Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Culture of Co-Suffering in an Age of Violence (Part One)

I am in the process of reading a fascinating (if difficult) book recommended to me by one of my parishioners entitled Violence Unveiled. The author, Gil Bailie, is a Christian anthropologist who explores the phenomenon of violence in modern society through the lens of the Gospel.

Bailie uses the work of French philosopher Rene Girard to suggest that the increasing violence of today’s world is the result of a breakdown between “sacred” and “profane” forms of violence, a breakdown that began with the coming of Christ, His death and resurrection.

Bailie’s argument is complex, but it goes something as follows. Society has always struggled with destructive violence. Before Christianity, societies dealt with this violence by turning their violent impulses on a scapegoat—a person or a marginalized group with obvious differences from themselves.

By elevating violence against the scapegoat to the level of religious mythology, societies were able to use “good” violence against the scapegoat to unite their peoples and bring an end to the “bad” violence that threatened to tear them apart. As long as everyone within that society continued to believe the mythology, they would remain united in their common enmity against the scapegoat, as opposed to being torn apart by internal conflicts.

For this system to work, however, members of a society had to rid themselves of one key quality: pity. For as long as they could manage to regard their victims without pity, they could continue to justify their violence as a necessary part of a divine mythology of redemption and salvation.

The crucifixion of Jesus was supposed to be one more instance of this mechanism, which tries to combat “bad” violence with “good” violence. As Caiaphas, the high priest in the Gospel of John says, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:50)

The Gospel, however, threw a spanner into the works, because in this case the victim of Jewish “sacred” violence—Jesus—is proclaimed as the king and conqueror of death. In the words of the Apostle Paul, the One who was humbled even to death has been exalted and given “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

The Gospel event has had profound implications on subsequent history, according to Bailie. Since then, societies that have encountered and fallen under the influence of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus can no longer rid themselves of pity for their scapegoats—at least not for very long.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has awakened in human society a sense of com-passion for all victims, and as a result, we can no longer pretend that our scapegoats are just an abstract part of the religious myths that justify our “good” acts of violence as an antidote for violence that would tear us apart.

Of course, so-called “Christian” societies since the Gospel have frequently engaged in scapegoating violence: the persecution of Jews throughout Western European history, culminating in the Holocaust, is just one of many instances.

Bailie’s point, though, is that although modern societies still try to cure destructive violence with “sacred” violence, the Gospel has ensured that those of us under its influence can no longer make the cure “stick.” We inevitably “wake up” tormented by the feeling that we have somehow crucified Jesus all over again.

And Bailie’s central point is that, increasingly, the traditional cure for destructive violence in the world is becoming less and less effective. We are less and less able to distinguish between violence that destroys and violence that unites, because the Gospel has completely overthrown our ability to believe in the curative power of violent acts, no matter how exalted the terms in which they are justified: the so-called “War against Terror” is just one example.

Although I haven’t gotten there yet, Bailie is already implying a Christian response to this conundrum. While the Passion may be responsible for our collective inability to remain pitiless towards our scapegoats, it also offers us a way beyond the whole system that makes scapegoats necessary in the first place.

Rather than using sacred violence to try and cure destructive violence in society, the Gospel presents an alternative: a culture of co-suffering. This way of life rests on the proclamation that God is the One who suffers with all of us. As creatures made in God’s image and likeness, therefore, our very human identity depends on a commitment to suffer daily with each other.

More next time.

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