Transcribed from a webinar hosted on May 28th, 2019.
Kris Rocke: Welcome to our webinar today made possible, as most of you know, through the Preaching Piece grant that we received from the Lily Endowment last year. That grant is made possible for us to gather together like this and explore the question of how to preach and teach peace in our cities. So we put together a Thought Leader Webinar Series and we’ve had a couple of them to get this off and running. Today we have the pleasure of hearing from James Alison who is joining us from Bogotá, Colombia. Thank you and we want to hear a little bit more in a second but thanks for joining us.
Joel Aguilar and I are going to be co-facilitating this and here is what I think we are going to do. We’ll be asking James some questions on the front end with the hope that on the back end we will have a lot of room for conversation animated by your questions. Folks from all over the globe are going to dial in here and ask questions. For that to happen, one way that would probably help is if you put the questions on the chat as you think of them and Joel will be able to monitor those and then he’ll facilitate a conversation from those questions.
James, we’ve known you for a long time and you have become like an unofficial theological advisor to our network and have been for some time. Your work with Rene Girard and the hermeneutic on how to read Scripture through the eyes of the Forgiving Victim has been a rich resource for us. There are so many things that I think we can say about you and what you’ve done and we’ve sent people bios but instead of going through that, I’d really like to highlight the fact that this conversation feels much more to me and I hope for everybody as a conversation among friends. As is the case when you are with friends, there’s freedom in friendship to go and not to go to some places. I hope that you feel that and that that is the space that the Spirit carves out for us.
However, we do want to dive in to some of your work and see if we can tease out some of the implications for what we do. As a reminder of what we do, we help develop incarnational leaders to love their cities and seek their peace with the Gospel. We form and shape leaders in light of the incarnation. We do this in all these different contexts and all these different locations with all of the different streams of faith that form and shape us. We have a deep conviction that the healing of the most vulnerable communities cannot happen from one stream alone, it takes all of us. It’s with that that we come into this conversation together. What we want to look at is your hermeneutic and your way of interpreting Scripture that you have been developing. It’s obviously deeply informed by the work of Rene Girard and that is what we kind of want to get into, understand, and see how it might impact us. Joel and I are going to ask some questions and right now I’m going to turn it to Joel with the first question.
Thank you so much James for taking the time and I hope that we are able to gain as much as we can from your experience and the way you have shaped this community. Some of the things that happen in the communities where we happen to get to know each other about the work that we do and it is through those connections and experiences that we see we are not alone in the work that we do. So would you mind giving us a little bit of what you do, a glimpse of your work now, where you are, and what you are teaching these days?
At the moment, I am in Bogotá, Colombia and I’m teaching a course for prescribed students at Javeriana University in Bogotá. It is a reading course where we read about evolution and conversion and we’ve made a good translation into Spanish using that text in a PDF. It is a very rich conversation as we read a chapter a day in the reading seminar. It has been a very good occasion and lots and lots of good discussion has come up.
That’s great, that’s great. I am excited to be reading it in Spanish very soon.
Yes, that will be soon. Precisely tomorrow afternoon I am having publishing meetings with publishers.
That is great! That is excellent news for those of us here in Latin America! Since you are involved in those things, I am quite interested in knowing a little bit of you as an individual and I know that many of us are because we have seen a little bit of your theological pilgrimage in your writings. I’m very interested to see how your spiritual traditions have shaped your life and how they have become resources for you as you teach and preach the Gospel. You were baptized by John Stott but now you are a Catholic priest, so how have these two traditions been life-giving for you?
As you mentioned, I was baptized by John Stott, as some of you have heard of, he’s kind of like the pope of evangelical Anglicanism to a certain generation. So much so that all of the Evangelical preachers of my father’s generation, my father was a direct mentee of John’s, they all picked up John Stotts way of talking due to his ticks. That was my father’s tradition and that was the tradition I was brought up in. Not a safe place to be but it was a safe tradition to be in. In demand for a certain regard and straightforwardness, I hope that I am still fond of that despite all of the disruption and corruption of the Catholic Church. There are different foci of grace there but then I also had the privilege of being educated by the Dominicans and students of St. Thomas Aquinas who are wonderful teachers there amongst the Dominicans. So I think that a mixture of those two have been very important.
My father was a wonderful storyteller and I think that one of the things that I learned was that storytelling is the best way to communicate to people rather than giving lashings of theory. If you can tell stories, you can get things across to people. That’s one of the things that saddens me about Clerical formation for Catholics or pastoral formation for Protestants due to the incapability of teaching how to tell stories. It’s learning to teach people how to be good narrators rather than good explanators. One thing that we can learn from Jesus is that he was a good narrator. That is how you help people find their way into stories and that is what makes the difference. Through listening, they are being taken into the inside of something without realizing that they are caught up in it. So suddenly they say, “Oh my God, I know what you’ve done!” So those three have been very very important.
Thanks James. That’s a great segue into what we want to do next and take a look at your method and how you get on the inside of this story which has so deeply shaped and formed us. I think a number of us have read some of your work but let’s not assume that everyone has so this might be an introduction to some. In your book called the Forgiving Victim, the center of your whole project and the beginning of what you have been doing, we can ask questions like how can we get inside this text or how we find ourselves on the inside of these texts? I was shocked when you described your hermeneutic in the Forgiving Victim as you uncovered a lot of questions. One question that we are normally taught to ask ourselves while reading the text, is what does the text actually say? But then you offer another question which is going to let us get into it and reflect on the differences between the two questions; what does the text say and through whose eyes are we reading the text? Can you reflect on that a little bit and then we can maybe take a look on the passage of the Emmaus Road in light of that question?
Can I stand outside that question for a brief moment and make a point about God and why we think of God as Trinity? What do we mean when we say the Trinity? I say we mean God and His criteria for God who is also God. When we say God’s criteria for God, that’s what is meant by the Logos. When Jesus says “No one comes to the father but through me”, which basically means that He is explaining the criteria for God through Himself. He is saying I am the criteria for God so we have God and then we have God’s criteria for God but remember, we are still perfectly capable of taking any human object and taking it into idolatry. There’s also God’s interpretation of God’s criteria which is God and that is what the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit is God’s interpretation of God’s criteria which is God.
That is the difference between asking what does the Bible say and asking through whose eyes do you read the Bible? We are asking God to take us into the inside of God’s criteria rather than allowing the text to remain an object. If you say that God has given us the text, it is now our job to interpret it. I would say that you can’t have that because then you can make it into whatever you want to say and use it for whatever current political or social issue you want thereby transforming it into an idol. The real question is how do you allow yourself to undergo the interpretation from the criteria? How do you get on Jesus’s take of what he was doing and what is given to us by the Holy Spirit? I think that is the central question because we are all taught to read by who is other than us, any of us who comes to the text thinking (inaudible). In fact, we are usually running off of the software of the pastors who taught this to our parents fifty years ago. Many of us are perfectly happy to allow that old software to run on us If we’re going to be sheep who “hear my voice and know them” then it will always be a question to allow ourselves to try and listen to the one who is himself reading that text for us and into us.
It was a shock to me when I approached the text to discover this awareness that I have a set of lenses that have been so deeply formed in me which I am unaware that I even have a lens or a way of interpreting scripture. I really did, in my best moments, really hoped that I was coming to the text with an honest open question of, “Yeah, tell me what the text says, I really want to know what the text says!” What you are urging us to do is to notice how we adopt the lenses along the way, some of which we have used for so long that we don’t even know that we have them anymore. Then, of course, comes the hermeneutic called the Forgiving Victim where you use some interesting language. You refer to the Emmaus Road story, which we will take a look at here, and quote it as something more than just the story but a “paradigm or model of interpretation. The structure of how the New Testament operates is that it brings alive the same old story but from underneath and it is this the fulfillment of Scripture.”
If you could explore that and so much of what you have done and the rest of your books rest on this basic insight that there is a set of eyes that opens up the story of where we find ourselves in the inside of it. You call it the Forgiving Victim but it is a paradigm, a model of interpretation for you. Say something about that and then bring us into the Text.
One of the points that I try to make in relation to the Emaus text, is that it is very sophisticated. Luke knew exactly what he was doing. It is clearly set up in order to bring out the wrong interpreter. It is a text about interpretation. One of the ways that I try to bring that out is, again, I think one of the privileges we have now living in the post-holocaust world where we’ve been forced to …(inaudible) of our texts which for centuries was forgotten. We are also forced to look at all of the underlying Semitic references in the New Testament texts which are all there and are hidden from us. In part, by our ignorance of the Hebrew texts or the ancient Greek texts of the Septuagint but also in part of our ignorance that we should be looking for something like this.
So here we have the two disciples going to the village called Emaus about seven miles from Jerusalem. No one knows where exactly this Emaus is. If you go to the Holy Land now, there are at least four claimants for being the real Emaus which ironically ask the question as to where do we build our authentic theme park. So they are talking with each other about all things that were happening and while they were talking, and the word for talking is homilein where we get the word “homily.” Jesus himself drew near to them, a third person. However, their eyes were kept from recognizing him and were unable to see who he is. Please note that these disciples were two of the seventy, or at least one of them who went along with Jesus. The conversation between the two disciples seems to be a friendly chat but in fact, in Spanish it is called “una discusión” , which does not mean a discussion in English but in fact something like a shouting match. In other words, they are bantering ideas off of each other and can be, at least a phrase that I use, is “two Jews but three opinions.’
So Jesus asks them, “What is this high tension discussion that you are holding with each other?” It then says that they then stood still looking sad, or skuthropoi. This word literally means with downcast vision or mean and it is a relatively rare word for us as we do not say that in the English language. It is not a frequent phrase but it is a phrase that appears in the Septuagint and this place is in the Joseph story. You remember the story in Genesis when Joseph is sent to prison for the alleged assault on Potiphar’s wife. While in prison, Joseph meets the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and his baker who have dreams that they can’t interpret. So they are standing there, talking about each other’s dreams and Joseph comes upon them and says to them, “Why are you standing there looking sad, skuthropoi. They say to him, “We have had these dreams and we cannot understand what they mean.” Joseph replies saying, “I understand all dreams from God” and then he interprets the dream to them.
In other words, Luke has introduced into the text a little flashing light that alerts, interpretation story coming up! That is what it is all about! The real interpreter, which is God, is about to appear. He wants us to understand and wants us to understand that that’s what is being structured here. So then Cleopas answers Him, “Are you the only resident alien?”, which is what a paroikos is where we get the word parish from which has become a more domesticated term nowadays, but paroikos was a stranger or in lovely old English, the language of the King James version of the Bible, a sojourner.
But more to the point, for those of us more used to modern migration problems, someone who is here but not from here. This is very interesting because the first thing that Cleopas has picked up about this person who has drawn near is that he is not one of us. This is tremendously important. He is hearing a voice, an accent, as well as the question which suggests to him that you who cannot be relied upon to understand what is going on because you are not from here. I want to say that this is the first thing about the interpreter that is an important key to interpreting the text. One of the first “tones” of Jesus’ interpretation is that his voice is likely to sound as though it is someone who doesn’t get it. The sort of person whose perception we would likely dismiss because they are not from “here” and not one of us. I think that this is a hugely important moment realizing that.
So Cleopas is slightly condescending to this because “Jesus” hasn’t been to Jerusalem and doesn’t know what is happening these days when he asks, “What things?” I don’t think he is playing dumb but he knows perfectly well that when it comes to these interpretations, when it comes to our interpretations, we’ve got to try to stop interpreting for ourselves until we’ve become aware that we’ve run off the line and realize we are not able to do it. Because it’s only when we start to be able to get things out that he can come in and put them all together from the inside. Put all those muddled lines together from the inside.
Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, “there was a prophet mighty in deed royal before God and all the people. Now our chief priest ruled him tobe condemned and then crucified him.” So you have a couple of lines of interpretation there; the prophet, the condemnation by the people who should perhaps have backed him up, and his death. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel and around the …. (inaudible). That was an important interpretation at the time. The notion that the Messiah would come and would recreate the tribes and bring back the temple. That was the real temple for the first time but that was very much part of the messianic expectation. So when this thing happened we hoped he was huntering Israel. We hoped that that was the set of interpretations that we were expecting to be fulfilled and he did after naming the twelve.
After three days had gone by, some women of our company had amazed us, people who were not reliable witnesses, they were there at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body. They came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. In other words, they needed the guys to go and sort it out and see if there were any truth to this because of course only guys could be real witnesses at the time. The witness of a woman was not considered valid. The men found the tomb just as the woman had said, but him they did not see. In other words, here we have at least five different lines of interpretation and we cannot put them together! He says to them, “Oh foolish men of slow of heart, to believe all of the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into His glory?”
Beginning with Moses and all of the prophets, He began to interpret to them, and all of the Scriptures, the things concerning himself. …. The Greek word here is where we get the word hermeneutic from. In other words, Jesus became their living interpretive principle of all scriptures. He starts by saying, “Isn’t it necessary for the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” He is not talking about necessity in some Greek fatality but in the way in which something has happened that we can see that it was always meant to be that way. We say, of course it has. Of course it always has. In other words, what He is proposing is a unitry interpretation that puts everything together and makes all of the things that for them had been disjointed so that they could see that it had to be like that. What you are getting on that stage is a third person talking about a third person. It’s a bloke talking about the Christ or it’s a him talking about him, a him, and another him.
They then draw near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, which is a good Lukan hint that Yahweh is at work because He is further passing beyond and they’re having to bring Him back. They urged him to stay with them for the evening, so he went and stayed with them, took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.
So here, Is the first moment where Jesus Is doing something that makes Him familiar to them. Please notice that nothing, such as the sound of his voice, the shape of his face, the clothes he was wearing, and anything that you would normally recognize, has given a hint. The first sign of who they were dealing with is when He takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it. This is something that is recognizable as something Jesus had previously done. In other words, it was in the moment when he was becoming their host rather than their guest when they began to see that, in fact, He had been running the story all along. Their eyes were then opened and they recognized him and he vanished out of their sight.
This all happens at once in this moment! It literally is in that moment that they perceive that He was the protagonist, the host, who had been shaping them all along whereas they thought that they were the ones who knew what was going on. But finally, it wasn’t a “HE” who had been talking to them at all. It was “I AM” and the actual moment of the “I AM” there is not an actual person there because “I AM” cannot be grasped or assigned. They are suddenly aware that they had been in the presence of a theophany. “I AM” has told them how all this came together They have been spoken to the one who had been running it the whole time. There’s a complete flip about in the position of somewhat “important” people who thought they knew what was going on. The realization that it was a stranger who had given a unitry account of things and it was not only a unity accounts of things, but it was a first person account of things. “I AM” have done this! The disciples then talk amongst themselves saying, “Now didn’t our hearts burn within ourselves when He began to speak about the Scriptures!” In other words, at last they are able to speak together, singing choir and not shouting at each other. So they then arose and returned it to Jerusalem, found the eleven, and gathered together.
In other words, the key paradigm of Christian interpretation is this. Moving from people who we are having hard discussions with into being in a place where we find Jesus interpreting himself to us until we suddenly reach the point when it is not we who are hosting him but it is He who are hosting us. We are discovering that is is Him telling us who we are by telling us what He’s doing for us and this completely changes our way of being with each other. That involves us being taken into God’s criteria and being called the risen victim, the victim who is forgiving. The story He is telling them is not a vengeful one but it was necessary. These things had to happen and this was how it was all set out. This is a good story! This is not a story about how you need to kill the Hitler bastards who did this to me but this is a story of things that needed to be done and now it is done! So then where are you going to take it? Does that make sense?
That’s awesome. Thanks for re-narrating that. In other places, you have made a big deal about the “intelligence of the victim.” Who is the one in Scripture who has the authority in to interpret it? Here in this text, you describe Jesus as not just Jesus who has risen from the dead but a particular way of being risen from the dead. The crucified risen, or as you call it the “forgiving victim.” Why is that the Rosetta Stone or the key that unlocks the way we read scripture? What is different about reading scripture through the eyes of a “forgiving victim” or through the intelligence of a “forgiving victim” that is different from reading Scripture all of the other ways that maybe we’ve been taught?
I guess, it is a permanent challenge for us because it means that there is no safe outside place from which, with expertise and academic clunt, one can become a particular authorized reader. It means, it’s only those of us who have the privilege of finding ourselves to be unforgiven who are undergoing this process. To think that I was caught up in that and I need no longer be. I’m finding that the people or the person who might have had it in for me, and had good reason to, wanted to take vengeance, hasn’t and actually want to be my friend. That’s the kind of experience (inaudible)…
While James is trying to come back on, Joel, are there any other questions that you are monitoring that might be particularly helpful here since I am unable to see them?
If I am buying this, I get it and it intuitively makes sense to me and of course you are talking to a network that really gets this is pivotal. We call it “doing theology from below” by reading Scripture through the eyes of the ones who have been labeled as the least, last, and the lost or those at the margins. There is something that comes alive when our hermeneutic is the communities that we serve are so what you are saying is so deeply aligned with our own experiences on the streets in the communities that we serve. There is an intelligence of the victims that we serve that we have all seen and have all experienced. There is a wisdom of that to pay attention that for us, in a nutshell, is “theology from below”. Not for those or to those who are labeled as the least but with the communities that we love and serve.
Jesus then comes, our living interpreter and living hermeneutic, and it is not just any old Jesus, but it is the forgiving victim Jesus who has the authority. We then start reading Scripture through the eyes of that Jesus, the forgiving victim Jesus. Then all of a sudden you go back into the text that Jesus grew up with, which are the ones that He unveiled to Cleopas. All of these ancient and beautiful texts, some of which are not so beautiful and some of which have God in a very compromising location. Some of them are terrible and frightening and all of a sudden there is a bit of a conundrum where we say, “Wait a minute!” You say Jesus is the forgiving victim and that God is not all that bad but then you have some serious explaining to do because if a handful of these texts are not all that mad, then I don’t know what qualifies God being mad!
How do you now reconcile this new hermeneutic and how does that allow us to go back into and make sense of the text that has been so terrifying and in some cases that you well know of are terrifying for some people to this day? Some people practically rip out pages in the text because it just does not match our experience with who God is today but we know they are in there for a reason. What do we do? How does this hermeneutic affect this conundrum that we face?
Right, well I think that it is when you see what Jesus is doing in entering into that victim space and moving into a group of people who are going to kill him and they are thinking that it’s right to kill him and that they are serving God by doing so. So I’m moving into that space, into the space of shame. I’m defining a mechanism, which goes by the power of the prince of this world. Or you can think of it as ways in which it is referred in the New Testament once you see that you can see the same mechanism at work in various texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. I use one in the forgiving victim book which is the stoning of Achan. You can say okay, so what does it look like if you put these two together? It looks like that Jesus is in the place of Achan not in the place of Joshua or the Lord who sets up this lottery to find the guilty one. You can see what it means then when he shows the disciples all things in Scripture concerning himself.
It is a very, very slow process in which humans move from the world of Mythology, which we see represented in Greek, and in which these lynchings occur. These are contributed to by the gods and are actually very unclear of what is happening. Of course, in the account, the crowd is always a spectator and is never responsible but is always conducted by these semi divine, anthropormphorfic figures, such as the sphinx’s and lions come into play. What you get in the Hebrew Scriptures is becoming ever clearer of what is going on and what is going on is a lynch!
So you get these texts, which become nastier the closer you get to the truth and that is one of the things that we want to understand about the Hebrew scriptures. We think the Hebrew Scriptures are very difficult and nasty whereas the Greek myths are much nicer but in reality they’re not much nicer but are much more self deceptive! They allow us to fail ourselves saying that nothing much is our own responsibility and it is all organized by the people so what are we able to do ourselves? The Hebrew text is the story of how what is really going on in any of our crowd movements becomes closer and closer to being absolutely visible. Even in many of those nasty texts, you can see little hints from the Hebrew editors that they know that there’s something not quite right going on.
Then we get the ultimate nastiness when the whole thing is actually saying that this is a murder. That is what the passion is about, it’s the build up to a murder! This is the secret heart of all these other stories and this secret heart is now going to be narrated by the person who underwent it so that we would never have to go through it once again. You would have never gotten to the secret heart if you were stuck in these other Greek stories of gods, demons and all sorts of things like that. You would have never thought of how nice it was to have Zeus thinking it would be fun to have a pretty boy called Ganymedes as his cupbearer and change him it into a form of an eagle plucking him up into Olympus and be his cupbearer. How sweet right! This is clearly veracious child abuse but that is not how the myth describes it!
This helps us tell a truth that we could not have told ourselves before.
We couldn’t tell it ourselves because we couldn’t bear our complicity!
Because we would be complicit in the thing that is being revealed that we participated in the murder. This is not God asking us in some way to participate but we are asking God to participate in our murder. Does that make sense?
Yes we have, to a certain extent, according to the story that we have typically told is how we were right and just and had to do something and we are backed up by God for it. We are on the brink when God occupies the place where it has been done and tells us that this is what you do and I don’t hold it against you. Anyone who sees what is going on can now be set free! Now let’s see if you can play out the game, if you can find a way to somehow come together that doesn’t require stoning someone or the equivalent. In other words, what is central to all of these stories is the mechanism that is being revealed.
The forgiving victim has a living hermeneutical principle that relocates God in places that we never thought imaginable but at the same time it resonates with our own intuition.
A question, asked by Lina, which can possibly clarify some of this is. Lina asks, “Is there a distinction difference or sameness between reading through the eyes of the forgiving victim and resurrected Christ?”
Of course it is the same. The Forgiving Victim is the resurrected Christ. However, here is the key point which is something that is difficult to explain. The resurrected Christ is dead. Jesus is not someone who got better on Easter Sunday. What is risen is the self-giving life of a dead man who is no longer bound by death. That is the key point. The image, in the book of Revelation, is the lamb standing as the one slain. He is the one who takes the book and is able to open the seals in the book of Revelation. That is one of the things that we easily forget. It is easy for us to remember that is the Risen Jesus who is talking to the disciples but it is much less easier to remember He is a risen dead man who is talking to His disciples, not a risen man who had a rough Friday but got better on Sunday. This is a man who is a risen man who died on Friday and it is the whole of His life that is given back as an interpretive principle. The giving back of the whole of his life as an interpretive principle is what it means that He is the Christ. The Forgiving Victim is the one who is able to offer us His death as the source of our life. Does that answer the question Lina? Yes they are the same.
One question that came to my mind as you were sharing James was, specifically now that you’ve shared that Jesus was not just a man who got better on Sunday but he is a dead man who is risen. How does this type of hermeneutic transgress the boundaries of decency and purity that bound us so tightly? Specifically in some of our Evangelical traditions, how can that help us also bring down some of those idols that you mentioned at the beginning of our call?
Well, I think that in Biblical terms, the key moment for that is when Peter discovers that the same betrayal that he made of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest, when he denies Jesus three times and then the cock crowed, that same betrayal was what was at stake when he refused the dream of eating the forbidden meats or forbidden flesh in Acts 10. In this dream, the sheath is let down and all the kosha and non-kosha beasties are in there and the voice says, “Take and eat.” Peter says far be it for me to eat anything that is impure and unclean but then God says “Do not call impure and unclean what I have called pure and clean.” This happens three times and he is perplexed by it but then we see again what a genius Luke. A voice calls from outside and the verb in Greek is exactly the same as the crowing of the cock, however, in verse ten, it is not a cock but it is the Centurion messengers of Cornelius who he sent from Joppa. He goes with them and he realizes that it is the same thing to be frightened of extending your hand to the one who is in the place of shame as it is to keep kosher.
In other words, keeping kosher is another way of protecting a fake goodness over and against someone. Peter is very perplexed when he goes to the house of these Gentiles but by the time he gets there he becomes more aware that God was not talking about food but of humans. Therefore, God has shown him not to call any person impure or unclean and God has no partiality. Peter then speaks to them about Jesus in a way that you would expect him to speak as any good Jewish preacher but while he is doing this, the Holy Spirit comes upon all of them and to their astonishment, him and his companions become aware that these people (the Gentiles) are insiders in the same way (inaudible). In other words, the gap between pure and impure has been abolished.
Now, they’re going to have to work out what their identity is without special insiders and outsiders. The people who think they get it right by God because they follow a certain set of rules are now going to have to work together to figure out what it means to be human together because God has no partiality. That’s the move from realizing that Jesus, this dangerous person, has become part of this and cannot be touched to something. He makes Himself present to all and therefore the distinctions collapse.
I think it must have been very very shocking for Peter, or even us in many ways, to have our goodness undone. That is, in a sense, of what basic Protestant preaching should be and the fact that we are justified by faith. This means that we do not have to hold on to our goodness but practicing it is very difficult to let go of the need to be good. Whereas whata Jesus is offering us is the chance of being loved as we are and that is very difficult to allow because that means we can’t find ourselves to be accepted, liked, and all of the messy and mucky parts that we think we should be. It shouldn’t be that we have to look down on others but understand that we are all alike and Jesus calls us to get along with each other! Allow grace to turn you into sisters and brothers.
To me, it is a scary thing and for others as well, but for those of us who have really worked hard on goodness, even if it is fake goodness, or the kind of faith that gets us into more trouble that gets us out of, it is still a way of being that makes sense. Again, if I’m hearing you right, the Forgiving Victim comes and shines a light on the fake goodness and says not only is it not good but it is getting you into a lot of trouble. However, I’m not mad at you, I get it but I would like to show you another way. You talk a lot about how to be this “other way” and about being formed in the other way through a process of induction that we are all inducted into over time. Could you say something about faith as a process of induction, where that comes from for you, and why is that such an important notion of all of this?
Because it puts the work where the work is into the hands of the one who is doing it. In other words, faith is something that is produced in us by someone else who is doing something. It is because Jesus has gone to his death in the way that He has that we are being nudged into trusting that God is bigger than death.Therefore, we do not need to be afraid but we can relax about trying to fool God into liking us and saving us and that is the key thing. It is someone else doing something for us. Faith in us is the fruit of someone else’s work. It is our being convinced, literally the word in Greek means persuasion, that we say it is someone else that has persuaded me of something.
In other words, someone else produces in me a disposition to believe them and trust them and therefore, relax. I always say to people who think that faith is making a moonshot to a perhaps existing moon and if you don’t make the moonshot you go to hell believing that only if you believe you will be saved. In other words, that is the demand for a work as if faith was something self started. When we say that faith is a gift, it doesn’t mean that something was just plopped on us but that someone creates a disposition in us in order to trust them overtime. We know that they are there and that they like us. The process of being inducted into that usually means that we are being dragged through our rough spots where we don’t want people to see or know about so that we can relax about them. Stop giving other people shit because we can’t face up to our own selves. So that is what I believe I mean by the process of induction. It is someone else doing something to us and for us over time which is actually turning us into someone different but that someone is able to relax.
A Question from Nesto:
Joel Aguilar- I think that this resonates a lot of the context where we come from especially the global South.
Question (From Nestor from Manila):
I am just wondering of how could we make sense of the forgiving victim in the light of the life of this historical Jesus who was so assertive, victorious, and hateful of victimization and try to teach others how to rise up against their victimization and rebuke those who have the habit of victimizing the other? The vfictim Jesus paradigm started when he entered into Jerusalem and He was even assertive and undaunted when he was about to enter the city. A person like me who has seen the victimization in my context and has seen it’s degrading and dehumanizing level, the assertive Jesus is more appealing and the forgiving victim is the one embraced by my oppressors to perpetuate my victimization.
I generally wonder about that myself. The order of events are cited differently in each of the Gospels but in John’s Gospel, the first sign is the marriage at Cana. We didn’t notice this until comparitively recently. This was something that was made available by the fragments of Qumran. It showed how important Melchizedek was and the awareness of the Messiah who was coming. The prophet, priest, and king who was coming was Melchizedek and Melchizedek’s two gifts were bread and wine. So the first sign is the wine and later we get the bread. Both of these are signs that this is the real Messiah. You get references to that, as you know, both in the Epistle of the Hebrews, which understands the whole of Jesus’s trajectory as having been that of Melchizedek’s coming in, and in the famous hymn in Philippians that says do not count God’s equality to be grasped and so on to the name above all other names. That is a description of the priestly right of receiving the name. The whole passion that we are talking about here is that Jesus is not presenting Himself as the victim because that is our language. Jesus is presenting himself as doing something which he is going through. The whole purpose of this is to detoxify the sphere of victimhood so that we are no longer run by it. But even those of us who are being generally victimized can no longer treat ourselves as victims or even as survivors, but as people who have been able to take part in for the joy that was set before Him. He despised the cross and ignored the shame, but he underwent the cross and ignored the shame and sat down at the right hand of God for the joy that was set before Him. So I think that is what the key phrase is.
But yes, in our cases it’s as we have undergone that which we are able to take part of being assertive and victorious. Why? Because we are no longer engaging in our own assertiveness which is usually a form of our own vengeance. We are able to speak the truth not out of vengeance and run the risk because we don’t care and we don’t think of ourselves as victims anymore. I think that for me, that is the real root of what Jesus was able to do for us and even made possible for us to do afterwards.
I entirely understand that it is not a question of saying that “I must be like Jesus the victim” but Jesus did this for us so that we could get out of this victim shit and no longer have our identities run by victims. We can recognize these terrible things that have been done to us and we can agree no longer hate our persecutors. We can agree to love our enemies, which doesn’t mean they can walk all over us, but it means we’re no longer allowing them to occupy free rental space in our head and running towards them people who are as God is not run by them. So to me, that seems to be the absolute key sense of this.
In England, when I gave this course, it was originally called The Forgiving Victim but then when I gave it in the United States, so many people thought that it was a demand that people needed to become victims for Jesus’ sake! We had to say no, it is Jesus who is the Forgiving Victim. It is someone (Jesus) who is doing something for you so that you don’t have to live in that shit any longer and no longer need to be run by it.
For me, this is one of the deepest moments of conversion which is something that the work of Girard, which has been made available to me. When I was able to let go of any sense of being a victim. By doing this, you find yourself able to say Jesus has set me free in that area, it is now detoxified, I am no longer run by that. It doesn’t matter what they do to me because they no longer run me. Whatever it is that my story is, it’s neither a story of being a victim or of surviving victimhood, but becoming a Son of God which is quite a different thing.
James, are you saying something about when that victimness within us is detoxified and when we undergo God’s forgiveness in the midst of this, that it frees us up to no longer be ruled and run by that but does it also say that if frees us up to seek justice, as opposed to seeking vengeance? Until that is worked out in us, the impulse to do something about all of this could very much come out in the form of vengeance as opposed to what I hear you describing is a freedom of actually “pursuing justice” which is a very assertive role.
Yes, absolutely. Remember, that the key to this is figuring out what Jesus is doing in all of this. He’s not just forgiving us of some moralistic issue but the word forgiveness basically means letting go. What He is trying to do is to have us created! That is the real excitement! God is the creator and Jesus is the creator God. Jesus is opening up the possibility for us actually to be created to become actually who we are supposed to be which is so much bigger than we can imagine.
The trouble for all of us everywhere is that our only access to being created is through forgiveness. That’s what the doctrine of original sin means. Your access to being created passes through the act of forgiveness.
So yes, we need to have the whole of our intelligence undone from the various forms of rivalry in which it is, so that it is actually able to become a loving heart for others in different situations in order for us to begin helping creation open up. That can be very delicate and it can be very assertive but there could be a whole set of different ways that people can go about this. One of the things that you can tell that it is NOT is by being reactive. Being created and being reactive I think are the two points of discernment. Am I engaged in creating something new or am I engaged in putting something right?
One of the litmus tests for me, and I don’t know if this rings true for you James, but when I am creative, there are no scapegoats. I am not producing the next scapegoat when I’m creative in the sense that you are describing. When I reactive, however, I’ll find a new scapegoat.
If you are reactive then it is someone’s fault. We all know how impossible we are during our adolescence, or whatever we call it, when we are constantly looking for someone else’s fault or our parent’s fault. A part of growing up is when you begun to realize that we are very much the same as each other because, shit happens. Now what would it be like to do it, as you say, in a non-reactive way? But this is not easy at all, as you know, in people who live in these very violent circumstances know perfectly well that sometimes it will cost you your life. That is what happens if you stand up for those who are in a place of shame. They will put you into the place of shame but only if you don’t mind that rather than secretly seeking your own canonization by that. It is generally only if you don’t mind that that you can get through it. One of the great risks for us all is the martyr complex, disguised as Christian witness. In other words, making myself holy by putting myself in a victim re-position. This indicates that the mechanism is still running me….
There are so many ways that you talk about how scapegoating is shifting and there are so many ways that we can disguise righteousness in that way, especially for those of us who are in the work of social justice and transformation and those who have witnessed so much injustice.
Can you say something about your own journey around some of this and how long it takes to be formed and shaped or inducted into a kind of peacemaking? It always seems to take longer than we’d like and there’s a good friend of ours named Father Steve Lantry, whom you’ve met and know, where he talks often about how long it takes to become fully human. For most of us, it takes a lifetime.
Can you say something about that and hold that up against the urgency of the injustice that we are seeing in our cities that is running loose like a wildfire? How do we deal with that up against the reality of how long it takes to become fully human and formed and shaped by peace and relaxed into this goodness knowing that we are ultimately liked while having to watch things burn? Can you speak to that tension because I know that we as a network often think about that.
Complicity. It is very difficult for anyone who has an urge for justice to start with complicity. It’s as I become more aware of this complicity, which takes a very long time, that the shape of injustice shifts and I can see more of what is going on because I see myself in the others who are as bad as I am and sometimes much less bad than I.
Then, in realizing complicity, you begin to get a sympathetic sense of who is doing wrong and why rather than simply a hateful sense of who is doing wrong and why. As you get a sympathetic sense of who is doing wrong and why, it becomes easier to talk about what the shape of something different might be because rather than accusing people, you are helping them get beyond it. An imagination that is not run by indignation without complicity. If you have indignation without complicity you are not offering a vision that anyone can join. You are offering a demand that people be good but we aren’t good, except in occasional small ways that surprise us and surprise other people. Grace does not expect us to be good but grace turns sinful people into witnesses of God’s delight over time by stretching our hearts into making us aware of how alike we are to other people we are instead of convincing us of how unlike we are to each other.
So for me, complicity is the first step. I’m only going to be liked by God when those who I think are very awful can be liked by God. That is frightening. It does not mean that certain things are not obviously wrong because they are obviously wrong. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t monsters around because there are monsters around. It doesn’t mean that certain things aren’t evil because there are definitely certain things that are evil. The question is, how do we offer an alternative imagination rather than simply ramping up the hype arund those things which just tightens the opposing sides. It is a very difficult thing. It doesn’t at all mean ignoring anything about us or becoming indifferent. It doesn’t mean the most difficult and terrible thing of seeing us and others as ourselves.
I’m glad that you brought up the notion of being liked by God and you’ve got a lot of great books that talk about that. I am on my third go around on many of your texts and that’s the one that I retreat too often about your own experience of being liked by God. Does anyone have one more question before we wrap this up?
A comment was made by Fred, from the Phillippines, about structures which most of it was answered through our discussions but I think it is important if you could just expand on both the structural part of things as well as his perception and some of the things that he commented on through the chat as we were discussing. He said, “What I’m hinting at is that our idea for forgiveness is perhaps human-centric and we usually view it in a vacuum. That is why my question is on the structures that perpetuate victimization.”
There’s no such thing as a non-institutional human. We are all institutional and we are all embedded in structures whether we want to or not however minimal those structures are. Yes, all structures and institutions are by definition sacrificial but they keep themselves together by casting people out by having definitions of who is in and who is out and so forth. In other words, this is not something that any of us stand outside of. We are always having to learn how to work out the collective ways in which we can together doing things that are in the reverse of what we think we are doing.
I think that that is the challenges of being churched. That church is all about undoing fake ways of being together and yet what we are much much better at producing is a new way of being together that separates us from other people. Being aware that we are all institutional and we are as likely to being Caiphas as we are all likely to being Jesus. The line between those two is that they have to be worked out together on a regular basis and I don’t think that there is any way beyond that because the only guarantee we have is that the Holy Spirit is teaching us how to interpret Jesus Christ according to God’s heart. That is an act of trust and we are going to screw up but screwing up is not ultimately a problem. There’s a great quote from St. Augustine who says that, “God demands penitence not innocence.” That is very important. In other words, make mistakes and pick yourselves up! Whatever you do, don’t avoid making mistakes! If you avoid making mistakes, then you will really screw up and you won’t be able to be sorry for it!
Thank you so much for all of this and I want to leave you an opportunity to say something about where you are seeing some signs of hope whether it be in your life, in the world, in the church, or wherever you want to go with that. This is a community that is, on a regular basis, accustomed to seeing a lot of really difficult things and yes, there are occasional signs of hope, which is why we’re gathering together and is in itself a sign of hope for us to be gathered like this having you here. But what are you excited about and what, in your heart, are you celebrating these days?
On a personal note, some of you know that I am an openingly gay Catholic priest. Gay Catholic priests are more common but openly gay Catholic priests are very few and far between and this has created a living place of shunning for quite a long time. I am delighted to say that it is beginning to open up and I’ve been finding signs all over the place when I go talk to groups and see how confident they are now and how so many of them are able to get over the very deep pains that are caused by things such as conversion therapy where people have sent them to camps to knock manliness into them or whatever. I’m amazed at how well and how well they are and how confidently they’re starting to stand up and believe that they must not be run down by resentment but create a community for other people to become mustard bushes for the birds in grown-up ways. If the others think it is rabush we just keep on doing it! So I am just so pleased with how honesty is being able to flourish in all sorts of unexpected places but we also have a very long way to go. I’m just very joyful with all the signs I am seeing all over the place.