Last revised: June 27, 2003
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ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL, APOSTLES (June 29)
Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Mark 8:27-35
Resource for the Day
Andrew Marr, “Peter and Paul: The Church’s Quest for Mimetic Unity” (online article).
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred. Ch. 5, “Kings and Prophets,” might give some good background on a Girardian reading of kingship from the perspective of the Hebrew prophets, which is what this text is about.
2. On Girard and kingship, The Girard Reader (p. ix) cites pp. 104-10 of Violence and the Sacred; ch. 3 of The Scapegoat; and pp. 51-57 of Things Hidden. There is also a good discussion of it on pp. 269-72 of the Reader itself, an explanation of his thesis that primitive kingship began as the king basically being a sacrificial victim with an extended sentence.
3. A fantastic anthropological source for primitive kingship (one which Gil Bailie makes frequent use of, e.g., on tape 1 of his series “The Famished Craving“) can be found in the chapter “Rulers and Paranoiacs” in Elias Canetti‘s Crowds and Power. See especially the part on “African Kings,” pp. 411-423. Here’s a tantalizing excerpt:
Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. ‘A strip of cotton was put around his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.’ (p. 418)
4. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 5, “Moving On: The Exilic Transformation of Anger into Love.” The second major section, “Jewish Hints,” is an exposition of the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who found the exile and destruction of the temple devastating. He was coaxed to gradually “move on.” Alison summarizes:
How Ezekiel has moved on! He has moved from a man of spurned love, to a man who, from within the whirlwind of that anger, has begun to see glimpses of a hard-won love, the breakthrough into his heart of the breath of Yahweh. Little by little it has been that love that has turned out to be what the breath of Yahweh was all about, until slowly, oh so slowly, there has emerged the tone of a strong but gentle voice which builds up, bringing into life, loving people, re-creating, and tending towards catholicity. Ezekiel’s journey brings into focus a number of milestones in the much huger journey that is the Yahwist revolution. His life is a magnificent example of the dislocation and recreation of being which began when Abram left behind the city of Ur, the city of his father and his idols.The point that I have wanted to drive home, is that it seems fair to inscribe Ezekiel’s journey within the three stages of (1) spurned love, pierced by a vision of God which it is as yet unable fully to take on board. This is followed by (2) a long process of working through the spurned love, and beginning to glimpse what I have called hard-won love, a non-reactive love which tends to bring together. This yields finally to (3) the relaxing into a gratuitous upbuilding, creative love which empowers the imagination to project and work towards building a huge catholicity of life: the discovery of God as creator and lover of all humanity with a project of bringing people into mutual rejoicing. (pp. 117-118)
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 103-106. For example:
The confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-9:1) is a classic example of “knowing but not understanding” (8:17). Through Peter the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and through Peter they refuse his definition of the role in terms of suffering and rejection (8:31-32). They represent Satan, the closed circle of violence in which Beelzebub casts out Beelzebub. They cannot conceive of any other way of controlling violence than by violence itself; for them, the Messiah cannot be weak. They have entered the heart of the secret of the kingdom, yet at this moment of deepest intimacy they are farthest removed from the truth. The irony of the outside insider is at its most acute.In response, Jesus summons both the disciples and the crowd and teaches the way of the cross (8:34-9:1). The disciples are no longer different from the crowd; they are equally uncomprehending, and equally inclined to be ashamed of the Son of Man and his nonviolent way in this violent generation. The redefinition of the concept of the Messiah that is going on before the eyes of the reader is opaque to the participants ill the narrative. The crowd is innocently uncomprehending, the disciples mysteriously so. They are a foil to Jesus and the comprehending reader in a narrative marked by dramatic irony. (p. 103)
Just before his Passion, Jesus warns his disciples that he is about to become a scandal to them. As a group, the disciples do not behave as badly as Peter but at the time of Jesus’ arrest, they all scatter ingloriously and they do not reappear until after the resurrection. Whereas Peter, at least for a while, becomes an active persecutor [by denying Jesus and joining the crowd around the fire at the high priest’s house], the other disciples are passive accomplices of the persecutors.This passivity is a limited form of participation in the Passion, but it is participation nevertheless. It is fascinating that the word “scandal” would apply in this case. It truly applies to all degrees of participation in the Passion.
Scandals, we found, are permanently conflictual relationships in our individual lives. Now we see that the word also applies to the participation in the mimetic consensus against Jesus. This use is disconcerting. We tend to feel that our private rivalries, our intense conflicts, do express something genuinely personal and unique in us. The conflictual nature of scandals seems to guarantee that they are what the existentialists would call an authentic modality of human existence, that they cannot turn gregarious at the drop of a hat.
We feel this way because, as a rule, we are scandalized. Jesus is not and he feels differently. He knows that scandals are mimetic from the start and they become more so as they are exacerbated. They become more and more impersonal, anonymous, undifferentiated, and therefore interchangeable. Beyond a certain threshold of exasperation, scandals will substitute for one another, with no awareness on our part.
If we look carefully at the operation of scandals in the Gospels, we will have to conclude that they are very much the same thing as demonic and satanic possession, which is also characterized by a process of transference, as in the case of the Gerasa demons, for instance. Jesus, I believe, prefers to speak the language of scandals, whereas his disciples feel more at home in the language of Satan and his demons.
Once again, Peter is a good example. When Jesus first announces that he will suffer at the hands of the people, Peter is scandalized. His ideal is the same as ours, worldly success, and he tries to instill it into his master. He turns his own desire into a model that Jesus should imitate. This is how Satan operates, of course. Hence the famous words: “Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me.” If the scandalized disciple had succeeded in mimetically transmitting his own mimetic desire to his master, he would have scandalized Jesus straight out of his divine mission.
Peter’s behavior is the combined effect of his preexisting scandal, which is mimetic, and the additional mimetic push provided by the crowd.
All those who join a belligerent crowd act more or less like Peter. They all transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. As they become more numerous, the target’s attractiveness as a target increases, and the process becomes irresistible.
The notion of scandal bridges the gap between individual and collective violence. The mobility of scandals, their tendency to unite around a common victim, provides a mediation, a communication between the two levels.
The violent unanimity of the Passion results from a massive transference of scandals, a snowballing so powerful that its effects become inescapable. (pp. 199-200)
5. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, takes this passage in Mark 8 as the centerpiece for his entire reading of Mark’s gospel (pp. 188-194). I recommend reading these pages as a way of seeing its relationship to the whole of Mark and the matter of Jesus’ identity according to Mark.
6. James Alison picks up two further elements in this passage. In The Joy of Being Wrong, he comments on the necessity (Gr: dei) that Jesus must suffer:
The key word in this context is dei. All four Gospels show a clear understanding that Jesus must suffer (Matt 16:21; 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44; John 3:14; 12:34). We see two reasons behind this “must”: so that the scriptures be fulfilled, (the “theological” reason), and because of the nature of the human order (the “anthropological” reason). Where it might be possible to read the necessity of fulfilling the scriptures as suggesting that there is some divine plan to kill Jesus, the tendency of Jesus’ own interpretations of this “must” is always towards the anthropological subversion of this understanding. The Gospels do not attempt to attribute this “necessity” to anything in God: when Jesus in his apocalyptic discourse(s) indicates that “all these things must come about,” he is referring to the cataclysmic convulsions of the human order which must not distract the disciples from their attention to the coming of the Son of man precisely as crucified and risen victim. The word dei in these contexts has a quite specific meaning: it refers to the necessity to which the human order, based on death, is in thrall. What enables Jesus to point this out is the willingness of divine gratuity to allow itself to suffer the consequences of this human order precisely so as to free it from the realm of the necessity of death. (pp. 171-172)
And Alison also picks up on the ending of this passage, when Jesus talks about not being ashamed of him (quoting Mark 8:38 on p. 182 of Raising Abel), in the context of discussing our eschatological glory, i.e., the matter of “Reputation and Shame.” The Greek doxa, “glory,” could be translated as “reputation.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The 1997 sermon for Lent 2B illustrates a very ‘Girardian’ sermon with a development of the doctrine of election along with reflections on Satan: “Satan the Accuser and God the Chooser.”
2 The “must” connected with suffering is very important to grapple with. How often do we connect with our suffering a “must” that comes from God? The Alison passage above seeks to help us be clear about the fact that Christ’s suffering connects to a “must” that comes from our fallen nature, not from God. Does this help sort through general issues of human suffering? I reflected on such matters in a Proper 19B sermon entitled “Setting Our Minds on Divine Things.” In 2003 the St. Peter and St. Paul Day sermon, “A Must: Having Our Minds Set on Divine Things,” was a reworked version of that sermon.