The Coronavirus Crisis as an Opportunity for Faithful Discipleship

The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity for disciples of Jesus to “up their game” in more faithfully following Jesus’s Way of being human — a Way that works in concert with the God who is working to heal our tribalism (“creating one new humanity in place of the two,” Eph. 2:15). Can we be a force for healing in this time of great crisis?

I humbly issue this call, aware that I’m one greatly in need of the Spirit’s help to answer it. I have been on a fifty year discipleship journey of feeling a shortcoming in the tools I was given growing up to be a disciple, of gradually living into new insights and practices, and of being constantly conscious of how far there is yet to go in this journey of “upping my game” as a disciple. The following essay is actually a big-picture view of my fifty year journey (roughly since my confirmation in the Lutheran church), offered as an invitation into the resources I’ve found along the way that have helped me be a more faithful disciple to meet the challenge of this moment. Crucial has been the anthropology of René Girard to reorient my theology and my understanding of salvation as living into Jesus’s Way of being human. It is the navigating compass to all the resources I find essential to journeying through these perilous times.

First in my journey is to glimpse where I’m coming from. I grew up in the church on the brink of being post-Christendom, post-tainted-by-partnership-with-imperialism. This certainly included my own Lutheran brand of Protestantism. The original Reformation was all about discovering God anew as a God of grace. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Five hundred years of subsequent history has shown those efforts to have largely failed. A God of grace must be a God who is completely nonviolent, and a God who produces true Oneness. As John puts it, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The Reformation never came close to achieving this pinnacle of a nonviolent God. Reformation churches soon promulgated wars and various forms of violence, using God to justify it. It produced the same ancient brand of ‘oneness’ of  Us based on Us-against-Them . . . now formulated as Protestants vs. Catholics.

Theologically, Protestantism landed squarely with the ultimate dualistic god, who instead of “creating one new humanity in place of the two,” proclaims a god who eternally divides humanity into two — believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. Instead of seeing in the Crucified God a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation and healing of humanity, Protestant theology landed with its abhorrent penal substitutionary atonement theory of a wrathful God who sacrifices the Son in order to save a few believing souls for heaven. After a century of World Wars, it’s no wonder that people are fleeing churches in rapidly increasing numbers. I’ve been a parish pastor through this time, struggling with my own understanding and practice of discipleship in light of the God I was taught — a God who is tainted with the divine nature of imperial gods.

And so a New Reformation requires a first step of atheism. Anthony Bartlett puts it this way in opening his book Seven Stories:

There is a quote attributed to Richard Rohr, and even if he didn’t say it, it is certainly worth repeating. “Many Christians have to go through a time and experience of atheism, because the God we have been taught to believe in does not exist.”

This book is nothing less than a schooling in necessary Christian atheism about a God of violence. But underlying and vitally more important than that, it is the revelation of the God of love who has been there all along, and whose very character of love prods this kind of atheism into being! (p. 8)

I went through times on the edge of atheism in my late teens and early 20s. In seminary and as a parish pastor, I began to experience God differently, especially through the suffering I shared with others in ministry with them. The first theologian who cracked open significant new insights for me was Jürgen Moltmann, centered in his experience of The Crucified God.

I write this essay during the week of the Seventh Sunday of Easter. In John 17, Jesus prays “that they may be one as we are one.” Do we realize how much the true God, whose Oneness offers gracious healing to all our human divisions, requires atheism toward all our well-entrenched gods of dualism? Gods of Us versus Them? To me this has become the fundamental issue of coming to true “faith” — faithfulness to Jesus’s Father, the nonviolent God of love. Twenty-eight years ago (May 1992) I stumbled onto what became the key to opening new doors on my journey. In encountering the Mimetic Theory of René Girard I began to discover that faithful theology begs for an anthropology that helps us to more full understand how humanity has become entrenched in experiences of dualistic gods.

Mimetic Theory is a thoroughgoing anthropological hypothesis about human beings evolving in violence and so is an ideal partner for ushering theology into more fully experiencing the nonviolent God — the God who, through the Human One Jesus the Messiah, is launching a healing of creation that makes possible a re-evolution of humankind in nonviolence. It’s a long project! And it’s one, because of human freedom, that can possibly fail — a hellish prospect. But the God of Jesus also remains persistent and enduring, a covenant God whose creativity spans billions of years on an evolutionary time-scale.

Let’s take a few minutes to look at the big picture of how everything turns on atheism to the gods of violence and on subsequent conversion to the nonviolent God — a conversion that may even be “religionless” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was intuiting before his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis.

Scott Cowdell, in his immensely important book René Girard and the Nonviolent God, endorses and extends Raymund Schwager‘s melding of Mimetic Theory with von Balthasar‘s notion of Theo-Drama (see Jesus in the Drama of Salvation). Cowdell, in “A Girardian Theo-Drama” (pp. 128-34), expands the timeframe of the drama to consist of: (1) beginning with the Big Bang to the appearance of Homo sapiens, the age of “The Pre-Human Paradise of Savage Innocence”; (2) “Hominization, the Primal Murder, and Providence,” as spanning the evolution of humankind into sacred violence as our means to survive (i.e., our “natural selection”) the threat of mimetic violence; (3) “The Breakthrough” in awareness of the sacrificial mechanism in numerous cultures, culminating in the events of the cross and resurrection of the Messiah, and advent of the Paraclete; (4) the apocalyptic age in which we live, an era of the Gospel undermining the effectiveness of sacred violence while the powers and principalities of sacred violence desperately try to prevail — “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”; and (5) “The Un-theorized Eschaton,” which brings the promised triumph of Jesus the Messiah’s nonviolent God but in ways we have trouble imagining (and Girard himself refrained from theorizing about).

Cowdell then enriches this notion of Theo-Drama with that of “overacceptance,” a concept from improvisational performance art. Artists participate in performances with their individual visions of where the performance is heading. When another actor takes the drama in a certain direction that deviates from the actor’s vision, it generally doesn’t do much good to attempt blocking it. But nor does one simply have to accept that direction. Each actor can “overaccept” by taking that other actor’s move and creatively acting to move the drama toward the envisioned ending. This is what God can be seen to be doing in the Theo-Drama. Human beings in their freedom continue to act in ways that lead to a violent ending, while God continues to act in ways that move the drama back to a nonviolent reconciliation of the whole creation — requiring a “double agency” of God working through human beings in history. (See ch. 7, “Divine Overaccepting”)

We are now two thousand years hence from “the Breakthrough” and into “the Best of Times, the Worst of Times.” We have contended that the Reformation proclaimed a God of grace but largely failed to fully bring that God to light, itself still mired in imperialistic experiences of god. Are there signs that atheism toward the god of violence is moving us into a New Reformation?

The first major sign that I see is the practice of nonviolent “civil disobedience,” a term coined by Henry David Thoreau at the time of abolitionist movements and protesting the U.S. war against Mexico. It picked up steam again with leaders like Susan B. Anthony and the suffragette movement, and finally crashed onto the world scene, precisely during the crescendo of two World Wars, through a massive movement of nonviolent resistance to empire led by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu follower of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Having travelled to the ‘land of Gandhi’ in early 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Civil Rights Movement with Gandhian practices of nonviolent resistance as a foundation. Since then democratic justice movements, primarily secular and increasingly atheistic, have continued this modern trend of ‘fighting’ nonviolently against the powers and principalities of division. I have found on my journey that nonviolent movements against those things which oppressively divide us — racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, militarism, authoritarianism, classist forms of capitalism — are signs of a New Reformation (even if a “religionless” one).

The Church in Europe and North America has most often lagged behind these movements. Is it because it’s largely white male leadership has the most to lose? Liberation theologies, developed outside the circles of white male power, were the earliest to spring up around the nonviolent resistance movements. In more recent years, though, I have come to see it as another sign of a New Reformation that white male leaders of even conservative “mega-churches” have experienced conversions to the nonviolent God and are writing about it. As myself one of those white males, most helpful to me have been: Brian McLaren (c.f., Part 2 of his book The Great Spiritual Migration, “From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation”), Brian Zahnd (c.f., Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, subverting the infamous Jonathan Edwards sermon), and Gregory Boyd (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God). (In his most recent book The Galápagos Islands, McLaren beautifully tells the story of Darwin’s experience of a God whose evolutionary creativity compelled him to atheism toward the violent god of the churches, occasioning McLaren to also tell his own story through the borderlands of atheism into conversion to the nonviolent God.) All three of these particular authors have been readers of Girard, and they use or take account of Mimetic Theory to varying degrees.

I count myself fortunate to have stumbled upon Girard’s work in 1992 and thus to have begun the spiritual journey through atheism for the violent gods with whom I grew up and into a gradual conversion to the nonviolent God of Jesus. Girard insists on his role as an anthropologist and not a theologian. But his anthropological readings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures brought him early-on to the very clear theological conclusion: “That is indeed the main lesson to be drawn from this brief analysis [of Gospel passages]. The notion of a divine violence has no place in the inspiration of the Gospels.” (Things Hidden, 189) His conclusion became the impetus for applying faith in the nonviolent God to the task of preaching the weekly lectionary — and hence one of my main projects since the late 90’s, “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.”

Let’s briefly fill-in more Girardian anthropological background to the God of Oneness who is working to heal our tribalism. Mimetic Theory not only postulates a nonviolent God, but it also explains the ‘birth’ of all the violent gods. It hypothesizes how it is that human thinking has an evolutionary formation in dualistic thinking that projects gods who preside over the Us-Them structuring of human culture. Human community is founded in the peace wrought by scapegoating events, repeated countless times during the long period of hominization. The victim provides the first religious experiences of awe; he or she is intuited as a creature who is somehow superhuman — a “spirit,” a demon, a deity — first sowing community-wide chaos and then ordering the peace. The victims become worshiped as the first gods. And they are the first to capture attention in ways that begin the process of symbolization . . . language.

The first ‘language’ is ritual — that is, the intentional repetition of the event which brings peace. Having the whole community come together in killing a victim has worked to bring peace in the past, so it is ‘religiously’ repeated. Ritual human sacrifice is born. And it is the mechanism which saves human community from imploding on its mimetic violence, so it continues to gain in religious importance. It is the one essential thing to maintain the community. (Echoes millennia later during a pandemic: ‘The noble sacrifice of our essential workers will save our way of life.’) Girard writes,

There is no difficulty in explaining why ritual is repeated. Driven by sacred terror and wishing to continue life under the sign of the reconciliatory victim, men attempt to reproduce and represent this sign; this attempt consists first of all in the search for victims who seem capable of bringing about the primordial epiphany, and it is there that we find the first signifying activity that can always be defined, if one insists, in terms of language or writing. The moment arrives when the original victim, rather than being signified by new victims, will be signified by something other than a victim, by a variety of things that continue to signify the victim while at the same time progressively masking, disguising, and failing to recognize it. (Things Hidden, 103)

Over millennia there’s endless substitutions so that animals take on the aura of the sacred, too, and the substitutionary and increasingly elaborate language of ritual grows into language with signs (totems) and utterances. Eventually, myths are told to tell the stories of the sacrifices to the gods. And it is all dualistic in structure. In a section on the birth of language in Things Hidden, Girard writes,

Because of the victim, in so far as it seems to emerge from the community and the community seems to emerge from it, for the first time there can be something like an inside and an outside, a before and after, a community and the sacred. We have already noted that the victim appears to be simultaneously good and evil, peaceable and violent, a life that brings death and a death that guarantees life. Every possible significant element seems to have its outline in the sacred and at the same time to be transcended by it. In this sense the victim does seem to constitute a universal signifier. (Things Hidden, 102)

Is it any wonder, then, that after millennia of evolving in dualistic thinking which is religiously formed, it is so difficult for us to think in terms of true Oneness? Ever since our origins as a species our experience has been that the gods have taught us, commanded us, to think dualistically and to so order our communities and cultures. When the Human One comes along and prays, “May they be one as we are one,” it is not necessarily jolting yet. Our gods have always given Us oneness . . . a blessed unity that we maintain against Them. In short, a false dualistic oneness.

But what happens next after Jesus’s prayer makes all the difference in the world. The Human One lets himself be victim to our sacrifice and then is raised with the a message of forgiveness, not vengeance. He lets himself be pushed out as an outsider, one of Them, to begin breaking down the barriers of Us and Them. His Father and the Spirit of Truth represent a Oneness that transcends the dualisms. There is no longer Us and Them. There is only Us. This is a brand new Oneness. A wholly different God. Believing in this God will appear to be atheism.

I have found that dualistic thinking is so entrenched that I will not be able to gradually undo it in my heart without new practices. One such practice is contemplative prayer. I studied the mystics and have been reading those who teach their way, like Richard Rohr. I could begin to understand with my head this new Oneness. But it only becomes a matter of the heart, the whole person, as one practices contemplation that seeks to unhook oneself from dualistic thinking, opening the heart to a new oneness. Read folks like Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Martin Laird. Find a Spiritual Director for guidance. This is nothing less than a prayer practice of Oneness that seeks to undo a hundred thousand years of evolution and live into a new way of being human. (Note that these practices are also happening in “religionless” ways such as “mindfulness”; cf., ABC news anchor Dan Harris‘s 10% Happier and the many works of Dr. Daniel Siegel, e.g., Mindsight.)

Another essential practice is advocacy and care for the most vulnerable. Sacrificial (dualistic) thinking elevates those in the center and sacrifices those on the margins. Caring for the least of Jesus’s family is another practice for breaking through the dualistic, sacrificial thinking. Martin Luther King, Jr. became most dangerous when he opposed the ultimate sacrificial thinking of militarism and launched a Poor People’s Campaign. His mantra succinctly expresses the new logic of Oneness that transcends the old us-against-them oneness: “I’m not free until everyone is free. I don’t have enough until everyone has enough.” Etc. In short, the practice of caring for the least is the surest way to make certain no one is sacrificed. William Barber II (Poor People’s Campaign and the forthcoming We Are Called to Be a Movement) has stepped forward to revive the work of King for our moment in time.

I have found that the latter practice — advocacy and care for the most vulnerable — has required that I learn more about the major issues of our time — the climate change crisis, economic justice, the rise of authoritarianism, structural racism — from the best experts (Girardian in some fields), journalistic researchers, and theologians. Here are my favorites:

This summer all of these issues could come colliding together under the umbrella of a pandemic (and major hurricanes?). The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis ex-police officers has ignited the rage once again from four hundred years of systemic racism in North America. It is time for truth-telling and for the one thing required of us as human being, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We stand at another crossroads of human history with the challenges and suffering wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Will we respond in fear such that the forces of sacrificial thinking further divides us in deadly ways? Or will we respond in love with a decisive step forward to a new Oneness that heals and transcends the divisions of Us-Them? Let’s journey together into a more faithful discipleship to the Human One.

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