sexual fixation and death.
  6. To offer freedom from fear to those challenged to speak the truth to abusive power, the whistle-blowers who are needed even in the church.
  7. To allow us always to review the history of the church and to lament the Status Anxiety that misled it too often into too close an alliance with state power (c.313 CE to c.1918 CE) under Christendom, and the many victimisations, enslavements and compromises with violence that followed – including the abuse of children by ordained clergy.
  8. To take away even those sins when we have seen them, and properly atoned.
  9. To clarify our understanding of sin as stemming from doubt of our own value, leading to the coveting of status in the positive regard of others – and all other unloving and unjust actions.
  10. To make way for the Holy Spirit, close counsellor of everyone.
  11. To bring us back to the Father our maker – and sender of Jesus our Rescuer and the Holy Spirit our counsellor.
  12. To save the world in an always New Creation – through our conversion and our witness to the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who accompany us always and forever.

If the earliest Christians were given new life by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a vision of a new creation in a violent world now passing away, why should Christians of our time not always see this world of now as equally limited in judgement, and the Trinity as calling them always to a new and peaceful Kingdom of God, beyond all ambition and conflict? The medieval God seen by St Anselm of Canterbury as bent only on balancing the scales of an eternal justice is not the God of the apostles or of Irenaeus or the other early fathers, for whom it was God the Father who had burst their chains by sending them His Son.

Using the psychological and anthropological insights of Alain de Botton and René Girard it is time to return to the early church’s vision of Jesus of Nazareth as Christus Victor, who with the father’s help has overturned the verdict of the world, by exposing the real author of the lies that had condemned him. In the words of Gustav Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus:

First, then, it must be emphasised that the work of atone­ment is regarded as carried through by God Himself; and this, not merely in the sense that God authorises, sanctions, and initiates the plan of salvation, but that He Himself is the effective agent in the redemptive work, from beginning to end. It is the Word of God incarnate who overcomes the tyrants which hold man in bondage; God Himself enters into the world of sin and death, that He may reconcile the world to Himself. Therefore Incarnation and Atonement stand in no sort of antithesis; rather, they belong inseparably together. It is God’s Love, the Divine agape, that removes the sentence that rested upon mankind, and creates a new relation between the human race and Himself, a relation which is altogether different from any sort of justification by legal righteousness. The whole dispensation is the work of grace.” [Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor, 1931. S.P.C.K. edition 1965, p 34.]

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Church Is Mission?

Without official rejection of a mistaken medieval understanding of ‘redemption’ the call to mission is futile.

~

Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that Church ‘is’ mission.

Those are just two of 110 occurrences of the word mission in the Synthesis Report of the October 2023 16th Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Nowhere is there a convincing manifesto for this mission.  With the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying that ‘we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world‘ there is no help with that problem in the forty-one pages of the report.  

So far also the two Irish bishop representatives at the synod – Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Alan McGuckian of Raphoe – are also unhelpful.  All Catholic bishops are still imprisoned by a medieval theology of atonement and redemption that no missionary in Ireland today could offer as ‘Good News’? 

Blaming the Father

Originating with St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century this theology proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by the Father who sent him – to give ‘satisfaction’ for the ‘dishonour’ caused to the Father by all of our sins – by dying an excruciating death in ‘substitution’ for ourselves.  (CCC 615)

God the Father was Liberator for the early church.
This was not the theology of the early church. The very idea of ‘redemption’ derives from the ‘buying back’ of the freedom of a slave.  It was to God the Father that the first Christians attributed their own liberation from fear of the condemnation of their own Roman world.  The greatest power of that time had been proven powerless to overwhelm an ever-living  truth – by Jesus’ Resurrection.


What exactly do Irish bishops believe: that the Father of the mission we are now to embark upon is bent upon our liberation from the source of all oppression and fear in our present world – or that he is still, as he was for St Anselm in 1098 CE – in the business of calling in debts? 

This theology never even liberated any bishop. No Catholic bishop anywhere in the world is known to have warned his flock about the possibility of clerical sex abuse of children – before victims of that abuse or their families took secular legal action themselves.  In December 2009 the Irish Conference of Catholic bishops named the fear that had paralysed them: of a loss of ‘reputation’ if the truth was known.

The Root of All Evil?

An overbearing concern for ‘reputation’ now has a name – Status Anxiety – given in 2004 by the philosopher Alain de Botton. If our bishops cannot see this same affliction in every aspect of the evils that surround us – from manic consumerism, absurd inequality and climate change to compulsive cosmetic plastic surgery, stalking and mass shootings – and even invasive imperialism in Ukraine and violence in the Holy Land – how are we to convince anyone that Jesus has anything to do with overthrowing the power of evil?  If they cannot see it also in the problem of clericalism, how are we to overcome that? 

Status Anxiety is essentially fear of scorn – of being ‘cast out’ – the fear that stalks our dreams. It also drives the pursuit of ‘likes’, admiration, influence, celebrity – and power.  This explains the absorption of younger generations with digital media.  A globalized personal ‘brand’ can now be created, via a handheld device, even by children. 

Meanwhile our prisons and psychiatric hospitals and addiction centres struggle to cope with the depression, self-harm,  trolling, addiction and criminality that results from the lack of status – even the shame – that the victims of the digital age must feel. 

Jesus the Whistle-Blower
Is not Status Anxiety also the source of the fear that attacks would-be whistle-blowers everywhere?  Is that not what Jesus was – a whistle-blower against all injustice, who stood firm – without violence – against the merciless judgement of that ancient world? Did he not name his own mission, when he said, just before his own judgement, that he had ‘overcome the world’ – the fear of that judgement? Did he not by his crucifixion and resurrection dissolve the same fear in his earliest followers, who then took up their own crosses – and changed an empire? 


We Catholic Christians urgently need official recognition that the first person of the Trinity, far from being himself trapped in medieval Status Anxiety, is still bent – with the Son and the Holy Spirit – on rescuing us from that affliction. Until that happens the mission ahead will be ‘mission on pause’.

First published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland – Nov 21st 2023.

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René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

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What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

Views: 219

Did God want Jesus Dead?

Now committed to a synodal programme, Irish Catholics will struggle to make missionary sense of a medieval theology that implies a divine need for a divine victim – the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary to repay a human debt of honour to the Father God of Creation.

Satisfaction and substitution, keywords of the medieval and early modern theology of the cross, are both used in the Catholic Catechism of 19941CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father. – to explain why Jesus submitted to crucifixion on Calvary. Human sinfulness is so great, according to this theology, that the voluntary suffering and death of God’s only son was needed to atone, reconciling the Father to ourselves.

In this understanding Jesus ‘satisfied’ a cosmic debt, substituting himself as sufferer of the divine punishment that must otherwise fall upon ourselves. This is the essence of the redemption theology of the Catechism.

Paradoxically, however, this leaves the same Father God obviously open to a suspicion of unforgiveness, making Jesus’s own forgiveness of his accusers a startling contradiction. Any ‘new evangelisation’ in Ireland must contend with this theological Gordian knot. Has any of us have ever heard, in church, a convincing attempt to untie it?

How many are aware that this medieval emphasis on divine debt recovery was not the understanding of the early Christian church? For over a thousand years, until the time of St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century, it was taught that Jesus’s self-sacrifice had ransomed humankind from the powers of darkness – from ‘Satan’.

In this understanding, God the Father – in raising Jesus from the dead – was co-liberator of humankind. To ‘redeem’ was to buy the freedom of a slave, and, in the early church’s understanding, humans had been in captivity to evil until the time of Jesus. For those earliest Christian believers, the God of Abraham had done for themselves – through Jesus – what he had earlier done for the Israelites enslaved by Pharaonic Egypt.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God Became a Man’ – 1098 CE) Anselm argued that the life of the Son of God was worth far more than any debt that could have been owed to Satan. To undo this mistake he essentially attributed the captivity from which Jesus liberated humankind to God himself.

To understand this shift we need to remember that for Anselm and his contemporaries the monarchical political order of the time was God-ordained. From the fourth century adoption of Christianity by the failing Roman empire, Christian clergy had supported the authority of the political order that protected them, an authority that rested on military power. It did not make sense to Anselm that God the Father would not rescue Jesus by the same forceful means, unless the crucifixion had been necessary to restore the perfect creation described in Genesis.

Anselm’s explanation of the Crucifixion became the bedrock of the fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of our own time – a Christian extremism that can favour the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ and scorn any reference to the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

There Jesus insists that enemies be loved instead. Never does Christian fundamentalism attend to Jesus’s repetition of the warning of the prophet Hosea – that what pleases God is ‘mercy not sacrifice‘ (Matt 9:13).

With the church no longer beholden to any political elite in the West, St Anselm’s perspective is a missionary millstone. Who cannot see that a state power that rests upon force – rather than consent – is unjust and sinful? Who cannot see in political ambition the covetousness of the 9th and 10th commandments of Moses?

And who cannot now see that it was in his rejection of ambition – political or religious – that Jesus overcame the temptation of ‘the world’? Oblivious of this danger even Christian religious elites can be corrupted, the problem described as ’spiritual worldliness’ by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

The crucifixion is explained simply by the refusal of the Trinity to force us to follow them. How could the Father be freely loved if he was less loving than the Son?

Violence – and victimisation – arise easily from human ambition. Jesus stands unique in the ancient world, as an historical figure who refused power on those terms, at staggering personal cost. That sacrifice bears witness to a source of moral strength that lies beyond any of us. It was in this non-violent self-giving that Jesus reached the summit of human achievement – bearing witness to a heavenly father who thinks the same way. His forgiving self-sacrifice finally abolished the contradiction between mercy and sacrifice. He died as he had lived, in solidarity with the most vulnerable – those many millions who have died to save the faces of the Caesars of history.

The sacred purpose of the Trinity is to free humankind from selfish ambition (the root of all imperialism), from elitism and from violence. We need to reconsider a theological perspective that falls scandalously short – by imputing self-absorption and a need for violent sacrifice to the Father.

Notes

  1. CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

See also: Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?

Views: 213

Salvation and Social Media

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Jesus died on the cross …

to free us from fear of what other people think…

… and from the danger of being misled by their flattery or adulation.

What is it like to be occupied by a foreign power … to be told that your culture is inferior and your God is powerless … to have every attempt at resistance beaten down and your leaders tortured and executed in the most brutal and degrading way?

Are you then in danger of believing what you are told, and even of blaming yourself for your foolishness?

That was the condition of the poorest in spirit in the Palestine of Jesus’s time.

And that was why they understood the Resurrection of Jesus as freedom now – from the mistake of believing that they had been forsaken by the God of their ancestors, the God of Moses who had freed the Israelites from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

It is time to recall what belief in the Resurrection originally meant, and still means:

We need not fear the judgment of other human beings, whoever they are – and will be foolish if we spend our lives in search of their approval.

How did we lose the original meaning of salvation?

How did it happen that Christian teachers today have so often forgotten the original meaning of ‘Salvation’ – and cannot explain the relevance of prayer to the epidemic of self-harm now ongoing via Internet social media?

For the earliest Christians the story of Jesus was ‘salvation’ right now – not just a promise of life after death. Occupied by an often brutal foreign power the Jews of Israel were in real danger of of internalising Rome’s judgement of them as an inferior people whose God had failed. It followed that a belief in Jesus’s resurrection was also a belief that Rome’s power lay at the mercy of the God of Israel and was ‘passing away’.

History was to prove them right. An empire that ruled by fear and the most cruel shaming had been overthrown where it most mattered – in the minds of a minority who were quick to pass on this electrifying news.

The same story of Jesus, amplified in the Gospels, also overturned the myths that wealth, health and social status were signs of God’s approval, while illness or misfortune or extreme poverty must be proof of God’s condemnation. The assumptions that sustained the social pyramids of the ancient world had all been thrown into question.

So, in their own lifetime many of ‘the poorest in spirit’ had become convinced that they had never been deserted by a transcendent power that knew them individually – and the world’s greatest empire had been proven a hopeless judge.

However, through the centuries this original understanding became dimmed, especially by a theology of atonement that implied that God was still dissatisfied by our sinfulness – identified mainly with our sexuality. St Anselm of Canterbury convinced many in Cur Deus Homo (1098) that God the Father sent Jesus to collect a debt on which we had defaulted, and that Jesus accepted crucifixion to repay this debt.

And then, in the 1500s, Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin developed the idea of Jesus as penal substitute, the one who accepted the extra punishment that must otherwise fall on ourselves – because the suffering that sin itself brings is not enough.

In this way the liberator God of the early Christians had become instead the Great Medieval Debt Collector who will send us to Hell for defaulting. No wonder this doesn’t make sense to so many of today’s young people.

Social Media – an Empire Built on Our Search for Recognition and Approval

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Its favourites are no longer the military heroes of the ancient world but the ‘silicon’ hardware and software icons of the Internet, and anyone else who can ‘influence’ its markets. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and “the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use”.

Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge has found that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls is even stronger.

“…The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.” (Washington Post, 16th Feb 2022)

Why the Phone Fixation?

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions – that our value and importance can be determined by the judgement of others. Disappointment and elation – obscurity or recognition – honour and shame – are in the power of a handheld device that will tell us at a glance where we stand.

Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are anyway vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is now well established. To believe in the Internet – or in media generally – as the arbiter of a person’s worth – is, for millions, to become poor in spirit all over again. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality and the real world.

And that is why we need to remind ourselves, constantly, through prayer, that we should never make ourselves the prisoners of the judgement of others.

What has the experience of media shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power broker of both honour and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option – to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honour’ as truly in the gift of other humans – and to identify that as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras – and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. If the Gospel story was not a revelation of that mistake – and of the fallibility of human judgement – even when all are in agreement – what was it?

Is not that mistake – the seeking of honour in the adulation of others – the root of all tyranny in all eras? Was not that the mistake of the sons of Zebedee also, and the root of all conflict?

Can homilies address the threat to young people of online bullying?

Why should we not see the disgracing of the Irish church – at the hands of a secularising media – as deliverance in disguise – especially from the mistake of supposing that when the church was itself the great social arbiter of honour and shame it was where Our Father wanted us to be? Was it not to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation’, that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children?

Has not their own ‘humiliation by media’ been in truth a later stage of the formation of Catholic clergy for the world of now? Is not the Creed – the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief – to be celebrated and re-affirmed now, in the face of a secularism that direly needs it?

Certainly there must be many Irish teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet – so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market’. Who is now ready for the rescuing? Is that not a calling for all of us?

Sean O’Conaill

[This article was revised on January 14th 2023, in light of reinforcing research data on the negative influence of social media on the mental health of young people.]

Views: 244

The Creed is for Whistle-Blowers, not Dogmatists

Tony Flannery – who in 2020 asked: ‘What is the point of the Creeds?’

By far the worst thing ever to happen to the Christian Creeds of the early centuries was that they became tools of persecution by hunters of Christian heretics in the Middle Ages. (c. 476 CE – c. 1453)

The second-worst thing that happened to them was their use by the compilers of Catechisms – for the persecution of many generations of Christian children who could be beaten in school for failing to remember what the Catechism said.

With one self-defeating arm of the bureaucracy of  the Catholic Church in pursuit of heretics until recently, it is no wonder that cancelled Catholic priest Tony Flannery should ask in 2020 What is the point of the Creeds?’1‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’, Tony Flannery, Red Stripe Press, 2020

The shortest answer to this question goes as follows:

First, the Apostles Creed is a summary of the faith the led the earliest church through its worst persecutions. It was a passport through persecution, NOT a licence for persecution – and should never have been used for that purpose.

Second, the Nicene Creed is a mere ‘tweaking’ of the Apostles Creed, to insist upon the equality of all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It should never have been used as a tool of religious oppression either.

The ‘Credo’ of Jesus of Nazareth

The English word ‘Creed’ derives from the Latin word ‘Credo’ which means ‘I believe’. Every firm believer is in need of a summary of what they believe – and Jesus’ own people, the Jews had that.  Called the ‘Shema‘ (the Hebrew word for ‘Listen’ or ‘Hear’) it was recalled by Jesus when he was asked, in Mark’s Gospel, what was the greatest of the commandments.

He replied as follows:

‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’  (Mark 12: 29-31)

This was a direct quotation from one of the oldest of the Hebrew scriptures, or ‘Old Testament’, the Book of Deuteronomy. ‘“Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deut 6: 4,5)

Because the Apostles Creed affirms Jesus as ‘Son of God’ it follows that what Jesus believed is also binding for Christians, so we believe ourselves also bound by the ‘Shema’ as the basis of all other laws, including the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

As explained by Luke Timothy Johnson in ‘The Creed’, the Apostles Creed grew naturally out of the Shema – to explain to Jews and Gentiles why Jesus’s story was central to Christian belief.

Jesus’s Crucifixion was a Beginning, not an End

The earliest Christians believed firmly in Jesus’s survival of crucifixion. What is impossible for many who are attracted to Jesus’s teachings today – the belief that he had been somehow raised from the death proscribed by a Roman governor of Palestine, in about 30 CE — was the firm belief of those who compiled the four Gospels and the Creed.

It is obvious also why that belief was affirmed in the Creed. It reassured the Christian believer that his or her own life would endure beyond physical death –  as a follower of this man who had not been simply obliterated by the worst persecution that the greatest empire of the time could devise.

It is the most grotesque irony of the history of Christianity that the Creed should itself in later centuries have become an instrument of persecution. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ was, for the first Christians, to deny supreme authority to Caesar – and therefore to endanger oneself, as Jesus himself had done by criticising the religious elite of his own time.

On the third day he rose again.

This insistence on the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus is the central and pivotal statement in the Creed – explaining everything that comes before that in the Creed, and everything that followed. For the purpose of the Creed was to assure the believer that in following Jesus, as a mere human, the same victory over death could be achieved. The power claimed by Rome, or any other authority, was thereby ‘relativised’ – reduced to mere appearances and ‘passing away’ – temporary.

That Jesus was human also – as vulnerable to suffering and death as the rest of us – was therefore also to be believed.  For otherwise how could survival of death be possible for merely human believers in Jesus?

But Jesus was also ‘Son of God’ and himself divine.  So therefore, somehow, he had been ‘conceived’ by – or ‘brought into being by’ – the Holy Spirit of God.

How are we to understand today the insistence upon the ‘virginity’ of Mary, the mother of Jesus?  Some scripture scholars tell us that the original meaning of the word did not originally imply that Jesus’s conception happened without sexual intercourse, but that probably cannot be proven,  What is certain is that the process by which Jesus was ‘conceived’ or ‘begotten’ by God was for early Christians a secondary matter – dependent upon the conviction that through Jesus we come to know God – and to know that God is love.

The Creed Summarises the Gospels

Because the Creed was in later centuries used to justify the persecution of Christian ‘rebels’ or ‘heretics’,  it is sometimes alleged that it was the product of the Constantinian Roman Empire – and therefore NOT what Christians originally believed.  This can be disproven simply by comparing it with what is asserted in the four Gospels.

To take just the Gospel of Matthew to start with, it is clear that the belief that God is a ‘Trinity’ of three persons was central to the early church.  Completed probably by as early as 100 CE Matthew’s Gospel gives us in Chapter 28 Jesus’s final instruction to his followers, AFTER the crucifixion:

Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28: 19)

Although the Nicene Creed – to the right – did emerge in the wake of Constantine’s decision to approve Christian belief it is also clearly a mirror of the earlier wording.  What is distinctive about it is simply its insistence upon Jesus as an equal member of the Trinity – something questioned by Arianism, a ‘heresy’ of the time that made Jesus clearly inferior in status to the Father.

In that one Gospel, therefore, completed centuries before Constantine, we find the central beliefs of the Creed – that Jesus had survived crucifixion and taught that God was a Trinity.

The Nicene Creed also affirms the equality of the Trinity

Can Unarmed Love Conquer Death?

Think about it just for ten seconds. Other than the complete faith of the founders of the Christian tradition that Jesus had risen, what else can explain why there ever was a Christian tradition?

That faith has proved far stronger than the Roman imperial conviction that crucifixion would do what the Romans were certain it would do – scrub anyone who suffered it completely from historical memory. 

All merely human empires are built on a premise of permanence via the shaming of others, and almost everyone knows now what a ghastly and doomed premise that is.

The Creed simply means that it is unarmed truth in the face of armed power that drives history forward. Through their courage and their vulnerability, it is the speakers of unarmed truth to power who are best remembered and best loved.

Because, somehow, truth-tellers, whistleblowers, are definitely not ever, in any circumstances – truly alone.

Views: 199

How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’s Resurrection had set them free from the worst kind of fear – that the judgement of Rome was God’s judgement also. Without an army, Jesus had defeated the world’s greatest power, simply by speaking the truth. The still living Jesus, their brother and Lord,  was now judge of the living as well as the dead. In their own minds and hearts, whatever others might think, they were beloved children of the only God who mattered.

If Crucifixion could not disgrace or kill Jesus it could not disgrace or kill those who believed that Jesus was indeed the way, the truth and the life.

And so St Paul could write :  Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3: 17)

This was why Jesus was also called ‘Redeemer‘ – liberator – because his forgiveness, experienced before Baptism, had also liberated his earliest followers from the fear that eternal death would follow not only from the mistakes of their own earlier lives but from crucifixion

To redeem‘ was literally to buy the freedom of a Roman slave, so those earliest Christians were truly free in the most important sense.  The greatest power that Rome had – the power to both kill and shame by crucifixion – had been set at nought by Jesus.

That cruel Roman world was passing away.

Two thousand years later a Christian descendant of African slaves in the USA was to write as follows:

“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.”
(James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  Orbis Books, 2013)

James Cone was describing the belief that had led Martin Luther King to give his own life for the cause of African American civil equality in the USA, the Civil Rights campaign of 1956-68.

The same belief – that God and history are always on the side of the enslaved and the abused – the rejected ones – continues to make history today.

The paradox is that James Cone’s own ancestors had been enslaved by white Europeans who also thought themselves Christians. Those white Europeans had instead used the Bible to justify their own greed and brutality.

The white American landowners to whom they had sold their slaves had given the same Bible to those slaves in the hope that it would teach them obedience.  They had no expectation that something utterly different would happen:

Those slaves now saw in the story of the Israelites in Egypt their own story – and in the crucifixion they saw the lynchings that became all too frequent after the US Civil War defeat of the slave-holding southern states, in the period 1865-1945.

How had it happened that white European slavers – and even kings and popes – had forgotten what St Paul had also written about the Kingdom of God called into being by Jesus long ago: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 28)

The answer lies in an event that happened just three centuries after Jesus’s time on earth: the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to claim in 312 CE that the God of Jesus had helped him win power over his rivals, and would help him to further victories if he marched under a Christian symbol of that time – known as the Chi Rho.

The Chi Rho – early Christian symbol formed by placing the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) on top of one another. It was adapted to become the battle standard of the armies of the Roman Emperor Constantine 312-337 CE

Not all Christians were convinced of the truth of Constantine’s claim – for it was also known that Constantine had earlier claimed the support of the pagan God Apollo.  However, a majority of the Christian bishops decided that the sufferings of Christians under periodic Roman persecution had finally been rewarded, and did not contest this claim.  By the end of that century, 400 CE, Christianity had replaced belief in the ancient Roman and Greek Gods as the official religion of the Roman empire.

This had a profound impact on European Christianity from then on, in three main ways:

  • First, as the Christian church was now under the protection of a military Roman upper class, it came itself to be organised in the same way – with Christian clergy organised also as an officer class and social hierarchy throughout western Europe.
  • Second, the social importance of Baptism lessened greatly.  Originally received by adults converted by the ‘Good News’ of Jesus life, death and resurrection, Baptism became gradually a sacrament received in infancy in Christian families.  This strongly contrasted with the rising social prestige of the adult sacrament of ordination – the gateway ‘rite of passage’ to the Christian clergy, the church’s own officer ranks.
  • This in turn meant that ‘Redemption’ for most European Christians no longer meant freedom in the present from fear of the judgement of others, but merely a promise of eternal life after death – if one was obedient to the Christian clergy who now formed society’s moral and intellectual elite. 

This was Christendom – an era that began in the 300s CE and lasted, as a semi-Christian society, until 1914 CE.  Its downfall came when five ‘great’ European imperial powers fought World War I, the most absurd and costly war in history – the Great War of 1914-18 – all claiming that the God of Jesus would help them to victory.

This disaster – its effects still ongoing – has greatly weakened those Christian churches that had supported those imperial powers. It has led many Christians in all traditions to recall that Jesus began his ministry by resisting the temptation to seek any form of political or ecclesiastical power, and that he died holding to that same course. Christendom was obviously not the Kingdom of God, and this is slowly being understood.

James Cone’s statement quoted above helps us greatly both to pinpoint the greatest mistake of European Christian churches in the past and to chart the future.

At the highest level of the church today it is also understood that the importance of Baptism took a negative turn following the Constantinian conversion in the 300s CE:

” Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen  as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Secretary General to the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Bishop Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

And that is why defending the importance of Baptism and raising its status in the church needs to be a priority for all Irish Catholics today – especially because of the continuing power of clericalism – a mistaken exaggeration of the importance of ordination.  Clericalism pays only lip service to Baptism.  In particular, Irish clericalism still denies the baptised people of God the ordinary necessity of frequent dialogue. This in turn means that clergy are too often unable to help lay people to develop a mature Christian faith that is free of the need of clerical approval and oversight.

Yet, in 2020, as Catholic clerical morale reaches its lowest ever ebb in Ireland, many Irish Catholic lay people are discovering that the Holy Spirit, the counsellor promised by Jesus, is always at their elbow, reminding them that with the fullest understanding of the Apostles Creed comes a freedom greater than they have ever known. It does not matter that due to its mistaken alignment with wealth and power in the past, Catholicism is written off by today’s fashionable opinion-makers.

Those same opinion-makers existed in Jesus’s time – he called them ‘the world’. Knowing that world was passing away he left to all Christians a far greater faith in the living presence of the Holy Spirit and in the better world to come.

In the end all human judgement and social and spiritual pretence is set at nought by the Cross. It is our pride, our mistaken pursuit of superiority, that leads to snobbery, inequality, clericalism and injustice in all eras.

Prayer – especially reflective prayer on the Apostles Creed – will remind us that it is the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are the true Lords of Time.  As ever we are all equally and infinitely loved, and need to believe this firmly to become a true Christian community – and heralds of the world to come.

[This article was published first at:  https://acireland.ie ]

Views: 374

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

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New Light on the Problem of Atonement

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked, in terror and anguish: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

As we know, the cup was not taken from him. Jesus then suffered arrest, isolation, humiliation and an excruciating death. Are we then to blame Abba, our Father too, for the crucifixion? Did he ‘make Jesus die in reparation for our sins’ as people sometimes say?

This question – the problem of atonement – is possibly the most difficult in all theology. Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church’s top theological official in 1997, asked “Why does God reign from the Cross?” Dean Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland admitted in 2002 that he could not accept any of the classical theories of atonement – one of his reasons for rejecting Jesus’ divinity.

Atonement means simply ‘at-one-ment’: the coming together, or reconciliation, of ourselves and God. So the problem of atonement is to understand how Jesus’s passion and death bring us humans and God together.  It is also the problem of understanding what could be called the necessity of the cross.

The earliest theory of atonement, the one probably held by all the apostles, was that in some sense we humans had been enslaved by Satan, and that Jesus’ death had somehow purchased our liberty. However, in the Middle Ages theologians came to doubt that any debt to Satan could have warranted such a high price. One of them, St Anselm, proposed another theory, the satisfaction theory.

To understand this we need to remember that in the middle ages people were very unequal in dignity or ‘worth’. The king at the summit of the social pyramid was held to be far more ‘worthy’ than the barons and knights, who were in turn far more worthy than the farmers and peasants or serfs. So, for a serf to steal from a king was a far more serious matter than for a serf to steal from another serf. In order to make good the injury to the king the serf would have to pay a far higher penalty, so that the debt to him would be satisfied.

St Anselm pointed out that God is at the summit of the heavenly pyramid, so that every sin we commit is an extremely severe offence to Him. He taught that no matter how much we may suffer for our sins, we are incapable of paying the full price of making good the injury, as we are so much less worthy than God. So Jesus died to make up the difference – because his life was worth so much more to the Father. In that way humanity’s debt to God was satisfied.

Although other theologians have argued against this, in the absence of anything more persuasive it became a standard explanation for the crucifixion. In the highly rated Alpha programme devised for evangelisation in our own time by the Anglican Church, a very similar explanation – the substitution theory – is used. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of two friends separated for many years who meet one another eventually in court. One is the defendant who has committed a crime for which a heavy fine has to be paid – so heavy that he cannot pay it. The other is the judge, who must find him guilty according to the law. The judge does so – but then descends from his high bench and pays the fine, as a friend. Justice is served – but the guilty man has been ‘redeemed’ from the full price of his crime, which would have been imprisonment.1Since this article was written the Alpha programme has changed this particular story in video 3 – with Nicky Gumbel now referencing instead the story of Fr Maximilian Kolbe – who took the place of another prisoner sentenced to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Alpha’s emphasis upon God’s unfailing love for everyone counteracts any mistaken inference that it is God the Father who was responsible for Fr Kolbe’s death, so the video is an opportunity to discuss the fascinating history of the theology of atonement.

That story is in the end unsatisfactory. The problem is that if we see God as all powerful, we see him also as in a position simply to cancel the debt – something the judge in Gumbel’s story obviously could not do. The ordinary person finds it very difficult to square God’s infinite justice with God’s infinite mercy – but tends to believe that an infinite God could manage to do so – sparing his own son.

The Gospels seem to support this difficulty. In explaining the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus tells the story of a king who cancels the debt of a servant, as an example of the forgiveness we should ourselves show one another (Matt 18: 23-35). The story of the father who welcomes back the erring prodigal son, without conditions, teaches the same lesson (Luke 15:11-32) – God does not hold back on his forgiveness. And it was especially for his habit of forgiveness that Jesus was accused. Since He taught us that when we see Him we also see the Father, we expect that Father to be as forgiving as he was.

Maybe we are right to be dissatisfied with the satisfaction theory. There is another possible explanation for the crucifixion: that the Father and the Son both suffer for our sake: to release us from a captivity we could not otherwise escape from – the captivity of violence, the culmination of every other evil.

In the ancient world there were broadly speaking two main sources of violence. One was warfare, brought about by the mimetic desire and ambition of warrior kings. The greatest of these was Alexander, King of Macedon, who built an empire reaching from Greece to the Himalayas and Egypt. His victories were unprecedented in the ancient world, and made him in the eyes of many, a God. We can see this as the fulfilment of the temptation offered in the Garden of Eden – ‘thou shalt be as Gods’. Julius Caesar set out to emulate Alexander in the century before Christ – and became indeed the founding God of the very empire into which Jesus was born.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus is offered an even greater empire, ‘the kingdoms of the world’, by Satan (Matt 4: 8-10) – but resists this temptation. He will not be a warrior king, like Alexander, Caesar, or even David – Israel’s greatest military hero. This must mean that he will be vulnerable to those whose power is based upon violence: the Roman government in Palestine.

The second kind of violence in the ancient world was internal: the practice of scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of vulnerable individuals as a means of defusing internal conflict.

To understand this we must simply grasp that the ancient world did not have advanced policing and judicial systems, like modern societies. This meant that a blow struck by one member of one tribe or family against another was liable to be reciprocated – and then to escalate uncontrollably. We are an intensely mimetic species – i.e. we often unconsciously mimic one another’s behaviour. Where there was no restraint upon this by a developed policing and court system, such mimetic violence – fuelled by the usual resentments that develop out of human competition, jealousy and rivalry – could escalate out of control.

What happened then is well illustrated by the story of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ in St John’s Gospel – the woman brought into the presence of Jesus in the Temple Court. This woman would – in the normal course of events – be stoned to death by all who wished to participate. The selection of a vulnerable individual, shamed so that no-one would take her part, allowed all to defuse their anger in such a way that there could be no retaliation. In this way, one person could literally be made to pay the price for the aggression – i.e. the sins – of all. And a peace – temporary of course – would then fall. We should see this isolation, humiliation and intended murder of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ as a rehearsal for the very similar process soon to be mounted against Jesus himself.

In the accusation and crucifixion of Jesus, both forms of violence come together – the violence born of internal rivalries, and the violence born of political ambition. Caiaphas insists that the death of this one man will ‘save the nation’ i.e. defuse an internal Jewish crisis threatening to undermine his own power. It will thus also prevent another Roman assault upon the Jewish people to restore order. The semi-riot he then foments persuades Pilate, the Roman governor, that Rome’s control is also at stake.

At Gethsemane, Peter offers the standard riposte to violence – more violence. But a violent God can set only the same violent example as Caesar and Alexander, and the name of Jesus must stand far above theirs. His kingdom can only be built on forgiveness – and so the cup that he dreads cannot pass him by. The Father gives him the strength to stand alone – for the sake of en entirely different kind of kingdom – one for which no blow may be struck – either to win, or to retain, power. And one that will never sacrifice individuals for the sake of its own survival.

Thus, the crucifixion brings humankind and God together – because it is God who first moves towards us. But we also then move towards him, because Jesus is human, and can therefore be imitated in his spirit of self-sacrifice – for example, by Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. To sacrifice oneself for another is the very opposite of sacrificing someone else for oneself. Following Jesus, we move towards the Father.

The early understanding of atonement: that it broke the power of Satan – can easily be reconciled with this – because the power of Satan does indeed culminate in violence – the violence of ambition, and the violence of victimisation. And the crucifixion did indeed break this power.

Not immediately, of course. Traumatised by the persecutions of early Christians by Rome, the bishops of the Church made an unfortunate pact with another military adventurer in the fourth century – the Emperor Constantine. This was the beginning of the process by which the Church became itself a privileged and powerful – and victimising – institution in the medieval period. This was why St Anselm could not see the crucifixion as a protest against all violence – for Constantine too was supposedly the benefactor of the Church. Modernity has stripped away that power – as Pope John Paul I recognised with gladness. It is time the inadequate medieval theory of atonement – which argues, foolishly, that Abba is too proud to bend – was put to rest as well.

Today, as we try to build a new Ireland upon the principle of forgiveness, not violence, we should see Jesus of Nazareth, and his Father – and the Holy Spirit that unites them – as the real founders of that ideal kingdom. And with him all those who were also innocent victims of political ambition. We too need to atone – to be spiritually, if not politically, ‘at one’ – in grief for all those we have lost.

And all others can move towards God through Christ – all those driven by social and political humiliation to addiction, criminality and violence. In the kingdom of God no one is to be humiliated or left out in order to secure the peace of all the rest.

There is another important reason for welcoming the insights of René Girard for the light they throw on the problem of atonement.  The competing mimetic desire or covetousness that lies at the root of all violence is also the root of human over-consumption – the most important cause of Earth’s growing environmental crisis.  Awareness of this is also in the gift of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  This strongly supports Richard Rohr’s conclusion that Jesus’ life, teaching and death all tend towards changing our minds about God, rather than changing God’s mind about us – and towards warding off all of the dangers that gather around the future of humankind.

See also ‘Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?’

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For an excellent overview of Girard’s understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, I recommend René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, MSU 2013.  

Sean O’Conaill – May 2015

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