Last revised: January 17, 2021
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CHRISTMAS EVE / DAY — YEAR A, B, C
RCL: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
RoCa: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Christmas Day Gospel: John 1:1-18
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
The significance of the Christmas season of celebration took on new clarity for me in encountering a quote from the influential New Testament scholar Walter Wink (who was also among the founders of the Girardian ‘guild’, the Colloquium on Violence & Religion). His body of work climaxed in a very real sense with a distinctively anthropological turn to his overall reading of Scripture with his book The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man. And then his autobiography followed suit: Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. I offer you this Wink quote as the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas:
“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, p. 102; and a parallel in The Human Being, p. 26)
In short, Jesus alone is Human Being. You and I are Human Becoming more than Human Being.
I also propose that this constitutes a startling and concise statement of the importance of Mimetic Theory, as helping to bridge the gap between the Christian anthropological revelation and the human sciences’ ability to guide us into more broadly and deeply understanding what it means to become human.
Many of the Girardian readings of Christmas below are ‘in the ballpark’ of fleshing out this Human Becoming made possible at Christmas — taking the anthropological turn. One that is offered specifically in light of this quote from Walter Wink comes from John Davies in 2015, “Becoming Human: The Shepherds’ Instinct, the Magis’ Hunch.”
In 2014 the Christmas sermon ‘previewed’ this perspective, using Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol (including a video clip from the 1984 George C. Scott version) in analogy with homo sapiens needing a transformation into more truly “Keeping Christmas.”
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred; his sections on the prophet Isaiah are on pages 146 (the call of Isaiah) and 151-152 (dealing with Second Isaiah separately on pages 157-162). His summary of Isaiah is as follows:
Isaiah prophesied about 745-700 B.C.E. His vision of the new age includes a new Davidic king (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-8), but there is no clear evidence that he knew or appealed to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. Likewise unclear is his view of how the sacrificial cult began. But there is no doubt that he condemns it in unmistakable terms. In fact, the connection of sacrifice and violence is made more explicitly than in Hosea and Amos. Those who bring “vain offerings,” who think YHWH delights “in the blood of bulls,” have hands “full of blood.” This image, whether hyperbole or not, pictures mass violence and murder. The prophetic alternative is an ethical exhortation given in a staccato series of brief imperatives:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Torah, which for Isaiah is synonymous with the word of YHWH (1:10), does not make victims in cult offerings or in any sort of violence. Rather, it draws all the peoples to it in peace and leads them to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). This vision of the new age mentions “the house of the God of Jacob,” undoubtedly a reference to the Temple, but quite strikingly there is no mention at all of a reconstituted sacrificial cult. The “house of Jacob” is associated with torah, with teaching, not with sacrifice (2:3).
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 137. The appearance of Isaiah 9 comes toward the end of a superb chapter — ch. 4, “The Resurrection and Original Sin” — the chapter that lays out the core of his thesis through readings of John (primarily John 9), Paul (primarily Romans), and a survey of the OT. As he is providing a summary of the Old Testament view of sin, he cites Isaiah 9 as representing the pinnacle of OT insight:
Some of the prophetic critique goes further, in understanding that the presence of fratricidal violence, the reign of death, is an universal phenomenon, which is a veil of blindness that is over all peoples (Isa. 25:7-8). When therefore Isaiah talks of the darkness (9:2; 42:16; 59:9; 60:2; etc.) out of which God will lead his people, it is a particular form of darkness to which he is referring — a darkness related to the reign of death — to the boot of the tramping warrior and the garment rolled in blood (Is 9:5). This theme is not greatly developed, but there is enough of it present to suggest that prophetic insight went as far as to see sin as related to the reign of death precisely in the measure in which God is increasingly perceived as entirely foreign to death. (p. 137)
Alison then brings the chapter to an end by returning to where he began it, the resurrection as the key which unlocks the notion of not just sin but “original sin.”:
We are back to the double insight into God’s deathlessness and human deathfulness provided by Jesus resurrection. It is now clear not only that human beings must struggle against evil so as to avoid death, but a step further has been reached. The resurrection reveals that human beings are already shot through with death in a way that no amount of struggle can avoid. It is not that we are sick, but that we are dead. Life is not something fought for, but something given. There is no real freedom that does not pass through a recognition of complicity in death. (p. 138)
Our complicity in death is the violent death that is the victimage mechanism which founds human culture — the boot of the tramping warrior and the garment rolled in blood (Is 9:5).
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Jesus did not just happen, as an adult, to cotton on to something interesting. All along, there had been a purpose to his being alive – a purpose not comprehended at the time, and comprehended only gradually afterwards. That purpose turned out to be the rescuing of our capacity to be the fulfilment of God’s creation, a capacity that was so snarled up in us that we did not even know what being created was about.
“In those days. . . .” Probably nothing historical here, but Luke is using it to make another contrast. Rome is the center of the known world. The emperor’s title is “Son of God.” Acting as the Son of God, Augustus declared that his whole realm should be counted, measured, an act of control and power coming out from Rome. And it causes Joseph to go to Bethlehem, which was nowhere. You have this juxtaposition of all this Roman power and these two simple people who go to this out-of-the-way place, and there the savior of the world is born.
And born into a lowly situation: “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” This is the gospel in miniature. There’s three things here about the birth that tell us everything about the gospel:
(1) There’s no room in the inn. (Luke 9:58) “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In the gospel of John (1:9): “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” It’s in the nature of the Messiah that he is always the one left out. He’s the stone the builders rejected. That there’s no room in the inn is not incidental to the story; this is what the Messiah is. There’s no room in Rome, so go to Israel. There’s not room in Israel, so go to Nazareth. There’s not room in Nazareth, so go to Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go out to the shed where the animals are. Out, out, out, out. . . . The Messiah is the one left out. The real truth breaks in on you when you recognize the stone the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone.
(2) Who first gets wind of this? The shepherds. We have to shake free of some of our Christmas piety. This is not some nice little pastoral scene. Shepherds in the first century represented something like bikers, socially. They were the unwashed, unscrupulous. People locked their doors when they came into town. They had the social mark of gypsies, with a very low social status. Luke always turns the social order on its head: Luke is always interested in the women, the outcast. And so the angel appears to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”
(3.a) Shepherds can find the child by two signs: The deeper implication of swaddling clothes: culture. The bands of cloth were used to shape the child physically, a way of physically forming the child. When we say that Jesus takes on human form, this story shows us that it includes being enculturated. Culture shapes us spiritually. Jesus, too, was a product of culture and not just nature. Its not like today in which we apologize for culture. Mary wouldn’t look over to Joseph and say, “Well, maybe we should let him decide for himself. Let’s not cram anything down his throat.” We think that somehow the blank slate is preferable. Jesus himself is swaddled; he’s enculturated.
(3.b) Manger: a feeding trough, a place where the animals come to eat. At the end of the gospel: The disciples of Emmaus find Jesus in the breaking of bread, at an eating place. Where do you find him? These shepherds will also find Jesus in an eating place.
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” — not her head, her heart. What’s the difference between pondering them in our heart or in our head. The gospel is an epistemological emancipation from superstition. But it’s not a recipe for Enlightenment rationalism, which is a modern superstition. It’s a mental narrowing. We’re lucky that the gospel stands there as a rock in the road, filled with stories of miracles and inscrutable things, because it’s a reminder that we live in a world of superstition. It just happens to be Enlightenment rationalist superstition. We assume that there’s an end to pondering, a point at which you have things figured out. There is no conclusion to the pondering. Pondering is a way of life that is synonymous with faith.
3. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 215-223. Girard’s anthropology is not an excuse to disparage traditional orthodox positions such as the divinity of Christ or even the virgin birth. Rather, he supports his position from the standpoint of such staple doctrines; see especially the sections on “The Divinity of Christ” and “The Virgin Birth.”
4. In a sermon during Advent 2006, Father Raniero Cantalamessa — Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas — included this excellent interfaith nugget:
In the Qur’an there is a Sura worth knowing (also as an aid in friendly dialogue between religions) that is dedicated to the birth of Jesus:
“The angels said, ‘O Mary! Allâh gives you good tidings through a word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. He shall be worthy of regard in this world and in the hereafter… ‘And he will speak to the people when in the cradle and when of old age, and shall be of the righteous.’ Mary said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a child when no man has yet touched me?’ He said, ‘In this way: Allâh creates what He will. When He decides something He simply says “be” and it is.'” (Qur’an, Sura III)
See the full sermon on Zenit as “Father Cantalamessa on the Peacemakers.”
5. Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution. It is unusual to recommend an entire book for Christmas preaching, especially when it isn’t a Christmas book, strictly speaking. But this book brilliantly articulates a Christmas theology — God in the world, Immanuel, God with us. Consider this, for example, from the Introduction:
After the war, Tillich made it his work to find dependable theological ground. Eventually, he proclaimed that God is the “Ground of all Being,” the “centered presence of the divine”; the “whole world” is God’s “periphery.” Human life may be finite, destined for dirt and death; but the ground and all that came from it and was connected to it, claimed Tillich, was drenched with the divine, the source of infinite holiness. Tillich did not mean that God was literally soil — he stressed that God is not an object — but God, the numinous presence at the center of all things, is what grounds us.
This insight appears in many of the world’s faith traditions. Most tribal religions are based upon the absolute connection of God (or gods) and the earth. Buddhists see “the world as it is” as the stage of spiritual activity. For Hindus, Brahman is the source of all life, represented by the sacred word Om; the world itself is the expression of Brahman’s dream. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a creation story in which the earth is the embodiment of God’s breath and insist that God is present everywhere and in all things. Some contemporary Jewish scholars argue that the Hebrew scriptures describe a God with a “fluid” or “plural” body manifesting itself throughout the earth, in whose name, “I AM,” resides all being. Indeed, the primary hope of the ancient Hebrews was for “Immanuel,” or “God with us,” the God who dwells with humankind in love and justice. Christians refer to God’s embodiment as “incarnation,” God made flesh in Jesus, who is called Immanuel, and believe that God is present through the Spirit sent into the world after Jesus’s death and resurrection. (pp. 18-19)
Or this from Chapter 3, “Sky,” commenting on John 3:16:
The word translated “world” is the Greek term kosmos. John 3:16 is not a call to personal salvation or revivalist fervor. Instead, it offers a glimpse of Christianity’s central cosmology. The emphasis is on the first line, and the verse essentially says, “God so loved the universe, that God entered the cosmos in the form of a gift, the gift of Jesus, that we might trust in this divine presence and experience abundance.” It is not a story of getting saved from hell — unless that hell is the one we are making through our destruction of the atmosphere. Rather, it is the Christian way of saying that God dwells in the universe we also inhabit, that we might experience the life of heaven here and now.
Danish theologian Niels Gregersen refers to this as “deep incarnation,” the manifestation of God “in, with, under, and as” flesh, with a human body, a body made from the same stardust that makes up all other bodies. Elizabeth Johnson explains Gregersen’s “deep incarnation”:
Born of a woman (Gal. 4:4) and the Hebrew gene pool, Jesus of Nazareth was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth. The atoms comprising his body once belonged to other creatures. [from an essay available online, “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to Be Astonished”]
The heavens live in us, with us, as the reality under all things, as part of creation. In Christian theology, Jesus brings together sky and earth, the God who dwells with us. John 3:16 proclaims that this divine indwelling is life. Other religions say similar things in different ways — God is closer than we imagine, and the ever active spirit is animating the world. (pp. 122-23)
And if you prefer a story about Christmas, it figures prominently in Chapter 7, “Commons.” The chapter begins in an Episcopal church on the tenth anniversary (2011) of September 11, 2001. There is a guest speaker who does the exclusivistic “God bless America” sort of talk, and Butler Bass is compelled to get up and leave. But she closes the chapter by telling the story of finding herself back in that same church Christmas Eve 2014. The rector’s sermon features what had happened exactly 100 years ago that night: Allied soldiers and German soldiers wandered out into “No Man’s Land” for an impromptu Christmas ceasefire, singing “Stille Nacht / Silent Night” together. Butler Bass writes,
This was a holy moment, the spirit of human solidarity, of true communion, of compassion. The no-man’s-land became shared space, and a zone of death was transformed into a hospitable place, where enemies were, for a time, friends. It was a glimpse toward a global commons. “For a few short hours,” writes social critic Jeremy Rifkin of the same incident, “no more than that day, tens of thousands of human beings broke ranks, not only from their commands but from their allegiances to country, to show their common humanity. Thrown together to maim and kill, they courageously stepped outside of the institutional duties to commiserate with one another and to celebrate each other’s lives.”’ Peace did not last. But the memory of it suggests a different way is possible.
Oran [Warder, the rector] put it in more distinctly spiritual terms: “That it is precisely when we recognize our common humanity — when we recognize our own humanity in the face of the other — it is then that we also recognize the face of God.” This is salvation, this seeing God in all other faces, the very meaning and purpose of Jesus, whose birth we gathered to celebrate: “In him we are forever connected to God and forever connected to one another. We are not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. We share a common life — we share a common journey — and we are forever bound together by God’s divine love.” (pp. 265-66)
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 24, 2000, and sermon from December 24, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from December 18, 2005, sermon from December 17, 2006, and sermon from December 20, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these Christmas reflections in 2018, “In the Arms of Mary, in the Arms of Christ“; in 2017, “The Throne of David, Part 2“; 2016, “God-Is-with-Us: A Christmas Eve Meditation“; in 2015, “The Child Who Supplants Us All; in 2013, “Unwrapping the Future“; and in 2012, “Outcasts at the Manger.”
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Rob Grayson, a blog in 2015, “What Matters at Christmas“; John Davies, a sermon in 2015, “Becoming Human: The Shepherds’ Instinct, the Magis’ Hunch; Mike Morrell, a blog in 2016, “Christmas Incarnation: The Advent of Us.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Link to a 1997 sermon that makes use of many of Gil Bailie’s comments and themes, entitled “The Spirit of Christmas.”
2. The Christmas story is one of the most inclusive of nature. Subsequent tradition has made it even more so. We assume that because Jesus was laid in a manger there were probably animals present. Did the stars become involved in the heavenly host? Did the shepherds bring any lambs? The magi their camels? We tend to depict the nativity as well-represented by nature. Our songs speak of heav’n and nature singing, the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. Yet, if the ultimate scope of salvation for the typical Christian faith is for a disembodied soul to live in heaven, then why is the rest of nature so joyful? My 2003 sermon, “Let Heav’n and Nature Sing,” raised this question and answered it with the recent work of N. T. Wright in mind. In The Resurrection of the Son of God Wright argues that the common notion of heaven as a place for disembodied souls is more like Plato’s view than Jesus’ view. A properly Jewish-Christian hope is for the whole creation. See also my paragraph on Heaven in “My Core Convictions.”
In the 2006 version of this sermon (“Let Heav’n and Nature Sing“) I ventured a bit more into our modern scientific worldview that tells the story of the universe in terms of either a fizzling out of entropy or a “big crunch” into another big bang. But against both those stories is the story of life in the opposite direction of either entropy or big crunch. Faith sides with this latter story of science in order to celebrate God’s promise of life in Jesus Christ as the true bottom line of the universe.
3. In 2007 the sermon, “This Will Be a Sign,” began with a story by John Sumwalt from StoryShare by CSS Publishing about a billboard sign painted for a church nativity pageant that depicted the Lukan Christmas scene in terms of a contemporary homeless family; and concludes with a scene from J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series (which had concluded that year with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and a theme from the featured Year A Gospel of Matthew — Matthew 25:35 — “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me….”
4. In 2013 the sermon, “Throwing out the Baby…,” continued the practice of that Advent of preaching with visuals, based on a presentation by Barbara Lundblad at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics, titled “The Word Isaiah Saw.” The visual for this sermon: in the chancel in front of the altar is a table with a basin of water and a realistic baby doll sitting in it. Next to the basin are some bath salts. Here is the basic move of this sermon:
Numerous times this fall I’ve used this metal bowl as a metaphor for our human culture and talked about the sinful aspect of culture as a crack in the container. Tonight I’d like to add the element of water as part of that metaphor for the culture that contains us. And I’d especially like to call to mind that well-known piece of wisdom: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Wikipedia explains that this phrase is “used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.” Fairly standard, right? But here’s what I found really interesting. Wikipedia goes on to say:
A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal. In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.
Throw out the baby and keep the bath water. This is what I’d like to suggest is the way of human culture. Kingdom after kingdom, nation after nation, has proceeded through history as a throwing out of the baby and a keeping of the bath water. What I mean is that human culture has been based on identifying someone as evil and throwing them out. The bath water of our cultures has been based on throwing people out. The culture of expulsion remains in empire after empire; it’s the people who are expendable.
The Roman Empire was a good example, based on keeping peace by killing all opposition. Jesus’ own people had the same culture in reverse, desiring to expel their oppressors. They dreamed of peace by having a Messiah to throw out the Romans. So we might say that the baby Jesus grew up with the mission of exposing our dirty bath water precisely by letting himself be thrown out. He let himself be labeled a blasphemer by his own people and thrown to their enemies the Romans. He let himself be declared an opponent of Caesar, the Lord, by the Romans and duly executed on the cross, that instrument of torture created especially for Rome’s opponents.
After bringing in a timely quote from Pope Francis, the concluding move was:
But here’s the really good news of Christmas: even when we take the risk of recognizing the sinfulness of our very cultures, our politics and economics, God in Jesus the Messiah didn’t come to throw out either the baby or the bath water. God’s way of salvation is based on transformation, not expulsion. God’s way of salvation is based on a love and forgiveness which is meant to heal us, not punish or reject us. And the same is true of our cultures. Jesus came to clean us up and sweeten the water once again. And he calls us to be disciples, followers, of this way of peace and salvation. We are called not to a revolution to overthrow anyone or any system. We are called to be light and salt. We are called to reflect the light of God’s love and forgiveness. We are called to be bath salts, if you will, to sweeten the water once again. [Sprinkling some salts into the water.]
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, Book II, Ch. 4, “The Logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of John” (pp. 263-280). I give the last word to Girard in the essay “René Girard: The Anthropology of the Cross as Alternative to Post-Modern Literary Criticism” from this chapter of Things Hidden. Here is an excerpt from that essay:
But how do we know, a post-modern disciple of Derrida might ask, that this version of “light” and “darkness” is not just another binary opposition of yet another version of logocentric theory? The question, as I would like to re-pose it in this essay, involves whether or not we let our collective horror at human violence in this post-Holocaust age become the impulse to perform yet another violent expulsion, this time of the truth most pertinent here, namely, the truth about human violence. Or perhaps we re-veil the truth about our violence under a new cloud of mystification called the text, never being able to offer a theory of violence, only the violence of theories. Girard is bold enough in this post-modern context to offer a theory of violence. In the face of the post-modern anxiety over theories, let me give the last word to Girard.
In Part Two of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Girard demonstrates a “non-sacrificial” reading of the Gospel, one which makes clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is about our need for sacrificial violence which we project as God’s need. Human beings are the ones who, through our false idols, demand sacrifice, not God. Girard’s next chapter relates how historical Christianity has lapsed back into a sacrificial reading of the Gospel in order once again to justify our violence. He concludes Part Two with a chapter that draws a dramatic distinction between the Heraclitean Logos of Violence and the Johannine Logos of Love. The Prologue of John (John 1:1-18) is about how the former is continually trying to expel the latter. I leave the reader with the posing of a universal truth which I do not think could be seen as imperialistic. Girard writes:
The Johannine Logos is foreign to any kind of violence; it is therefore forever expelled, an absent Logos that never has had any direct, determining influence over human cultures. These cultures are based on the Heraclitean Logos, the Logos of expulsion, the Logos of violence, which, if it is not recognized, can provide the foundation of a culture. The Johannine Logos discloses the truth of violence by having itself expelled. First and foremost, John’s Prologue undoubtedly refers to the Passion. But in a more general way, the misrecognition of the Logos and mankind’s expulsion of it disclose one of the fundamental principles of human society.
. . . This revelation comes from the Logos itself. In Christianity, it is expelled once again by the sacrificial reading, which amounts to a return to the Logos of violence. All the same, the Logos is still in the process of revealing itself; if it tolerates being concealed yet another time, this is to put off for just a short while the fullness of its revelation.
The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence. But its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion, and by the same process the Logos of violence is revealed as what can only exist by expelling the true Logos and feeding upon it in one way or another. (Things Hidden, pp. 271, 274)
It is my hope that such a theory of violence, which comes to light only when the truth about human violence lets itself be expelled by such violence, can begin to ease the post-modern anxiety about “logocentric” theories leading to violence. It is my faith that, in the light of the Victim raised as forgiveness, we can begin to follow the traces of an expelled human victim, not just the traces of an expelled gramme. In God’s love, we would then become children of the Creator who learn to model the divine agape, increasingly leaving our violence behind. Is not this the goal worthy of the post-Holocaust age, rather than learning simply to identify violence everywhere in our texts?
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 13, “Where Are the Philosophers Now?” Bailie expands a bit on Girard’s comparison of Heraclitus and John. Here is a brief summary of why Heraclitus is important to mimetic theory:
Heraclitus offered a theory of cultural origins strikingly different from the myths of creation that were a familiar feature of the pagan cults and the mystery religions of his time. For him, the “world” did not originate with the conniving schemes of Gaia, Uranus, Cronus, and their peevish, incestuous, and parricidal Olympian intrigues. It began with human violence, albeit a violence structured by some mysterious organizing principle. Heraclitus sensed that violence behaved in accord with an enigmatic logic of its own, which he called its logos. This logos or logic of violence made it possible for violence to both create and destroy. Heraclitus wrote:
War [polemos] is the father and king of all things; he has shown some to be gods and some mortals, he has made some slaves and others free . . . . Everything originates in strife . . . . Strife is justice; and all things both come to pass and perish through strife.
For Heraclitus, the logos of violence was an ordering principle that was generated by disorder itself. Once in play, this logos turned chaotic and destructive violence into socially stable and hierarchically differentiated social systems. Heraclitus saw that however random and lawless it is, collective violence nevertheless develops according to certain recognizable patterns, patterns that could not be traced to any cause or any conscious intent on the part of those participating in the violence. Furthermore, he appears to have seen that it is violence of the most lawless and random kind that is the most likely to conform to the mysterious ordering principle he termed the logos. (Violence Unveiled, pages 241-242)
Heraclitus is almost an early version of mimetic theory — not the whole thing, of course, but significant bits of it in his aphorisms — bits that have been important to latter day philosophers like Heidegger. What these philosophers haven’t seen is the way in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and its logos of agape, is God’s answer to the human logos of polemos. And so they also miss that there is an alternative to the logos of violence, tending to go from the descriptive to at least an implied normative. In short, the assumption that violence is behind everything receives an endorsement to use it wisely. Bailie’s chapter is an excellent account of how philosophy comes up short.
3. Within philosophy itself Derrida’s deconstructionist movement is largely about uncovering the violence embedded within philosophy. Andrew McKenna‘s book, Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction, is a brilliant analysis of how Derrida comes so close and yet how the philosophical method ultimately comes up short compared to the anthropological hypotheses of mimetic theory.
4. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #1. Bailie’s commentary on the Johannine Prologue is interspersed with comments on T.S. Eliot poetry and combined with Girardian insights into John 8. John 8:44 — “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — expresses Heraclitus’ logos of violence. For a full bibliography on John 8, see Reformation Day.
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, ch. 5, “A Word from Above,” pp. 90. Marr begins a section on Christmas with comments on John 1:
When John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14), he is sharing a mystery so deep that we don’t know what to say. What is more, the Word was God. Which is to say, the Word is God for all time (Jn. 1:1-3).
So why would the Word enter into the Creation that the Word shaped? Isn’t that ultimate downward mobility? Later in his Gospel, John says that God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son. (Jn. 3:16) This was a costly gift since God’s only son died on the cross. Suddenly, the Word, who seems so abstract in the rarefied language of the opening words of John’s Gospel, is much more concrete and understandable. Except why would God love us so much as to do such a thing? Looking around at ourselves, there seems to be no accounting for taste.
6. James Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 204-210.
8. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. Alison cites this passage at several points in Part 1, ch. 3, “The search for a soteriology.” This chapter unfurls “the intelligence of the victim,” which is the insight gained by the apostles in the wake of Jesus’ Resurrection. Alison says, for example:
What was unique was the way in which, after Jesus’ death they began to be able to tell the story of this life and death not from their own viewpoint, as muddled hangers-on, but from the viewpoint of the dead man, of the one who had become the victim. It is not as though they had invented a profound new insight into Judaism to honor the memory of a dead teacher. Rather they were now able to see clearly the inner unity of the interpretation of Judaism which their teacher had been explaining to them as with reference to himself. They were able to see his life through his own eyes: that is, tell the story of the lynch from the viewpoint of the victim’s own understanding of what was going on, before the lynch, leading up to, and during it. (p. 80)
What the disciples became aware of after the resurrection was that the person whose consciousness is constituted in rivalry and survival by victimization does not possess the intelligence of the victim. The beginning of the perception of the intelligence of the victim is already an alteration in what constitutes human consciousness, permitting us to see things from the viewpoint of the victim, and from the point of gratuitous self-donation. (p. 81)
“Gratuitous self-donation” becomes an important theme in Alison’s Girardian framing of the Gospel. The place that John’s Prologue plays in this is that of placing the self-giving back to the beginning:
John takes the final step of tracing back explicitly the gratuitous self-giving of this man into God. In his Prologue John shows the self-giving as prior to the rejection, and in the Passion narrative he shows God giving a victim into the hands of men that is far more than any of the cultic victims which the figures of the Old Testament sought to offer to God. (pp. 82-83)
This chapter in JBW also includes a more expansive discussion of the “Creation in Christ” material cited above in Raising Abel. Alison suggests that “creation ex nihilo” is a product of the Resurrection and expands the discussion into that of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example:
It is already clear that John alludes to creation in his account of the first day of the Resurrection. This becomes even clearer in his prologue, which can be seen, as can the whole of the Johannine re-casting of God, as the consequence of the shift in perception permitted by the intelligence of the victim. The resurrection of Jesus made it possible to see that the same self-giving towards victimization present in the life of Jesus was the perfect image and imitation of the Father, revealing the Father as he really is, fount of all self-giving. The self-giving of Jesus was then the Word, the Logos, the full self-revelation of the Father. Furthermore, the self-giving of Jesus exactly reflects (but does not exhaust) the self-giving of the Father, and this means that the relation of gratuity anterior to all that is, is common to both of them, Father and Son. (p. 99)
Finally, Alison has an important interpretation of related text 1 John 1:5 (“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”):
In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing now cursing (see Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies. (p. 108)
What do you think? What does it mean to say that in God “is no darkness at all”? Does 1 John 1:5 support the Girardian tactic that all violence and death is of the human realm and not of God’s? Is all talk of violence and death in connection with God a projection?
9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2016, “An Expose of Love“; David Froemming, a sermon in 2016, “Christmas: God’s Peace.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The congregation I’m currently serving (2004) doesn’t have a Christmas Day service, so I was able to go and worship in a congregation and to reflect on, with the help of the preacher, this text.
There is the temptation these days to lament the political correctness around the holidays. The schools have “holiday concerts,” even if they do religious numbers — though Silent Night is rapidly being replaced by Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer. But the preacher correctly moved deftly instead to lamenting how easy it is for even people of faith to get as fully caught up in the secularization. It is generally more appropriate to see how we are part of the “we” rather than an “us vs. them.”
This is especially the case if one, aided by the insights of mimetic theory, sees how much the Gospel is behind the process of secularization, in the first place. (One of the best places to read about such an argument is in the work of philosopher Gianni Vattimo, especially his little book Belief.) Secularization is the process of desacralizing the violence of Christendom, of finding oneself increasingly in solidarity with the victims of Christendom’s sacred violence. While the Religious Right may be trying to revive the “last bastion of Christian imperialism” (a term I recently heard from Douglas John Hall), we might ask: Is our plight in the “mainstream” church that we are, at heart, in sympathy with secularization, at least to the extent that it hails the end of Christendom’s oppressive, imperialistic ways?
The preacher this morning (Christmas 2004) seemed to grasp this in looking back over his own history. He began by recalling his high school Christmas concerts at the public high school in Billings, MT — unabashedly Christian in its content. Yet he also brought in the episodes a few years later of frightening anti-Semitism against Billings’ few Jewish citizens. The response of the churches in the community was to encourage its members to all display menorahs in their front windows in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors. Today’s churches are increasingly aware of the cost of waning Christendom. Past tendencies of majority Christian communities to ignore the religious minorities had so often yielded to active persecution. Thus, sensitivity to such persecutions calls into question past tendencies to ignore — even if that means a seemingly watered-down “Happy Holiday” in lieu of “Merry Christmas.” The sensitivity of such “political correctness” is for good reason: insensitivity has too often given way to brutality. More than that, mimetic theory helps us to realize that human community itself is built on the foundation of a privileged majority whose very privilege is achieved at the expense of those on the fringe who are constantly under the threat of being expelled. “Political correctness,” at its best, represents efforts to be inclusive of those normally on the fringes. (At its worst, PC can become acts of expelling the expellers, of sacrificing the sacrificers — which is why proponents of mimetic theory are also critical of it.)
Part of the argument of mimetic theory is that such secularization coincides with the work of the Gospel. In Johannine language it coincides with the Word that came into this world and always finds its place with the rejected, the expelled. It is the work, in essence, of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who is the Defender of the Accused, and thus the opposite of “the Satan,” the Accuser. (For more on the Paraclete, see the page “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.“)