Last revised: April 4, 2017
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FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR A
RCL: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
RoCa: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
1. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment; in ch. 5, “Moving on: the exilic transformation of anger into love,” he undertakes a wholistic reading of Ezekiel as exemplifying the exilic transformation, one brought to fulfillment in the eucharistic experience. The “dry bones” passage is mentioned on page 116.
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred; pp. 156-157 comments on Ezekiel. His lead paragraph highlights the critique os sacrifice:
Ezekiel, prophesying about 592 to 570 B.C.E., during the Babylonian Exile, makes a statement about sacrifice that is simultaneously full of insight and permeated with a sense of dread concerning Israel’s history. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, addressed himself to the horrible practice of the sacrifice of children (see Ezek 16:15-21; 20:25-31; 23:36-39; Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). One can only conclude that the desperate people of Jerusalem and its environs resorted to an age-old practice, child sacrifice, during the crisis of the final days of Jerusalem before the Babylonian conquest in 597 B.C.E. and the quelling of the rebellion in 586 B.C.E. when the Temple was destroyed and many more captives were deported. It is well known that in tunes of crisis we tend to fall back on primitive strands in our personal or social makeup. That the Judeans did this, there can be no doubt, both by the witness of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and the widely documented practice of the offering of human victims, including children, in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in the world. In a time of crisis, of course, if the sacred social system does not have a pool of victims to sacrifice or scapegoat, such as the Aztecs maintained, then those who are simultaneously most valuable and vulnerable must be given up to the god, namely, the children of the community.
Reflections and Questions
1. Where does one find a valley of dry bones? Besides in a prophetic vision, one could in ‘real life’ find a valley of dry bones in the refuse piles of sacrificial cults. Could that be the background for Ezekiel’s vision? It’s not just any pile of bones that is revived but the bones of sacrificial victims?
2. The corporate nature of the multitude of bones is important here. The Lord is speaking to the “whole house of Israel.” What we might deepen, from a Girardian perspective, is the nature of death and life in the context of community. The way of founding human community since the foundation of the world is the way of the sacrificial cult(ure) that leaves the dead, dried up bones of those whom we have slain. When God breathes the Holy Spirit on them, reviving their community around the divine power of life, there is finally a new basis for community itself, one based on life not death.
As a prophecy of the Resurrection, Ezekiel 37 highlights the corporate dimension. When God raises Jesus from the dead, it isn’t simply the raising of one human body. It represents the resurrection, the creation out of nothing, of a new foundation for human community. The Resurrection must also be the beginning of the Church, the new body of Christ, a human community founded on something other than the scapegoating mechanism which leaves nothing but dead and dried up bones in its wake.
The translation of 8:6 could be more straightforward than in the NRSV, where it is, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Greek is simply: to gar phronema tes sarkos thanatos, to de phronema tou pneumatos zoe kai eirene. phronema, “mind,” is not the more common nous (used by Paul to designate “mind” other than here in ch. 8, at Rom. 1:28; 7:23, 25; 11:34; 12:2; 14:5). And it is in a genitive construction with “flesh” and “Spirit”: “mind of/in the flesh” and “mind of/in the Spirit.” Finally, a remarkable fact about this Greek ‘sentence’ is that there is no verb! It is simply a bunch of nouns strung together with connective words. It is apparently Paul’s most boiled down statement of the two kind of existences open to humankind, so that the most literal translation would simply be the almost syllogistic: “For thinking in flesh, death; but thinking in spirit, life and peace.”
In his TDNT article on eirene, “peace,” Werner Foerster has this helpful summary of Rom. 8:6:
Paul is telling us what the striving of the flesh and the striving of the spirit objectively signify and finally lead to, namely, death on the one side and eirene on the other. He bases the first part of the verse on v. 7. The striving of the flesh is enmity against God and can only lead to death. He is not thinking in terms either of a harmonious disposition of soul or of peace with God. As zoe [“life”] and thanatos [“death”] are modes of existence which will be revealed as such eschatologically, so it is with eirene, the parallel of zoe. (TDNT, II: 414)
This one verse is a terse statement of the Girardian view put forward in these reflections: there are only two “modes of existence,” one of human fallenness into sin that ultimately leads to death, and one of divine grace that ultimately leads to life. The Girardian anthropology offers an hypothesis as to how human culture is founded in collective murder and so never is able to ultimately lead us away from death. God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ is to submit to those very powers of death at the foundation of our human worlds and show them in the Resurrection to be ultimately impotent in the face of God’s power of life in the Spirit.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence; pp. 148-149 elaborate on “the flesh” in Romans 8:1-17. Earlier in pp. 120-129, Hamerton-Kelly argues that “the ultimate horizon of these symbols is the whole human race, but the specific instance in his experience is Judaism” (120). Romans opens with an indictment of Gentile idolatry, 1:18-32; but this is almost more of a rhetorical move to catch his Jewish audience in their own form of idolatry:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (Rom. 2:1-2)
This sets Paul up for later using his own Jewish faith as the prime example of life “according to the flesh,” which, by Hamerton-Kelly’s Girardian reading, means life under the cultural influence of the Sacred. Of Paul’s personalized expression about this life in the flesh in Romans 7, Hamerton-Kelly writes:
Paul describes, therefore, a sociological phenomenon of deviated purpose rather than a psychological phenomenon of the weak will. The deviation of purpose is caused by the social dynamics of the Sacred rather than the psychological dynamics of frustration. The self that is both “I” and “my flesh” is the culturally embedded self, and in Paul’s case, a Jewish self. As such it is enmeshed in a social nexus that turns good will to evil action. In this nexus a robust will produces well-intentioned actions that miss the mark.The prime example of this in Paul’s life is his persecution of the Christians, which was, as far as we know, not an act of uncontrollable rage, but rather the rational pursuit of a religious goal according to the ethos of his Jewish community. In doing this he really did not know that he was doing evil by doing good, because sin deceived him through the Law, with the result that he saw religious envy as divine obligation. Insofar as he wanted to be doing God’s will, he could be said to have rejoiced in God’s Law with his mind (Rom 7:22; cf. Rom 10:2), but insofar as he tried to do that will through the Jewish community, he found his desire thwarted. Sacred violence turned the Mosaic Law (heteros nomos — Rom 7:23, cf. Rom 13:8) into the enemy of his desire to do the Law of God; it made the Law serve the opposite of its intended purpose. (p. 148)
Life “in the flesh” is fallen human cultural life, for which the mechanisms of sacred violence always work their control in ways that lead to death. Life “in the Spirit” brings the possibility of redeemed human culture, a renewed life in community based in forgiveness rather than sacred violence.
See Hamerton-Kelly’s full argument regarding Paul’s language of “The Law and the Flesh,” especially in Romans 7-8.
Reflections and Questions
1. Basically, everything we have said about this passage means that our reading of Ezekiel 37 in a corporate fashion applies here, as well. “Flesh” and “Spirit” describe two opposing corporate, communal realities. One is based in death and the other in life. “Flesh” is human community based on the scapegoating mechanism, and “Spirit” enlivens those human communities founded on the Risen Victim of our scapegoating mechanism. The talk of “body” for Paul thus presumes corporate bodies, at least in the background, when not in the foreground (e.g., “body of Christ”). Even when Paul is talking of our “individual” bodies, he is never conceiving them, as we have come to do, as bodies isolated from their relationships to corporate bodies. (In English, “corporate” and “corporeal” are related through the common Latin root corpus, “body.”)
1. There is a translation problem crucial to interpreting this passage. I want to present Gil Bailie‘s interpretation as the best solution to this problem, but let me begin with a third party description of the problem and its history of suggested solutions. Gail R O’Day, in her New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, outlines the exegetical problem in John 11:33-35:
These verses are among the most difficult to understand in the Gospel. From the earliest patristic interpreters of this text, commentators have struggled to interpret the words about Jesus’ emotions in these verses. This difficulty has even influenced the way v. 33 is translated. The differences between the NIV and the NRSV translations are instructive in this regard. The NIV translates the verb enebrimesato as “deeply moved,” the NRSV as “greatly disturbed.” The NIV translates the verb etaraxen as “troubled,” the NRSV as “deeply moved.” The two translations suggest that the verbs are synonymous and that they have to do with the depths of Jesus’ compassion (esp. “deeply moved”). However, they are more interpretation than translation, because the Greek verbs do not have these meanings. The first verb (embrimaomai) connotes anger and indignation, not compassion. In its LXX and other NT usages, it has this meaning consistently (e.g., Dan 11:30 LXX; Matt 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5). The primary meaning of the second verb is “agitated” or “troubled” (tarasso; the NIV is more accurate here) and is used here to underscore the intensity of Jesus’ emotion.The NIV and the NRSV thus tend to sentimentalize Jesus’ emotions in v. 33, turning them from anger to compassion. This tendency to soften Jesus’ emotions is evident in the very earliest manuscripts as well. P45, for example, avoids the direct statement that Jesus was indignant (“He was disturbed in spirit like being angry”). Interestingly, German translations of this text, following Luther’s initial translation, tend to render the verbs as verbs of anger.
The evidence of the Greek text, then, seems incontestable that Jesus is described as angry in v. 33. But why do the tears of Mary and the “Jews” arouse Jesus’ anger and indignation? (NIB, IX:690)
In a situation that seems to call for sympathy, the evangelist John has Jesus clearly angry, something that apparently makes us so uncomfortable in our picture of Jesus that modern translators simply change the emotions to better suit our comfortable pictures of Jesus. It’s easier than trying to explain why Jesus would be angry.
Commentators who are obliged to pay attention to the Greek original, however, have had to try their hand at offering such explanations. Here is O’Day’s summary of those attempts:
The main explanations offered for Jesus’ anger conclude that Jesus was angry at the unbelief of Mary and the Jews (1) or that Jesus was angry at the evidence of the power of sin and death in the world. (2) There are two significant variations on the latter suggestion. Chrysostom suggested that Jesus was angry at the prospect of his own death and his upcoming battle with Satan, much as he was in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark (14:33). Barrett adds to Chrysostom’s suggestion, seeing in Jesus’ anger evidence of the theme of the messianic secret. In addition to being troubled by the approaching end of his ministry, Jesus is angry because he feels pressed to reveal himself through the raising of Lazarus. (3) (NIB, IX:690)
O’Day herself, though, is not satisfied with these answers and so offers one of her own:
None of the above suggestions resolves all of the issues in v. 33. To say that Jesus is angry at death, either his own or the power of death in general, is to overlook the powerful evidence of vv. 4, 15, 25-26, and 40 that Jesus understands Lazarus’s death as a joyous occasion for the revelation of the glory of God and Jesus’ power as the resurrection and the life. The suggestion that Jesus is angry at the lack of faith fits the context better. Jesus may be angry that the “Jews,” those who are not his own, have intruded onto the scene. The introductory verses repeatedly stress the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus and his sisters (vv. 3, 5, 11). Jesus rejoiced that Lazarus’s death would be an occasion for his disciples to come to faith (v. 15). Perhaps this miracle was to be for his intimates, much like the foot washing in 13:1-20, and his last words in 14:1-17:26 are only for “his own.” Now Jesus is angry that it must be shared with those who do not believe that he is the Son of God. (NIB, IX:690)
Before we move on with Gil Bailie’s suggestion, we should mention that one of the troublesome words of v. 33, embrimaomai, is repeated in v. 38: “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.”
2. Bailie’s suggestion relies on a second exegetical note from vv. 33-38. It’s one that O’Day fails to mention, and so I’ll rely on another “third-party” commentator to notice for us. Brian Stoffregen, in his weekly commentary on the RCL Gospel Lessons (posted on Mark Hoffman’s “Crossmarks” webpage), writes of v. 35, “Jesus wept”:
This is the only occurrence of dakruo (“weep”) in the NT. It is a different word used of Mary or the Jews “weeping” (klaio) [e.g., in v. 33]. Does John mean to imply that Jesus’ crying was somehow different than the weeping (wailing?) of the others? (webpage for Lent 5A)
Stoffregen does not offer an answer to this question. Gil Bailie, however, answers in the affirmative — yes, John means to imply that Jesus’ shedding of tears, dakruo, is different from what is meant by klaio in describing what it is that Mary and the Jews were doing. Bailie suggests that klaio points to the ritual wailing that was common in such circumstances. Klaio is the more common word for “weeping” in the NT, and it by no means has the connotations of ritual wailing wherever it is used. But John gives us the important clue by choosing for Jesus’ shedding of tears a word that is not used anywhere else in the entire New Testament (nine times in the LXX). That Jesus’ weeping (dakruo) in v. 35 might be more of a spontaneous nature can then be contrasted with the intentionality of weeping (klaio) implied in v. 31: “The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.” Do they seek to join Mary in going to the tomb and see if they feel like crying with her? No, v. 31 is about the more intentional “weeping” of ritual wailing, isn’t it? Jesus encounters them all carrying out the ritual wailing in v. 33 and becomes angry with them. How this difference in “weeping” suggests an answer to the problem of Jesus’ anger is what is outlined below under resources.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #8 (link to my notes/transcription of Bailie’s lecture on John 11). See also his reflections of the importance of the empty tomb tradition in Violence Unveiled, pp. 228-232.
Bailie’s suggested answer to the problem of Jesus’ anger has to do with an anthropological understanding of the role of death in human culture. Ritual wailing is related to the catharsis of the sacrificial cults. It can be a helpful catharsis for the grieving family, but it can also be the occasion for whipping up a sacrificial catharsis, especially a revenge-oriented one. Jesus, with his own death in mind, needed to guide his followers away from such a reaction to his death. The empty tomb would also prevent followers from rallying around the place of the corpse — though the bitter irony of the Crusades is that a thousand years later the Church was able to rally a sacred violence around freeing the Holy Sepulcher from the “infidels.” There is no Holy Sepulcher! The tomb is empty! Bailie uses the example of Slobodan Milosevic rallying the Serbian people around the 600 year-old corpse of a fallen Serbian general in order to whip up revenge against their enemies — known these days as “ethnic cleansing.”
It may seem extreme to use such examples in connection with the ‘natural’ death of a friend. But to write off Bailie’s answer risks underestimating, I think, the hold that death has on us at the foundations of our human cultures. Our exposition of Romans 8:6-11 above suggests that Paul held to a similar anthropological thinking in terms of life in the flesh always proving itself to ultimately be about death.
Modern thinkers — philosophers such as Heidegger, sociologists such as Ernst Becker — have shown us how much we are “beings-toward-death.” Girard gives us the anthropological explanation of how the powerful catharses around death are at the foundations of culture, and thus as a driving force behind our human experience. Moreover, Girard’s faith takes him beyond where Heidegger would dare to go, such that Jesus can be seen to offer us freedom from our “Being-toward-death” into a “Being-toward-life.” Jesus, in John 11, is concerned before his passion to help his followers to be prepared for the founding of God’s culture, founded in the boundless life of the Resurrection. Living in God’s culture begun at the Resurrection, our “Being-toward-” can undergo the fundamental transformation from death to life. “Eternal life” isn’t just something that happens to us after we die. It is something that happens to us the instant we begin to experience the Resurrection and begin the journey of becoming “Beings-toward-life.” John 11 gives us a story about Jesus’ warm-up exercise to experiencing the Resurrection. It is a coaxing preparation for being able to live in the light of the Resurrection.
2. Link to a sermon entitled “A Lesson in Facing Death,” which uses Bailie’s interpretation to tell the story from the point of view of one of Lazarus’ friends, a friend who also happened to be a paid mourner. He testifies to how Jesus that day began to teach him a different response to death. The 2002 version (the original version was preached in 1996) brings in the challenge of not responding in vengeance to the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorism. It also uses John’s text within the monolog to help tell the story (so that I didn’t have to read the Gospel separately first).
3. In 2011 what struck me about this text is Jesus’ words a couple weeks later on Holy Thursday, namely, that his disciples would do greater works than him. Raise people from the dead? Do we ever do that? No, but in John’s Gospel Jesus’ works are signs of the New Creation that invite believers to work in the New Creation, which then leads to potential for much to be accomplished on the side of life. Link to a sermon titled “Doing Greater Works.”
Reflections and Questions
1. v. 16: Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Does Thomas’ bold statement also express the kind of orientation around death that Jesus is trying to lead them away from in this story? Bailie’s link with the events of 1989 in Kosovo are all too real today, too. The same person who used a 600 year-old corpse to whip the Serbs into a vengeful frenzy is now on trial for crimes against humanity. Thomas’ call to martyrdom might be more in that vein.
2. Compare John 9 and 11. In 9 the physical miracle comes at the outset, and all that follows is a spinning out on the meaning of blindness as something much deeper than the lack of physical eyesight. In John 11, the lesson involving the real power of life over death comes as a long prelude to the physical miracle. John uses two differing narrative approaches to show us the real meaning behind these miracles. In the first Jesus begins by healing a man born blind and then the rest of the story, primarily through the Pharisees and scribes, shows us the blindness of humanity since we were born, i.e., our blindness to the expulsion mechanism on which our human community is based. The healing of the man born blind is a “sign” of the deeper healing of blindness which Jesus came to bring us. By contrast in John 11, the physical miracle climaxes the narrative, with its most vivid sign coming in Jesus’ final words: “Unbind him, and let him go.” That is a ‘sign’ for what Jesus has been trying to do for all his followers in all that has led up to this moment. Jesus has been trying to unbind us from death’s hold on our lives.
3. Does Bailie’s emphasis on teaching us how to face death totally spiritualize this story out of being a miracle? I don’t think it is his intention. I find his take very helpful, and so I’ll speak for myself in reflecting on the miraculous nature of raising Lazarus.
First, we might ask more generally, what was the point of Jesus doing miracles? In what did the miracles consist? More to the point: when Jesus performed a miracle, which was the more important “miracle”: the suspending of physical laws of nature that worked a miraculous change in the physical world, or the effect which that “miracle” had in changing human hearts? Which is more significant: working a dramatic change in the course of natural events, or working a dramatic change in human hearts?
I ask these questions because that’s what comes up for me in the point I think Gil is trying to make about the Lazarus story. His point isn’t to debunk this dramatic change in the course of nature, the resuscitation of a corpse. I don’t think he’s even trying to say that that didn’t happen. What I think he is trying to say, and what is important to me about such miracles, is the miraculous change it can make in us. Jesus wasn’t there to simply wow the crowd with a few magic tricks. He was there to invite them into a whole new orientation to life and death, a miracle of human transformation that wouldn’t be complete until his own death and resurrection. Jesus was there to confront their old ways of facing death and to begin to give them a new way. To the extent that he, along with the Holy Spirit, is actually able to give us that new orientation, that for me is the real miracle. It’s not that the raising of Lazarus didn’t happen or that we should debunk it; it’s that there’s something even more important going on, a potential change in the human heart. In other words, if we stop with only the literal raising of Lazarus, we still miss the most important miracle that may happen here, something that even goes beyond the resuscitation, that dramatic change in the course of natural events.
What could be more meaningful than the resuscitation of a dead friend? Lazarus would still die a death of his earthly body some day. Jesus was saving him from that only for the time-being. But what if, in the meantime, Lazarus’ new lease on living could be transformed into an existence that is wholly for life? That’s what I think John’s Jesus means by “eternal life.” And it is a “realized eschatology” to the extent that one can immediately begin to experience this “eternal life” the moment one believes in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life. Martha responds to Jesus about resurrection in terms of something in the future, “on the last day.” Jesus further responds to her in the present tense, “I am….”
4. I think there’s an indication for this approach to miracles in the miracle stories in general. One of the most famous, for example, is the healing of the paralytic, where his friends lower him through the ceiling. Before healing the man, Jesus makes a big deal about forgiveness. The Pharisees and scribes put up a stink about not being able to offer someone forgiveness. To which Jesus basically responds, “Which is more difficult, forgiving this man’s sins, or telling him to get up and walk.” When our thinking is oriented toward the magical, toward a dramatic intervention in the course of natural events, we say, “Getting up and walking, of course!” But is it really? Isn’t the change that forgiveness can work on the human heart the even tougher miracle? I think that the two go together. Jesus literally healed the lame man, but he also forgave his sins. And I think that Jesus felt the latter to be the more important point. He did one with the other in the hopes that people could “get around” the one in order to really see the miraculous nature of the other, too.
John’s whole approach to miracles is as “signs.” These signs had little value on their own. The point is not that I doubt whether the signs happened, which I don’t generally, but to go beyond these “signs” to see the more important thing that they are pointing to, most often a potentially miraculous healing of the human heart.
5. What kind of hold does death have on our lives? The answer, at least in part, follows after this story in the plot against Jesus by the Jewish Council. Only five verses after the conclusion of the Lazarus story, we have the infamous Caiaphas principle which so poignantly expresses the Girardian thesis about scapegoating: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” This is the kind of death which underlies all our other experiences of death because we are thoroughly cultural beings. A collective murder is at the foundation of our culture and so colors our experience of any death. There is no such thing as natural death in the sense that we are not natural beings; we are cultural beings. We can never drop the membrane of culture through which we experience everything.
6. Still, how does one spin out examples of this and help make it real for the congregation? What exactly is the difference between honest grief at the loss of a loved one and the death-oriented aspects of our culture? It is not easy to sort these things out.
Let me begin with the example of racism as understood as a systemic phenomena. So understood racism is much more than personal prejudice. It is even more than instances of white people holding power over people of color. White Racism is the several centuries old practice of evolving all societal institutions to privilege white people over all others. Thus, racism is not just a matter of stopping acts of oppressive power. It is also white people learning to see and give up the privilege that has been theirs over these long centuries. It is a way of seeing the world which sees racism as completely entwined in all the institutions of our culture and society. When I, as a white person, am able to obtain a certain job, and live in a certain home, etc., how much is ‘because I deserve it’ and how much is due to the privilege built into the fabric of white racist society?
Girardian anthropology works a similar perception of all human cultures bound up with death — with only the crucified and risen Christ able to meaningfully proclaim to us, “Unbind them!” In fact, the foregoing analysis of racism makes perfect sense within the Girardian analysis of all human cultures as being sacrificial. White racism is simply the most virulent contemporary form of that sacrificial logic which privileges the dominant group over the subordinate group. It is propped up by the same kind of myths of sacred violence that have existed throughout history in order to keep us blind to our sacrificial victims as victims. It’s not that other cultures don’t have their own forms of sacrificial logic behind them. It’s that white culture has had the wealth, technological firepower, and political machinery to superimpose its logic of sacrifice on everyone else with whom it comes into contact. And the amount of death it yields has been truly staggering.
7. More down-to-earth examples can be seen in music and other items of popular culture. Our heroes are generally involved in death. In our age of nihilism, fringe-music movements like Heavy Metal, or Shock Rock, are explicitly all about death. Our movies are increasingly fascinated with death. Even the more innocuous romantic songs generally have a theme behind that boils down to, ‘I can’t live without you.’ Is that more about life or death? Our romantic flings make us ‘feel alive,’ but what is that really all about if, when they come to an end, we just want to die?
8. Finally, the most gripping current example continues to be our response to the terrible sacred violence of 9/11. Is our grief and sorrow mostly about honest grief and sorrow? Or is about rallying ourselves for our own return version of sacred violence?
James Alison, as should be no surprise to readers of these pages, has penned an eloquent description of how such grief can come into the satanic service of sacred violence. I leave you, then, with an excerpt of some reflections of his on our response to 9/11, offered in a talk given at Downside Abbey, Bath, England, Nov. 3, 2001, entitled “Contemplation in a World of Violence,” now also published as ch. 1 of On Being Liked:
First of all, I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by “satanic” I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence. This is what I mean: some brothers of ours committed simple acts of suicide with significant collateral murder, meaning nothing at all. There is no meaning to the act of destruction caused by hijacking planes full of people and crashing them into buildings. It is not an act creative of anything at all, any more than any other suicide is a creative act.But immediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.
As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us. Furthermore, we did not come to the spectacle with fresh eyes, as to something entirely new. We came with a script given us by a thousand movies and conspiracy novels of the Robert Ludlum / Tom Clancy genre. It is not original to have noticed that the second plane actually crashing into the tower looked less convincing than it would have done in a film. A film would certainly have made it look much better, produced tension, given it an air of deliberation, rather than that almost whimsical video-game appearance from off the side of our screens. It is not that what we saw was “like a film.” We have been taught by films and books, themselves borrowing from and playing to ritualistic constructions of meaning, to see what we saw, and to react as we reacted. Like the novelists and the film directors, we know the ritual.
And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.
And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. The de facto President fumbling at first, a moment of genuinely humble, banal, humanity, then getting his High Priestly act together by preaching revenge at an Episcopal Eucharist. The Queen “getting right” what she “got wrong” last time there was a similar outbreak of sacred contagion around an iconic cadaver [Princess Diana?], by having the American National Anthem played at Buckingham Palace.
And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like “to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.” And beneath the militant goodness, suddenly permission to sack people, to leak out bad news and so on, things which could take advantage of the unanimity to avoid reasoned negotiation.
And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.
What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic. When we are baptized, we, or our Godparents on our behalf, renounce Satan and all his vain pomps and empty works. And here we were, sorely tempted at least to find ourselves being sucked up into believing in just such an empty work and pomp. A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.
When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning [John 8:44], the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization.
But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death, exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel (and it is the title of Girard’s recent book) “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” This is the solemn declaration of the definitive loss of transcendence of the satanic show: we no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it. The pomp has nothing to do with heaven. It has nothing to do with God.
And this of course was apparent to us as well even, and perhaps especially, in our secularity. There was the sort of sacred grief I described, but there were also, mixed up with it, genuine outbursts of compassion: wonder at the two who jumped out of the building holding hands; a warmth of heart as the news came out of the messages of simple love bereft of any huge religious significance left on answering machines. At the same time as the sacred violence extended its lure, we also made little breakthroughs of our own into simply liking humans. I don’t know how it was for you, and I may be particularly personally insensitive, but I was unable to see anything of the humanity involved while watching the moving images on film, because I am so used to the moving images telling a story in which the people killed are simply stage extras, whose thoughts and emotions and broken families we aren’t expected to consider. It was only when reading about the incident in the next day’s papers that the human dimension managed to start to break through for me.
And this is the vital thing to understand in any use of the language of the satanic. It is a failed transcendence. It fails to grip us completely. The unanimity does not last. Even in as strongly religious a society as the United States. Reasoned discussion starts to break out. Penitent questions start being asked. A group of Jews and Catholics went together on the Friday after the 11th to a mosque south of Chicago, and circled it, holding hands, to protect those within it, throughout their Friday prayers, from any potential violence or abuse. The lie does not command absolute respect. There are already in our midst outbreaks of truth, of non-possessed humanity.
It is this that I would like to look at with you, as we attempt to grapple with contemplation and violence. We were pulled in to a certain sort of contemplation through the eyes of others on 11th September. We were pulled in to a powerful show which taught us to look at the world, ourselves, and others, in a certain way, one leading to ersatz virtue, fake communion, violence and fear. But we have in our midst, and have had for nigh on two thousand years, One who is teaching us to look away, so I would like to try with you to see what it means to learn to look at these things through his eyes to see if we can’t discover the deeper meaning which those apparently fragmentary outbursts of being human can have.
I submit to you that John 11 is just such a story of “One who is teaching us to look away,” One who is teaching us to live in the light of the Resurrection.
Notes from NIB article by Gail R. O’Day