Last revised: March 24, 2018
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PALM/PASSION SUNDAY — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14-15
RoCa: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14-15
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
On the day before Palm/Passion Sunday in 2018 (March 24), teenagers across the United States led a march, the “March for Our Lives.” They nonviolently resisted the power of Economic Militarism with the goal of beginning to break our American love-affair with guns — a Power which leads to the sacrifice of innocent school children and so many thousands of victims of gun violence. It was an anti-militarism march.
An element of a New Reformation is to begin to see the events of Holy Week, our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, in terms of nonviolent resistance to precisely such Powers of death. It began with an anti-militarism march into the Judean capital city, ruled by the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators. I use the word “anti” not just in a sense of being against something, but more importantly in the sense of representing its opposite as an alternate Way of being human. Imperialistic cultures are structured in terms of a militaristic readiness to sacrifice the Other, a faith in the power of armies and weapons to maintain one’s culture. A common sign of such a faith are military parades — led in the first century by generals and emperors on war horses. Jesus leads a march of marginalized peoples, the usual fodder for sacrificial violence, on a donkey, not a war horse. It is a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, nonviolent (praus) and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:9-10). (For more on praus as “nonviolent,” see the Exegetical Notes for All Saints Day A.)
The prophet paints for us a picture of an anti-military parade in terms of representing a nonviolent alternative to the typical military parade. In that most holy of weeks two millennia ago, our Lord fulfilled this prophecy.
The wonderful and inspiring March for Our Lives in 2018 follows, then, in a line of nonviolent marches launched during Holy Week but not more fully realized as a movement until the dawning of this time of New Reformation, when a Hindu man from India took seriously Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and revived nonviolent resistance as mass political movements.
Gandhi pioneered nonviolent resistance as a mass political movement, but crucial to the success is for each person involved to “have the mind of the Messiah” (Phil. 2:5ff). Not necessarily in the sense of consciously imitating Jesus himself, but at least in the sense of imitating all those who are getting mimetically drawn into an anti-mind. Conventional culture shapes minds into worshiping gods who rule by sacred violence. The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and an unleashing of his spirit into the world, begins a new enculturation that shapes minds in love, even of the Other, such that there is a willingness of being sacrificed to the Powers of sacred violence, rather than inflicting sacrifice on the Other — to suffer violence rather than inflicting it. It shapes minds to stand in solidarity with the Other. It is living a life of prayerful participation in the kenotic love of the One God.
1. René Girard, especially with Gianni Vattimo. An important philosopher who has picked up on Mimetic Theory quite a bit is Italian Heideggerian Gianni Vattimo, who began to influence Girard after his wonderful little book Belief in 1996.
Girard first speaks of kenosis in the interview at the end of The Girard Reader (1996), responding to a question about “bracketing out” one’s faith:
I don’t think you can bracket out a faith which is responsible for the best in the modern world. That is totally artificial. I don’t think you can bracket out any idea or ideal that you really hold — or that holds you. If you bracket out something that is central to your life, you become a shadow of yourself and your intelligence is not effective. There is no science without faith. Everything great is always a question of faith. Of course, I suppose you could speak of a kind of kenosis of faith, that is, emptying yourself of mimetic rivalry as you approach others and your intellectual work. This is a sort of kenosis from below, as contrasted to the kenosis of Christ from above according to Philippians 2. As your faith grows, the more you empty yourself of rivalry and self-aggrandizement and the more you feel impelled to communicate to others, with others, the truth you have experienced. This belongs to the essence of Christianity. (287)
By the later book Evolution and Conversion (2004 in French; 2007 English), the theme of kenosis is very much in dialogue with Vattimo’s work — in chapter 7, “Modernity, Postmodernity, and Beyond,” especially a section titled “The Kenosis of God” (pp. 253-62). Here’s a pointed portion of the conversation:
Question: In recent years, Gianni Vattimo has shown a particular interest in your work. He has read your theory on Heidegger, relating the dissolution of metaphysics to the death of God. In his account, there would be a similarity between the idea of the incarnation as kenosis of God and the vocation of weakening of Being. Do you think there could be any proximity between your approach and the philosophy of the late Heidegger? Could we relate the idea of weakening of Being to your conclusion regarding Christianity and modern times?
The texts that interest me most in Heidegger are the ones written immediately after Sein and Zeit. I am really concerned with his essays on ‘the Greek beginning,’ his Introduction to Metaphysics and the texts on Hölderlin. Even though Heidegger in many ways is a thinker with whom I do not identify, the idea about the loss of Being, the forgetting of Being, and the forgetting of forgetting is essential to the modern age. This idea seems to me to be related to the role of the victimary mechanism, and I would agree with Vattimo who says that it represents the death of God in the sense of the end of the sacred.
I think Vattimo offers considerable insight. Nonetheless, in my view, he puts forward too optimistic an interpretation of a situation fraught with ambiguity. The so-called kenosis of God is not linear and progressive as Heideggerians seem to imagine. Vattimo is using a conceptual framework and a kind of formulation which is purely confined to a philosophical understanding of Christianity. He simply equates the weakening of Being as the kenosis of God to the dissolution of ontological categories, whereas my point of view stems from Christian anthropology, which not only accounts for this kenotic process of God, meant as the end of the sacred order, but also discloses the danger of this very process. The end of ontologically grounded ideologies does not necessarily mean that we have done away with violence and with the risk of unleashing satanic elements.
This is the reason why one has to see this process from the mimetic perspective and in Christian apocalyptic terms, in the sense that the more there is an opening in a world where ritual is dead, the more dangerous this world becomes. It has both positive aspects, in the sense that there is less sacrifice, and negative aspects, in that there is an unleashing of mimetic rivalry. As I said, we live in a world where we take care of victims in a way no other society or historical time ever did, but we are also in a world that kills more people than ever, so we have the feeling that both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are increasing all the time. If we have a theory of culture, it has to account for this extraordinary ambivalence of our society. I think that, at a certain moment, Vattimo comes close to this. In Belief, he uses Max Weber’s formula of the disenchantment of the world due to secularization, saying that this ‘disenchantment has also produced a radical disenchantment with the idea of disenchantment itself.’ I agree with him: Max Weber went only halfway in the discovery of this paradoxical process. Ours is a world in which there is a paradox created by the co-presence of great improvement and a great deal of disintegration, and many other paradoxes that become more fascinating as they keep on intensifying. (253-55)
Two years later these themes were important enough to Girard that he and Vattimo got together to elaborate their conversation into a co-authored book: Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue. (Full disclosure: this is a book I haven’t read yet but hope to someday, especially because of its reflections related to this crucial Christian notion of kenosis.)
2. Richard Rohr — Contemplative practice is itself a process of self-emptying, kenosis. In one of his books dedicated to making the case for contemplation, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Rohr has an Appendix that features Philippians 2, “Appendix 6 / The Prayer of the Self-Emptying One” (pp. 173-74). He writes:
Philippians 2:6-11 is thought to be an early Christian hymn to the Christ journey: a path of kenosis (self-emptying), incarnating in the “slave,” “as all humans are,” and even all the way to the bottom of total “acceptance” and “even humbler yet” (the cross). This allows God to raise Jesus up in God’s time and God’s way, and “name” him anew in a glorious state of transformation.
This hymn can be taken as a rather precise guide for the process of contemplative prayer, if we apply to the soul the same mystery that was in Christ Jesus. As mentioned throughout the book, take it as a rule: “Everything we can say of Jesus, we can say also about the soul.” This is exactly how he becomes the icon of transformation for us, and why he says “follow me.”
Taking twenty minutes a day for silent prayer — wildly unproductive time spent by today’s fast-paced standards — is itself a form of dying to the world we are raised in and rising to new possibilities for living in a world of grace. Rohr puts it this way:
Even the sitting down, dying for twenty minutes, and still standing up afterward is a perfect metaphor for what is happening in prayer — always the mystery of death and resurrection.
3. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, especially the section “Emptiness Alone Is Prepared for Fullness,” pp. 90-91, but also on pp. 127 & 153. Rohr writes,
Could this first stanza of the great Philippian hymn, in its fullness, be applied not only to Jesus but also perhaps to the entire Trinity? I believe so.
The Three all live as an eternal and generous self-emptying, the Greek word being kenosis.
If you’re protecting yourself, if you’re securing your own image and identity, then you’re still holding on. Your ego remains full of itself. The opposite of kenosis. . . .
I hope this does not surprise or disappoint you, but I have often noticed these divine qualities in people who are marginalized, oppressed, “poor,” or “mentally disabled” — more than in many others.
They have to trust love. They need communion. They know that only the vulnerable people understand them. They profit from mutuality. They’re always in relationship. They find little ways to serve their community, to serve the sick, to serve those poorer than themselves. They know that only a suffering God can save them.
You can take such a pattern as the infallible sign that one lives in God. People filled with the flow will always move away from any need to protect their own power and will be drawn to the powerless, the edge, the bottom, the plain, and the simple. They have all the power they need — and it always overflows, and like water seeks the lowest crevices to fill. (90-91)
4. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 225-226. After quoting this text, he comments:
Even though this text does not use either of the key terms, imitation or type, it clearly portrays the believers patterning their conduct after the suffering and obedience of Christ Jesus. Hence this important text takes its place in this list. Further, this text is joined to imitation in Philippians 3:17 (see p. 225) by the similar exhortation, “be of the same mind” (touto phroneite in 2:5 and touto phronomen in 3:15). The context of this foundational confession on Jesus’ self-emptying and humbling to the cross is Paul’s admonition in vv. 3-4 to put away conduct that proceeds from mimetic rivalry: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Then follows: “let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.”
6. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 103, 139, 154, 210.
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 172, 176; see also the section “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.
8. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 153, 216-18, 293-94, 310. This first passage has an important challenge to theologians who limit God’s power rather than seeing the kenotic mystery of a God who chooses to be vulnerable:
The clearest biblical witness for how God exercises power (and doesn’t) is in the great hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians, where Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6– 11) Some religious thinkers, particularly process theologians, have suggested that God’s power is limited. This idea gets God off the hook in the sense that we can’t blame God for not blasting our enemies out of the water at our convenience. But if God can’t exercise such power (and process thinkers usually have problems with Creation and sometimes even with the Resurrection), then God is not modeling the renunciation of power as a moral and spiritual virtue. One might as well give me a medal for not beating up a body builder. The vulnerability of God, then, is an amazing divine virtue only if God chooses to be vulnerable to Creation, even to death on a cross. In this vulnerability, there is no longer any room for projecting the violent power of worldly potentates onto God. (216)
Similar to Richard Rohr, Marr brings this passage into the context of contemplative practice, with Mimetic Theory in the background. Here is a reflection on Contemplative Prayer and Loving Action around this passage:
In contemplative prayer, we empty ourselves of our thoughts and wishes and desires so as to be filled with God, even when God’s fullness feels empty. In a small way, we are acting out the kenotic action of Christ, who emptied himself of his divinity so as to become a human being. (Phil. 2:6-11) This kenotic aspect of prayer should extend to life as a whole so that, in our actions with other people, we empty ourselves for their sake in the way we empty ourselves in prayer. Paul’s exhortations, especially in 2 Corinthians, about the collection for Jerusalem he had initiated, gives us a powerful model of the self-giving that should flow from our prayer. Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) It amuses me that the joy Paul would have us take in giving generously and joyfully is hilarotes. That is, we should give with hilarity. (2 Cor. 9:7) I realize the Greek word doesn’t have the boisterous connotations of our English word, hut I still like the joy expressed by “hilarity.”
This appeal is much more than a plea to help the needy in Jerusalem. Paul points to the Christological depth of giving when he makes it clear that contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus. Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor that we through his poverty could become rich. (2 Cor. 8: 9) This verse is used in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. Once again, we have an echo of the hymn in Philippians, where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity, but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.
In both deep prayer and in action, our self-emptying is modeled on Christ. Faith is receiving what we renounce with infinite resignation. When Jesus poured out his divinity to become human, Jesus received back his divinity. (Actually, Jesus could not ever have lost his divinity.) We pour out our humanity as a gift to God and in return receive Christ’s divinity as a gift. Many early Church Fathers, among them Irenaeus, said that God became human so that humans could become God. Eastern Orthodox writers call this deification. (2 Pet. 1:4) This does not mean we become God; it means that we are filled with the non-rivalrous love of God so as to become more fully human than ever. It is a powerfully sober thought to reflect that Jesus chose to enter our humanity because walking on this earth as a human is a good thing. (293-94)
9. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 55. In making preliminary comments on Christology, Alison states:
It becomes possible to see Jesus’ human self as being “suggested” (or called, or loved) into being by the Father, exactly through the normal human physical means. It is to just such an intelligence of who Jesus was that John gives witness in the way in which he portrays Jesus as being utterly dependent on the Other who called him into being (John 5:19ff), and yet utterly one with his Father. A completely non-rivalistic imitation is at work (“I do everything which I see my Father do”). There is no sense in which Jesus tries to forge his own identity over against that of his Father, there is no grasping in Jesus’ mimetically formed self (cf Phil. 2:5-9). Thus the purely gratuitous self-giving of the Father is completely imitated in the life-story of the Son. This enables us to affirm the hypostatic union as being the “hypnotizing” into historical being of the person of the Son, and makes sense of the insistence of theology after the Third Council of Constantinople that Jesus is not a human “person” but a divine person in a human nature.
The consequence of this approach to the question of the hypostatic union is that it enables us to see Jesus as having a human desire, human will, human intelligence, and so on, so that it is not necessary to postulate anything humanly “special” about Jesus, in whose case all these are formed by a non-rivalistic mimesis, which is in principle a possibility for us. Thus it becomes possible to see Jesus not as a god, with the implications of a special sort of difference in his humanity, but as God, precisely as a fully human being. The reason why this is important is that the imputation to Jesus of something “special” in his humanity, something which we could never be, is to present Jesus as urging upon us a particular form of human imitation of the sort “imitate me/do not imitate me.” That is to say, Jesus would, for us, remain stuck within the double-bind of distorted mimetic desire, from which he would thus not be able to release us. However, part of the point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is exactly that it shows that here is a human we can imitate fully, have our relationality completely transformed in his following, such that we too are able to become sons of the Father in a dependent, but not in a limited way. It is not true that, “yes you can become sons, but no, not in the way that I am the Son.” Christology undergirded by an anthropology of pacific mimesis is able to yield the sense in which humans are called out of the double bind. In Christ there is no “Yes” and “No.” Only “Yes.” (2 Cor 1:19)
Reflections and Questions
1. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps the biblical exhortation par excellence to “good mimesis.” Paul in numerous places calls the Philippians to imitation, both implicitly by holding himself up as an example (last week’s text) and explicitly, for example, Philippians 3:17: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating (Gr Sum-mimetai) me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Having the same mind of Christ is the heart and soul of good mimesis. We are to have the mind of Christ, who even though he is equal to God, does not get caught up in rivalistic mimesis. Rather, he takes the role of the servant.
2. This also ties in with John’s account of the Last Supper, the gospel text for Maundy Thursday: In washing their feet, Jesus teaches his disciples servanthood, urging them to take him as a model — “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
1. For an anthropology sometimes known as an “anthropology of the cross,” the resources abound as to unpacking the meaning of the Passion. What strikes me the most on Palm/Passion Sunday these days (i.e., since receiving my Girardian pair of glasses) is the role of the crowd in moving from the praise of Palm Sunday to the murderous shouts of Good Friday. “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels,” (Girard Reader, p. 211-221) is an article of Girard’s which focuses nicely on the role of the crowd in the gospels. He compares Herod, for example, in the beheading of John the Baptist, to Pilate, and says: “the two sovereigns yield to mimetic pressure; they become part of the crowd. The purpose is to show that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power. For the Gospels, political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world.” (See more on the crowd in the first “reflection” below.)
2. Other good Holy Week resources include: René Girard, “The Passion (excerpt),” Things Hidden, pp. 167ff.; The Scapegoat, chapters nine, “The Key Words of the Gospel Passion,” ten, “That Only One Man Should Die,” and twelve, “Peter’s Denial.” Finally, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 12, “Scapegoat” (excerpt), which begins with the observation, “The passion accounts shed a light on mimetic contagion that deprives the victim mechanism of what it needs to be truly unanimous and to generate the systems of myth and ritual: the participants’ unawareness of what is driving them.” And ends with the comment, “All discourses on exclusion, discrimination, racism, etc. will remain superficial as long as they don’t address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society.” The concept of “Scapegoat” forms the bridge.
3. Also, Girardians Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, chapter 12, “‘It Is Accomplished (excerpt)'”; Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 40-59; Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, “Third Act: The Bringer of Salvation Brought to Judgment” and “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice.”
4. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, especially pp. 125-127, “Garden to Cross: Nonretaliation.” Beck begins his crucial chapter on Mark’s nonviolent plot resolution by comparing Richard Horsley’s spiral of violence and Gene Sharp’s three moments in nonviolent action. The latter match up with the former thus (p. 118):
|Steps in the Cycles of Violence and Nonviolence|
|Violence / Horsley||Nonviolence / Sharp|
|2||protest, resistance||nonviolent confrontation|
One can then match Mark’s plot with Sharp’s three moments, especially around the key word lestes, “robbers”: nonviolent confrontation — Mark 11:15-19 (“You have made my house a den of robbers“); repression — Mark 14:43-52 (“Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”); nonretaliation — Mark 15:27-32 (“And with him they crucified two robbers one on his right and one on his left”). Mark thus presents a direct contrast between Jesus and lestes, violent revolutionaries.
It is worthwhile, especially since it presents the main theme of the book, to give you Beck’s discussion of “Garden to Cross: Nonretaliation”:
The time of nonretaliation begins at the arrest. Because Jesus refuses to reply with a third “raid,” the falling action continues, but with a difference. Though the repressive response of his opponents continues, they are not as much in control of events as they might appear to be. Jesus submits to arrest without submitting to their claims. He surrenders his body but not his struggle. He continues to withhold his consent. Although events are not under his direct control, his deliberate nonretaliation is a positive move, lending purpose to the subsequent events. The narrative manages this by showing us a Jesus in apparent control insofar as he accepts the destiny scripted for him.Submitting to the arrest is presented as a conscious, purposeful action (Mk 14:38). Whereas the opponents’ reaction to Jesus’ initiative was to “destroy him,” Jesus’ reaction to the opponents’ response is clearly one of nonretaliation. In Mark, Jesus’ acceptance of this pattern is seen in his behavior at the arrest. His elected response (14:49) is juxtaposed to that of the disciple who attempts a violent defense, severing the ear of one of the guards (14:47). In the heat of confrontation, the impulse to violent self-defense, not to mention the defense of a loved one, is deliberately thwarted.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, each in its own way, reinforce this reading by their additions to Mark’s text. Each has inserted into the pattern, precisely at the moment of immediate response to the garden arrest, an interpretive detail that supports the nonretaliatory meaning. Matthew records Jesus’ saying to the disciple who acted to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of the guard: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). This saying of Jesus’ is often cited as a recommendation of nonviolence as a policy. Now, we see that its context, as the proper moment of retaliation in the main narrative pattern of the Gospel, lends it additional significance.
Luke expands the same scene in another way. After the guard’s ear is severed, Luke writes: “But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him” (22:51). Apart from the tendency by some to see here an example of Luke’s interest as a physician, the narrative touch supplies a contrast between false and true power — the sword versus healing. Nonviolence can be understood negatively, as the refusal of violent force or power, but the Gospel has prominently displayed the alternative and contrasting image of power as healing. Such power cannot be controlled for the purposes of domination, as can the application of coercive violence. Against the dynamic of severing, it presents the alternative dynamic of knitting the wound.
In the movement from garden to cross events move at two levels. Donald Juel tells us that “the use of double-level narrative makes possible the use of the most prominent literary feature of the passion story: irony.” Pilate’s phrase “king of the Jews,” which he decides to post on the cross itself, has a double meaning for the Christian reader. The royal charade of the Roman soldiers, decking Jesus in purple and crown, both spitting and kneeling, acts out the irony. The reader winces, knowing the truth divulged by the narrator — this is indeed the Messiah.
The irony reaches its strongest statement in the mockery directed at Jesus as he hangs upon the cross. As with the soldiers, the taunting scene at the cross combines the verbal irony of sarcasm with the situational irony of deceptive appearances. The sarcasm of the passers-by and the chief priests proposes to deflate the protagonist’s royal pretensions. However, the situation as revealed to the reader by the narrator shows that Jesus is no pretender, and so the irony is turned back upon the mockers, victims of their own sarcasm.
As we have seen earlier, the messianic issue, which Jesus debated with Peter, concerns the nature of authentic power. The hidden king, unknown to those inside the story but disclosed by the narrator to the reader, operates with a hidden power. The messianic designation is intimately associated with Mark’s narrative project. Situating Jesus in a sustained narrative conflict is equivalent to presenting a thesis about power relations. The narrative irony that says appearances are not what they claim to be is of a piece with the dramatic claim in this narrative that power is not what it seems. We see here, at the level of the narrative, the cultural skepticism that denies the possibility of power without violence, such as we saw at the beginning of this book. It is the confidence in violence that becomes an article of faith: the gods are on the side of the biggest battalions. It is precisely the false belief that the prophet Second Isaiah strove to overcome among the Israelite exiles in Babylon, in the 550s B.C.E.,as he developed the theme of the suffering servant, so prominent in the passion account of the Gospel. (pp. 125-127)
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, a section on “The Passion and the Cross,” pp. 126-35.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, ch. 2, “Disclosure of the Sacred,” pp. 35-59. In his commentary on Mark, Hamerton-Kelly, a leader in mimetic theory, has a substantial commentary on Mark’s Passion narrative (Mark 13:1-16:8) from the perspective of mimetic theory.
In 2006 I also stumbled onto a key verse, Mark 15:10 (see reflection #1 below), and Hamerton-Kelly has some helpful things to say. The appearance of “envy” (phthonos) in the Passion narrative does not escape his notice. He says, for example,
The trial before the Sanhedrin is the key to the passion narrative and one of the keys to the whole Gospel. (29) Here the innocence of the victim is revealed. The scene is carefully prepared in all that precedes (e.g., 3:6, 19; 10:33; 11:18, 27; 12:12; 14:3-9, 21, 25, 32-42), and there is reference back to it in what follows (15:10, 14). The reference in 15:10 to the envy (phthonos) of the Sanhedrin underscores the unfairness of the trial and reveals the real, mimetic motivation of the priests. Jesus is the innocent victim of envy, and envy is the essence of mimetic violence; the verdict has been decided beforehand (14:55); the judges collude and no viable evidence is presented; the witnesses are suborned and contradict each other (14:56), and even the quotation that they attribute to him is inaccurate because, although he spoke of the destruction of the temple, he never said that he personally would be the one to destroy it. (30) This court has all the impartiality of a “people’s tribunal” in a revolution. (p. 53)
Hamerton-Kelly’s follow-up on the trial before Pilate, the passage in which “envy” appears, is worth quoting at length:
As Peter was the counterpart to Jesus in the action before the high priest, so Barabbas is the counterpart in the action before Pilate. They are not doubles but opposites, showing how distinctions are made by the sacrificial mechanism. Once again the authorities are named, in a slightly different order: the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin. They bind Jesus, lead him away, and hand him over to Pilate. With the advent of Pilate, the roll call of the powers of this world is complete. The juxtaposition of Jesus and Barabbas makes the point of the contrast between the two orders so vivid that it is almost a caricature. Barabbas is an insurrectionist and a murderer, a creature and a leader of the mob. We are reminded of the situation of the war that we saw clearly in chapter 13. We are told that Pilate sees the envy (phthonos) of the priests. Envy is the essence of mimetic desire and rivalry; it reveals the extrinsic nature of values with special clarity in that it is the urge not so much to have the object oneself as to deprive the other of it; the possession of the object is not the important thing, the rivalry with the other is. (33) The condemnation of Jesus arises only indirectly out of the Sanhedrin’s envy. They do not desire something Jesus has; rather, their own inner-group rivalry can only be contained by the unanimous condemnation of the victim. Jesus attracts their envy to himself and so enables them to survive as a group. We have a clear statement of this phenomenon in Lk 23:12, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other on that day; for formerly they had been enemies.” Jesus has done this all along as the roll of all the leaders shows. Leaders who otherwise would have been in competition with one another act in concert against him. The solidarity between the collaborationist Sanhedrin and the insurrectionist Barabbas trumpets the truth of the uniformity of violence across political divisions, and its shameless opportunism.
The priests incite the mob to choose Barabbas. Mark rubs our noses in the fact that we prefer the murderer to the man of peace, the sacrificial order to the spirit of God. Pilate tries to withstand the demands of the mob, knowing that Jesus is innocent. He cannot, because his power, like that of the priests, arises out of the mob and must respect its source. And so he sacrifices Jesus to the mob. The text is quite explicit on this; it reads, Ho de Pilatos boulomenos to ochlo to hikavov poiesai (15:15). The phrase hikavov poiesai reflects the Latinism, satisfacere alicui. (34) “To satisfy the mob” means to propitiate it by throwing it a victim. The very language of the text, therefore, shows that it understands the mechanism at work between Pilate and the mob.
Far from Pilate’s being exonerated, as averred by those who claim that the Gospels whitewash the Romans and shift blame to the Jews, he is shown to be in exactly the same boat as the Jewish authorities, only somewhat weaker than they because he is unable to manipulate the crowd. His one attempt to do so, by offering to release a prisoner on the occasion of the Passover feast, fails because the Sanhedrin owns this particular crowd. Pilate is coerced by the mob, like every politician before or since, and has to give it the victim it demands. There is no attempt to exonerate Pilate, only a demonstration of the fact that those who control the mob control the source of power; Pilate’s weakness reflects only this relative disadvantage: it is not his mob. If this were an attempt on the part of the text to ingratiate itself with the Roman state, it would be ludicrous; it shows political opportunism instead of the due process of law. To be sure, it condemns the Jewish authorities — not because they are Jews but because they are, like Pilate, the agents of violence. The text sees no essential difference between Pilate and the Jews. This fact alone should be enough to silence the claims that the Gospel is anti-Jewish. (pp. 54-55)
Reflections and Questions
1. A verse in the Passion narrative that should catch the eye of a person schooled in mimetic theory is Mark 15:10 (par. Matt 27:18): “For [Pilate] realized that it was out of jealousy [Gr: phthonos] that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over.” The only occurrence of the word phthonos, “envy,” in all of the four Gospels is this verse (and its Matthean parallel). Yet, to my knowledge (as of 2006), no theorist of mimetic theory has singled out this verse for special attention. (See Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s remarks above, however.) It finally caught my eye as the “Link of the Week” (in 2006) at textweek.com, a link to the essay “‘It Was Out of Envy That They Handed Jesus Over’ (Mark 15:10): The Anatomy of Envy and the Gospel of Mark,” by Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey. This is not a Girardian analysis, but it provides an excellent in-depth analysis of the role of envy in the Passion narrative, bringing in commentary from a broad spectrum of Christian history of exegesis on this verse.
2. Something else that has brought home the role of the crowd to me is that in our congregation we use a Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (from Ragman), called “The Cry of the Whole Congregation,” which movingly gets the congregation to participate as the crowd. How did the “Hosanna!”‘s of Sunday turn to the “Crucify Him!”‘s of Friday? Were they that mistaken about Jesus? Or does the whole story say more about the crowd than it does about Jesus? If the latter, then it calls for an anthropological interpretation. It is the crowd’s need for a scapegoat that sets events in motion. Typically, one finds explanations that opt for the former, focusing on Jesus and people’s mistaken views about Jesus. One often hears the line of argument, for instance, that Zealots were hoping for a Messiah to lead them into victorious battle over their enemies and simply mistook Jesus to be that kind of Messiah, turning on him by Good Friday. In the past, I’ve indulged in those kinds of musings myself. But now they seem beside the point to me. Whether one was a Zealot, or Pharisee, or simple peasant, or Roman soldier, or Sanhedrin official, whether Herod or Pilate, they all came together out of their need to find some measure of peace through a scapegoat. It is the unity of an otherwise diverse crowd that is most telling. It is in the crowd that we locate the universal scope of the cross. Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “Brief Reflections on the Passion.”
Reflections and Questions
1. An interesting verse from a Girardian perspective: John 19:11 “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.'” Power “from above.” The assumption would be, given just the first half of this statement, that the power from above refers to God. Some translations even insert God. But then what do we say about the second half of Jesus’ statement: “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” God isn’t the one guilty of a greater sin, right? We could separate these two parts and simply concede that they are referring to different persons, the first part to God and the second part to someone like Caiaphas or Satan. But if we do that, why the “therefore”?
The other choice is to say that the entire statement is referring to the same person: Satan. Pilate’s power comes “from above” in coming from Satan. The Girardian reading of John makes this even more clear, I think. The typical Girardian reading of John highlights chapter eight where Jesus is defining two different paternities: to his Father in heaven and to the devil. Based on this distinction one can see how Satan is in charge of the kingdoms from this world, while Jesus kingdom is from another source, the true God, his Father in heaven (cf., Jesus’ response to Pilate earlier in chapter 18 about his alleged kingship).
Another place to consider, however, is John 3. The key word in John 19:11, anothen, is also the key word in John 3, the pivotal word that causes the ambiguity with Nicodemus. anothen can be translated as either “from above” or “again.” In John 3, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be born “from above,” and Nicodemus hears it as born “again.” In John 19:11 Jesus clearly means “from above,” but now we also have another category of “from above” that was primarily introduced in chapter 8. Which suggests to me that the ambiguity in born anothen is still in play. Pilate, as are all of us, was born into the power of this world under our earthly father, Satan, the Accuser. We are born enslaved to that power “from above.” And so we also need to be born again from above to another Father, Jesus’ Father in heaven.
2. Also catching my interest is the last cry of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “It is accomplished!” Not only is there Gil Bailie‘s good work on this word from the cross (Violence Unveiled, chapter 12, cited above) but James Alison has some interesting things to say on it in Raising Abel, when discussing the way in which the Resurrection leads to the truth of Creation in Christ. “It is accomplished” speaks to the fulfillment of creation itself.
Alison begins his section on Creation in Christ by noting that on two occasions Jesus heals someone in John’s Gospel and comments on doing his Father’s work: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17); and “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4-5). The implication in both these passages is that Jesus’ healing was revealing God’s continuing power of creation.
This comes to a climax in the cross with the healing of our sin, which, from the Girardian perspective, is having who we are as humans being founded in the scapegoat mechanism. Creation cannot begin again in earnest until we are refounded in something else, God’s forgiveness. So the cross accomplishes, fulfills, creation in a profound way. Alison writes:
We have seen that Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it. We will look in the next chapter at one of the most remarkable passages in Scripture, in which John portrays Jesus doing exactly this, with full knowledge of what he was doing.This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai — it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death. (p. 54-55)
Notes from Hamerton-Kelly