Wars and Rumors of Wars

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said,"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."
Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

The passage quoted above comes from Luke chapter 21, verses 5 through 21, and it was the Gospel reading that I heard on Sunday.  It comes at the end of Luke's Gospel, right before Jesus goes to His death.  This is fitting, as yesterday was the next-to-last Sunday in the Western church calendar, so we are in a sense wrapping up the story.

What is interesting to me about this reading is that it has, in a sense, two different parts.  The first part, which I split off with a paragraph break, is part and parcel with Jesus's effort to desacrilize the world.  See, deep down, what all of us want more than anything else is to be protagonists of a grand story.  We want some clear narrative that explains everything, that provides meaning to everything and guarantees our place in this grand story.  To piece together that story, we invest the world around us with meaning and importance--we sacrilize it, to use Girardian terms.  What we are doing, in a sense, is to make true Shakespeare's famous line--"all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. . . ."  We turn people and events into props in a play that is ultimately about us.  In doing so, we invest all of these things with power and fascination.

James Alison talks about this is a brilliant essay discussing the September 11th tragedy.  He talks about the reactions people had to 9/11:

 And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides. . . . 

And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy's roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like "to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities' and politicians' sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter." And beneath the militant goodness, suddenly permission to sack people, to leak out bad news and so on, things which could take advantage of the unanimity to avoid reasoned negotiation.

And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.

We may not admit it to ourselves, but deep down we want to be caught up in a tragedy, because it gives our stories and our lives meaning.  But that meaning is, ultimately, a false meaning.  It's not the life has no meaning, but it doesn't have this meaning.  This is not real transcendence, but something that we create and project onto what we think is a transcendent tapestry. This fake narrative, as Alison points out, ends up becoming a cover and justification for all sorts of counter-productive or even wicked actions.  "These are important times," we tell ourselves.  "We can't be worried about [fill in the blank] when the armies of history are on the march."

Jesus is giving us hard but necessary medicine here---this meaning you think you are seeing comes from you, not from God and not from Me.  There is a story here, but it is not your story.  You are not a special snowflake.  All the world is not a stage, and the events and people around you are not bit players in your high drama.  Get over yourself, and don't allow ourselves to do evil in the name of the supposed special times we are living in.

The second part is a warning that being a Christian may result in persecution and trial and death.  That prophecy has come true in the past, it is happening now in many places (especially the Middle East), and it will happen in the future.  It's a reality of life.

The problem though, and this is why the juxtaposition of these two concepts in the passage is interesting to me, is that martyrdom and persecution can easily become precisely the kind of tragic spectacle that Alison and Jesus are warning us not to get caught up in.  The prospect of suffering persecution for the sake of the Gospel is the ultimate sacred narrative--we are the stars of a grand story in which all the forces of the world are ultimately cheap bad guys to be overcome by God's literal deus ex machina.  Indeed, our participation in this narrative is proof of our privileged place in this theo-drama--if we weren't in the right with God, we wouldn't be persecuted, and so being persecuted is a sign that we are in the right.

In Teresa of Avila's autobiography, she talks about how she and her brother, when they were kids, tried to run away from home with the hope of getting captured and martyred by the Muslims.  That sounds insane on first glance.  But how different is that from the notion that the government is going to come at any moment and snatch away "believing Christians" for their faith?  Or from the folks that are all over my Twitter feed who are sure that the United States is days away from becoming Nazi Germany?  There is a part of us that looks for the persecution; there is even a part of us that wants the persecution to come to fill out the sacred narrative with us in the center.

None of this means that fears of persecution are illusory.  At the end of the day, Jesus is right that persecution is real.  But, less than a week after the election here in the United States, I feel like all of us, both those thrilled by the outcome and those who are horrified, are caught up in the sacred spectacle of it all.  Some of those who are upset about Trump are using the events of the last week to stoke the fires of their fear and their grief in a way that is "not unrelated to excitement."  And those who are excited about Trump are treating it as something like the Gandalf's arrival at the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings--the moment of dawn that has turned away some seemingly implacable darkness.  Either way, the events form a pivotal piece in a seemingly transcendent drama that we just so happen to play the central role.

It may be the case that the events of the last week will lead to the kind of persecution described in the second part of the passage from Luke.  Or, maybe it won't.  But, either way, we have to be careful about the way we respond to the events of our time.  We will have a temptation to sacrilize it, to invest it with transcendent meaning, to make it a lynch-pin in a grand drama.  No matter how real the threat of persecution is, that temptation to sacrilize the events around us is, as Alison pointedly names it, satanic.

We need to fight against that.  And I don't think we are doing a particularly good job right now.  


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