Introduction

A good way to assess the passion story of Jesus and what it allegedly reveals about the God of Christ, is the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Jesus uses the father in this parable to clarify something essential about the God he proclaims. When the son returns, not without opportunistic motives, the father runs towards his son from the moment he sees his son appear on the horizon. The father does not run to his son to punish him, but to forgive him and to welcome him “full of grace”. This “space of grace” gives his son the opportunity to really become aware of the evil he has done. And although grace has no power or control over this potential response (it is not guaranteed that the son will truly regret what he has done), grace is “all-powerful” in the sense that it gives itself independent of its eventual outcomes.

So, in any case, the grace of the father allows the son to no longer be ashamed of himself and to sincerely repent for his mistakes. If he truly accepts the love of his father, he will be able to take responsibility for his wrongdoings without being crushed under guilt. He will imitate the love he experiences by trying to make up for the hurt he has done to others and by trying to do justice. To quote Augustine of Hippo (354-430) (On the Spirit and the Letter Chapter X [16]): “Grace is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them.” (Original Latin, DE SPIRITU ET LITTERA LIBER UNUS, X: [gratia] quando quidem ideo datur, non quia bona opera fecimus, sed ut ea facere valeamus […]).

Because grace liberates us from the fear of being crushed under the weight of our mistakes, we will more easily take responsibility for them ourselves, instead of letting an easy scapegoat “pay” for what we did. If we accept the grace that does not crush us, it prevents us from crushing others as well. Grace liberates us from our damaging need to be “perfect” and thus lets us discover “the joy of being wrong”. In other words, grace liberates us from our narcissistic self-images and paradoxically prevents us from doing further harm to ourselves and others. As we experience forgiveness for our trespasses, we are enabled to forgive “those who trespass against us” (see the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13).

Analogous to the attitude of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, the suffering of Jesus should not be interpreted as a sign that there is a God who would punish us for our transgressions (but lets his Son take the blows we actually should receive). On the contrary, the suffering of Jesus is a consequence of a love that is radically independent of violence. It is the consequence of a love that does not answer violence with violence. It is the consequence of a forgiving withdrawal from violence, which makes room for the life of others (even “enemies” become “neighbors”).

Just like the father in the parable of the prodigal son running towards his son is not a sign that he wants to punish his son, the suffering of Jesus is not a sign that there is a God who wants to punish us. Just like the father of the parable running towards his son is a sign that he wants his son to become fully alive by bestowing a forgiving love upon him, the suffering of Jesus is a sign of a love that does not desire our death or suffering, but that wants us to be fully alive.

The cross of Jesus reveals that this love is not even affected by death, but that it is “fully alive” in the fact that neither “friend” nor “foe” died in what could have been a civil war. Jesus’ forgiving withdrawal from violence – his radical refusal to kill – saves others from death. Therefore the first followers of Jesus believe that he is “the Christ” who embodies the love that is not affected by death – the love that is thus revealed as “eternal”, as God. The suffering of Jesus is God, revealed as non-violent love, “running towards us” in the forgiving withdrawal from violence. Hence, whenever we participate in this mutual and imitative forgiving withdrawal from violence, God as love “is in our midst”. As this love is eventually not affected by death, it pierces through the narcissistic self-images we usually develop to hide ourselves from the reality of death. Thus the non-violent love that is not affected by death saves ourselves and others from alienating, destructive relationships between ourselves and others (because of that narcissism). It saves us from what is traditionally called “original sin”.

The grace that is revealed in Jesus in a unique way (but which shows itself in other “places” as well) prevents us from sacrificing others to “pay” for our sins. It allows us to truly take responsibility for our mistakes, without fear. It prevents us from hunting for scapegoats really, which is done in traditional religious systems. The following text points both to the “perversion” of Christianity (when it is understood as merely the ultimate consequence of traditional religious systems) and to an “authentic” Christianity (understood from Jesus’ obedience to a love that desires “mercy, not sacrifice”).

The traditional religious and mythical “deified” hero saves others by killing – which eventually results in the self-sacrifice of the hero. Jesus saves others because he refuses to kill – which reveals Jesus as embodying a love that gives itself and “lives” even unto death.

The Basic Religious Story

Aztec human sacrificeHumans commit transgressions of god given laws. The gods get angry. Disasters happen as divine punishment. Humans bring sacrifices which reconcile them with the gods. Peace is restored.

We all know the drill. Myriad variations of this story exist in religions old and new.

Some Christians are convinced, however, that the Christian variation of the basic religious story is quite unique. They believe that the Christian story therefore reveals “the true God” as opposed to “the bleak imitations of the divine in other religions”.

Yes, those Christians say, God is aware of us humans committing transgressions. However, according to their scenario, we should have the humility to recognize that the cost of our transgressions is too big to pay off our debt by merely human means. That’s why God sent us his only begotten Son Jesus, who loved us so much that He obediently sacrificed Himself and thus reconciled us with God, his Father.

Grace in this context is understood as God’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Jesus for our transgressions. This “final” sacrifice allegedly saves us from the desperate attempts to pay off our debts by sacrificing ourselves and our neighbors. Jesus thus is the “Savior” or the “Christ”. Instead of punishing us with disasters, God gave us the means to buy his peace through Christ’s death and resurrection (the so-called proof of the divine nature of the whole process). Well, at least until apocalyptic “end times” that is, and those who still do not repent and accept God’s laws and his Son – the means to buy his peace – are wiped off the face of the earth with Christ’s vengeful return.

The first time I heard this interpretation of the Christian faith, I remember thinking: “If that’s what Christianity is all about, count me out.” Nowadays I would still refuse to call myself a Christian if it implied playing to this so-called “divine” absurdity. However, literary critic and anthropologist René Girard (1923-2015), theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Raymund Schwager SJ (1935-2004), Anthony Bartlett (°1946), Wolfgang Palaver (°1958), James Alison (°1959) and Michael Hardin (°1968), as well as atheist thinkers like Slavoj Zizek (°1949) helped me discover that the Gospel actually paints a radically different picture of God.

Christianity as the Ultimate Religious Story (= The Perversion of Christianity)

If the God of Christ is what some Christians make of Him, then He is the pinnacle of narcissistic sadomasochism. He is narcissistic because He receives all kinds of presents of reconciliation, but lets you know that no present is ever good enough to satisfy Him. Instead, He provides you with the present that you should offer Him, namely the sacrifice of his Son. As far as father-son relationships are concerned in this picture of Christianity, God is the ultimate sadist who is only appeased by the terrible suffering and death of his obedient Son. Finally, from this perspective God is also the ultimate masochist. After all, He desires the experience of pain in his very Being by “becoming flesh” in a crucified Son who is actually “one” with Him. To this masochist, the pain of the crucifixion is proof that He receives his desired gift and that He has total control over the relationship between Himself and humans.

It is not just the narcissism of a so-called God that is established by this interpretation of Christianity. Perhaps this story, above all, protects the narcissistic self-image of humans. The so-called “humility” in confessing the unworthiness and inability of your efforts to make up for wrongdoings is an easy way out of the burden of responsibility. Referring to so-called uncontrollable flaws gets you off the hook from truly making mistakes altogether. If you can’t help it, then you are actually without “real” faults. Narcissists believe that any mistake they make is eventually always the responsibility of something or someone else. They actually fear the freedom of not being perfect. The narcissistic impulse even exonerates the ones who are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. In the end they are perceived as contributing to God’s plan.

In short, according to this interpretation of Christianity, the God of Christ is superior to the so-called “false” gods of other religions because apart from being the most powerful killer, He allegedly also is the most merciful one. Instead of punishing us for our transgressions right away, He sends his Son to die in our place. Moreover, between the resurrection of that Savior – the Christ –, the outpouring of his Spirit and the end of times with the return of Christ, we are told that we can be saved one last time if we recognize our transgressions and accept that Christ died for them. If not, we will be sacrificed anyway during Christ’s Second Coming, which fulfils God’s Last Judgment.

Jesus SupermanIf we are to believe this account, then the God of Christ is a hero of unmatched mythical proportions. He saves others from the deadly disasters He Himself would be responsible for by provisionally killing Himself as the potential presence of wrathful violence in the sacrifice of his Son. In other words, from this perspective the God of Christ is a force of violence that controls itself and others by violent sacrificial means. The peace of Christ is the violent peace of sterile uniformity, established by sacrifice.

Christianity as the End of the Traditional Religious Story (= Authentic Christianity)

The belief that sacrifices can be effective to end deadly catastrophes depends on the belief that sacrifices have something to do with violent sacred forces. The deities of religions old and new are depicted as causing all kinds of violent crises, like natural disasters, pandemics and the outbreak of violence within and between communities. It is believed, time and again, that those violent deities demand sacrifices to be appeased.

“God”, in a traditional religious sense, is perceived as being responsible both for violence of epidemic proportions that potentially destroys human communities and for the vaccine of sacrificial violence that preserves or restores them. When traditional religious people make a sacrifice, they believe that they are not accountable for what they are doing, but that God is the true author of the ritual. Sacrifices are perceived as not belonging to the human world. They are seen as belonging to the world of the sacred, and ritual sacrifice is simply the fulfilment of a sacred commandment. It is the so-called inevitable, fatal process of “making something or someone sacred” (Latin “sacer facere”; hence the Latin noun “sacrificium”). In short, sacrifices are part of the world of the sacred, which is traditionally understood as the world of violence.

Myths sustain the belief in the sacred nature of violence. As such, they are justifications of sacrifice. Myths are stories of so-called “redemptive” violence. In the Gospel the leaders of the Jewish people try to establish a myth concerning their fellow Jew Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisees and chief priests describe Jesus as an increasingly popular rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It is their way of justifying his elimination (John 11:45-50):

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare the truth about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose peace is based on sacrifices – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. Indeed, Jesus refuses to start a civil war wherein friends and enemies would get killed (John 18:33-38):

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 

You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

The Gospel clarifies that the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense whatsoever, as Jesus has nothing to do with the world of violence. Moreover, since the Gospel recognizes who God truly is in the non-violent love of Jesus, it also reveals that the violent God of traditional religion is actually non-existent. In the latter sense, the Christian faith contains a radical atheism and intrinsically finishes off every religious story. There is neither a God who is responsible for violent chaos to punish us for our transgressions, nor a God who demands sacrifices to restore order. Natural disasters have natural causes. Violence is not a sacred, but a human reality. There is no God as some kind of “Master of Puppets” who is in total control and who can be manipulated with sacrifices to gain control ourselves. As this God is blamed for things He cannot possibly be responsible for – since He does not exist –, He is the ultimate scapegoat.

COVID-19 End TimesThe Gospel reveals that we, humans, tend to be guided by the scapegoat mechanism. Instead of acknowledging our freedom and creative strength as human beings to deal responsibly with disasters, we tend to look for the so-called “masterminds” behind the crisis situations we encounter. Conspiracy theories are the secularized version of traditional religious and mythical thinking. They provide us with a false sense of security and the delusional entitlement to sacrifice so-called “evil” others, who are believed to be responsible for the crisis at hand in the first place. In the case of a pandemic like COVID-19, some keep believing there is a God who punishes us for allowing evildoers in our midst, while others believe powerful people developed a plot that involves deliberately spreading a virus on their path to world dominion.

In the Gospel, the scapegoat mechanism that is used by humans to falsely justify sacrifices, time and again, is personified as Satan or the devil. Jesus reveals that it is this deceitful and lying “devil” who demands sacrificial murders, while God is a God of radically non-violent love who “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Contrary to the above mentioned depiction of the Christian faith, the Gospel clearly reveals that humans, inspired by the devilish scapegoat mechanism, demand the sacrifice of Jesus, and not God (John 8:39-44):

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Those who desire the sacrifice of Jesus try everything to involve him in the world of violence, in order to still provide their act of violence with some foundation. After all, their myth of self-defense against the man who is supposed to be a violent threat only holds water if Jesus eventually does take part in the game of violence to gain controlling power. As Jesus continuously refuses to answer violence with violence, they grow increasingly desperate. This translates into the growing vehemence of the violence used against Jesus. Despite these efforts to tempt him to use violence, Jesus continues to obey “the will of his Father”, which means that he walks the path of a radically non-violent love. The powers that need the lie of an outside threat to justify their myths of self-defense cannot stand this truth about the scapegoat in their midst. That’s why Jesus is crucified.

To his opponents, the crucified Jesus seems to have lost. “He saved others, he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42), they exclaim mockingly. However, when Jesus dies, further attempts to draw him into the world of violence become impossible. Hence, the violent logic that needs, at least, its victim’s involvement in violence to justify itself, utterly fails. What dies on the cross is the foundation of violence. That’s why Jesus proclaims, right before dying: “It is finished” (John 19:30). The universal lie of the scapegoat mechanism behind the ever-recurring myths of redemptive violence is revealed. In that sense, Jesus is: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). René Girard writes – in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), 142-143:

Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair (1999)“By nailing Christ to the Cross, the powers believed they were doing what they ordinarily did in unleashing the single victim mechanism. They thought they were avoiding the danger of disclosure. They did not suspect that in the end they would be doing just the opposite: they would be contributing to their own annihilation, nailing themselves to the Cross, so to speak. They did not and could not suspect the revelatory power of the Cross. […] The powers are not put on display because they are defeated, but they are defeated because they are put on display.”

Again, what dies on the cross is the foundation of the violent logic. What lives on the cross, on the other hand, is the self-giving love that saves lives by refusing to kill. No Jew, no Roman, neither friend nor foe died. The love revealed in Jesus, which withdraws from rivalry over power altogether, is all-powerful, not in the sense that it has total control over others, but in the sense that it is not even destroyed by death and thus remains completely independent of the world of violence. The death of Jesus is the ultimate withdrawal from violence and the ultimate gift of life-giving grace.

On Easter Sunday, the crucified Jesus is revealed to his followers as the living presence and embodiment of the non-violent God, of non-violent love. Therefore, the Eucharistic commemoration of Jesus’ death is not the repetition of deadly violence to establish peace. It is the sacramental presence of Jesus as Risen Christ and true Messiah, who does not feed on violence to become a so-called savior, but who invites us to imagine ever new ways of sharing in the Spirit of his forgiving withdrawal from violence. The more we thus mutually and mimetically give room to each other’s life and each other’s differences, the more we are inhabited by and reconciled with divine love. The peace of Christ is a peace of creative, non-violent conflict. It is a life of exciting, “electrifying” fruitful tensions.

Christ Dali

I just had to share this amazing story! It is told by Adam Ericksen at the Raven Foundation website. Here it is, republished with kind permission:

The Internet can be a very mean place. But it can also lead us to grace.

BalpreetThe dichotomy of meanness and grace was recently displayed on the website reddit.com. The backstory goes like this: A man was waiting in line at airport security. He spotted Balpreet Kaur, a young woman who is a baptized Sikh and a student at Ohio State University. The man surreptitiously took out his phone, positioned the camera, and while Balpreet looked away, he took her picture. Then he posted it to Reddit’s humor section, called r/funny, with the caption, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The picture quickly went viral and people made demeaning comments about Balpreet’s appearance.

What was “humorous” about Balpreet’s appearance? She has facial hair.

It’s a classic example of Internet scapegoating. The original poster, whose reddit username was “european_douchebag,” (Seriously! You couldn’t make that up!) wanted to invite his Reddit community to join him in demeaning Balpreet’s appearance, and his community was happy to join. Balpreet became their scapegoat. As the picture went viral, people began posting degrading comments about her. They accused her of being ugly, and in that accusation they began to feel a sense of their own beauty.

Are You Imitating or IdolizingBut scapegoating always provides a false sense of beauty. Scapegoating boils down to this: We know that we are “beautiful” by comparing ourselves with someone else that we consider “ugly.” Unfortunately, scapegoating in this way can be seen throughout human cultures. Every culture has arbitrary standards of beauty that lead to scapegoating. When our sense of beauty is based on these arbitrary standards, it leads us into the trap of scapegoating. This is the trap that “european_douchebag” and his community fell into, and it is a trap that we all fall into. Until someone has the sense to pull us out.

And that’s exactly what Balpreet did. A Facebook friend informed her about the picture on Reddit. After she found the image and read through some of the comments, she posted her own response to her image and the demeaning comments:

Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the OP [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled :) However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-) So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together t-shirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. :) I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.

Love is not love until love is vulnerable (Theodore Roethke)Balpreet’s response was so powerful. It nearly brought me to tears for two reasons. First, Balpreet has a strong sense of her own beauty. She knows her beauty is not dependent upon arbitrary cultural standards. Rather, her beauty is dependent upon something else: The “Divine Being” that has made her body beautifully sacred – and has made everyone’s body beautifully sacred.

The second reason that my 33 year old eyes nearly teared up was that because Balpreet believes in the sacredness of all human bodies, she broke the cycle of scapegoating. Now, I could easily understand if she responded to “european_douchebag” with her own resentful meanness by saying, “your username is appropriate, you freakin’ jerk!” But if she did, she would simply be imitating “european_douchebag” in defining her own goodness against his meanness. Fortunately, Balpreet didn’t imitate him. Instead, she imitated the “Divine Being” who doesn’t reject any body, but rather makes all bodies beautifully sacred. Even the body of a man with the username “european_douchebag.”

Here’s where the story gets even better – her gracious response softened his heart. He actually imitated her response by responding with a gracious apology on his Reddit account:

I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.

The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)When we imitate someone else’s meanness by responding with our own meanness, it only hardens both our hearts and makes us all mean. Fortunately for us, Balpreet is focusing her “life on creating change and progress for this world.” That change and progress is the courage to end the cycle of scapegoating. We learn from her that when we respond to scapegoating with the spirit of grace and forgiveness, believing in our own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, then our hearts can soften and we have the chance for a better imitation – the imitation of grace.

– by Adam Ericksen

I explored this dynamic of “the imitation of grace” also, in an earlier post. Click here for “Turn the other cheek.”

Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead. – Quote by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).

To adore Christ means, in the sense that Kierkegaard uses the verb, to idolize him. When you idolize someone else, it often means that you secretly want to become this other person, that you want to take his ‘royal’ place, sometimes even by ‘murdering’ him. In other words, to idolize someone means that you’re not satisfied with yourself, that you’re not accepting yourself, that you don’t experience love for who you are. This explains why we tend to look for what others designate as desirable, and why we want to obtain a desirable position ourselves – i.e. why we want to become ‘perfect’ and ‘divine’ idols ourselves. For obtaining a desirable position seems to fulfill our need to feel loved. However, in the process of surrendering to an imitation of the desires of others we simply lose ourselves. Guided by what René Girard calls ‘mimetic’ (i.e. ‘imitative’) desire, we often want things for ourselves which alienate us from our ‘true’ nature and from our own, unique vocation. So, near the end of this process we’re not loved for who we are but because of the ‘status’ we seem to have gained. Jesus magnificently points out this tragic paradox: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).

Sometimes the devil wants you to think that until you’re perfect don’t go talking to God. – Quote by C.C. DeVille.

As you can see in the film below, C.C. DeVille – what’s in an artist’s name? –, guitarist of ‘hair metal, glam rock’ band Poison, clearly understands how his early life relied heavily on the principles I just described. He admits giving in to an unhealthy sense of pride, to a desire for ‘status’. He quite literally says he wanted others to be envious of him. Indeed, envy is the negative side of mimetic desire, the flipside of admiration, and for a person who desires to be desirable it is a big achievement to feel envied. Yet C.C. DeVille felt his life was not fulfilled. He was not happy until he experienced, in his own words, ‘God’s grace’. He discovered the ‘unconditional love’ by which he was finally able to accept himself. The paradox is that, by obeying God’s call through Christ, he became free. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” Christ claims (in the completed Luke 9:24). That’s exactly what C.C. DeVille discovered, for truly imitating Christ means to accept yourself and others, not to be ashamed of oneself, and to be enabled to grow towards one’s ‘real’ and ‘honest’ vocation. It’s only when we’re accepting ourselves that we are able to approach others, not as means to fulfill our need to feel loved, but as the true ‘goals’ of our lives in the realm of Love, in the realm of a giving Grace that wants to be ‘imitated’ – and to imitate giving means to become ‘givers’ ourselves. That’s why St. Francis (1181-1226) prays: O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek to be loved, as to love…”

Being free means ‘being free for the other,’ because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free. – Quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We are relational beings. We don’t develop relationships ‘out of the blue’, from a primal ‘individual freedom’. On the contrary, it’s the quality of our relationships which decides whether we become free or not – are we led by fear, envy and pride or by trust, grace and truthful honesty?

This post might seem a little weird. I realize that. Few of my friends in the world of music understand why I like ‘hair metal’ so much. This particular brand of rock music has never been a favorite among established pop criticism. I discovered it as a kid, and I was attracted first by the colorful extravaganza of the bands, the big choruses of the songs and the sheer joy displayed in live shows. ‘Hair metal’ felt like summer to me. Later on I discovered that behind this joyful image there often lurked an empty world of drug abuse, superficial relationships without real intimacy and just plain decadence. Yet, at the same time, some of the songs had a melancholic feel which betrayed a longing for more sustainable experiences in life.

Guitarist C.C. DeVille articulates this longing of ‘the soul’ in the following interview. I combined it with quotes by famous thinkers, mostly Christian. One of my pupils, who commences studies in philosophy next year, convinced me to try working with quotes. So, here you have it. I hope I’m able to show in this way that C.C. DeVille really understands what Christianity is all about. Because, let’s face it, especially in the academic world we all too often look down on the so-called ‘superficial’ world of popular culture. Well, at the margins of that world, at what seems to be the pinnacle of superficiality, we have a band like Poison. I dare you, dear reader, to look beyond everything you think to know about bands like these, and to move beyond certain ‘mimetic’ processes which convinced you to dismiss the members of ‘glam metal’ bands. True, Poison might not have written the best songs ever, but I do believe their music is honest – ‘what you hear is what you get’. And if you’re still looking for unexpected complexity and sophistication in this music genre, try a band like Winger – great musicianship combined with the compositional talents of lead singer Kip Winger (as is evidenced by his solo efforts).

Now, watch the interview with C.C. – what you see is what you get –, and click here

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Klik hier voor een Nederlandstalige weergave van de gebruikte

CITATEN VAN (VOORAL CHRISTELIJKE) DENKERS (PDF).

Let me start off with a short introduction to the spiritual life of David LaChapelle – click to watch the following interview (online version October 15, 2008)

– CLICK TO WATCH:

A lot of Christians might feel shocked when they first encounter the work of David LaChapelle. A renowned photographer and film-maker, LaChapelle is equally ranked among The Top Ten Most Important People in Photography in the World by American Photo as he is sometimes scornfully called the king of ‘kitsch’ or, bluntly, of ‘bad taste’ by his adversaries. The artist isn’t too proud to answer his critics:

“I use pop imagery – that’s my vocabulary; glamour and beauty is my vocabulary. They get angry when you use pop imagery (the things that are accessible) to talk about anything other than the completely superficial. And you know what? Let ’em be angry … I’m into narrative and clarity. I’m not into obscurity. I’m not into people having to read and research – I’m just into the title, and the image, and the image being the language. If people don’t want to take ten seconds to look at a picture and put it together, I can’t help that, but I stand by it and I love it. And I will keep doing it. And I ain’t going away.” (Taken from an interview for Dazed and Confused, March 2010, by Anna Carnick).

LaChapelle’s work displays a tremendous knowledge and admiration of western art’s history, and is peppered with Christian symbolism and imagery, as is shown especially by the ‘Jesus is My Homeboy’ and ‘American Jesus’ series.

The American Jesus series revolves around images of Michael Jackson (a lookalike that is), depicted in various Biblical and even typically Catholic scenes. If some Christians already find these questionable or offensive, they will really get irritated by the image entitled ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which features a papal figure sitting on a throne before a pile of dead, naked men. The photographer seems to easily condemn the Catholic Church. However, when asked about his intentions behind his particular treatment of forms of corruption within the Church, LaChapelle answers with wit and nuance:

“I’m not condemning the Catholic Church — it’s too big, it’s like condemning a nation and that would be prejudiced. But what I’m doing here is pointing out an irony: Here you have an institution that has systematically protected pedophile priests and then you have an innocent Michael Jackson, who California spent millions of dollars trying to prosecute and could not do it because it was complete bulls–t.” (Taken from an interview for WWD, issue 07/13/2010, by Amanda Fitzsimons).

Moreover, LaChapelle has no problems whatsoever referring to his Catholic upbringing (the quote is taken from the same interview for WWD):

“I still go to church occasionally. I went the other day and found peace. I had this duality growing up with my dad being a strict Catholic and his brother being a priest and my mother finding God in nature, so I’ve taken a little from both [traditions].”

From the point of view of his Christian background, it’s no coincidence that LaChapelle has developed a special interest for two groups of people in particular: rich and famous celebrities on the one hand, and economically deprived young people on the other. His preoccupation with the Christ figure has led him to some enthralling insights. Those familiar with mimetic theory will find them fascinating as well.

I’m glad to share David LaChapelle’s views in the following two sections.

1. The sacrificial celebrity cults as producers of modern day ‘scapegoat-gods’

The biblical writings unanimously reject phenomena like gossip and the spread of false rumors about other people. Already one of the ten commandments forbids ‘to give false testimony against a neighbor’ (Exodus 20:16).

Those who gossip – and we are all tempted to do so from time to time – create alliances based on the exclusion of the one who is gossiped about. The Book of Proverbs warns for the seductive nature of voyeurism, and its destructive, dehumanizing consequences. People shouldn’t deliver themselves too easily to the delights of gossip:

Remove perverse speech from your mouth;  keep devious talk far from your lips. (Proverbs 4:24).

The north wind brings forth rain, and a gossiping tongue brings forth an angry look. (Proverbs 25:23).

Where there is no wood, a fire goes out, and where there is no gossip, contention ceases. Like charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious person to kindle strife. The words of a gossip are like delicious morsels; they go down into a person’s innermost being. Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. The one who hates others disguises it with his lips, but he stores up deceit within him. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, for there are seven  abominations  within him. Though his hatred may be concealed by deceit, his evil will be uncovered in the assembly. The one who digs a pit will fall into it; the one who rolls a stone – it will come back on him. A lying tongue hates those crushed by it, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (Proverbs 26:20-28). 

A gossiped-about person is either spoken of in unrealistically praiseful terms, or, on the contrary, in a non-proportional degrading way. In other words, gossiped-about persons become the ‘sacred’ glue that hold certain communities together. The gossiped-about persons become divinized idols or equally deceitfully presented demonized ‘monsters’. David LaChapelle, inspired by his Christian background, clearly understands these mechanisms, as is demonstrated in an interview with digital magazine Nowness:

It is definitely true that celebrities are our modern day gods and goddesses, and we build them up and tear them down.

Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down. Michael Jackson was destroyed. Like no other person in our times. You have to remember that Michael Jackson was innocent. He was proved innocent in our courts. If you read the transcripts of the trial it is insanity, it should never have gone to court. We spent tens of millions of dollars to prosecute him when we don’t have money for schools in California.

Why is that?

Not because he was a celebrity but because he looked different. He was obsessive about privacy and it made him “other,” it made him different, and he went from being the most famous, most beloved singer to the most reviled, joked about—he couldn’t open a newspaper without reading horror stories about himself.

Judeo Christian Scripture unveils and denounces the mechanisms by which a human being’s true, imperfect ‘black-and-white’ nature is sacrificed for the sake of an unreal ‘image’. David LaChapelle saw this happening to Michael Jackson (in the aforementioned interview with WWD):

WWD: Why did you choose to photograph Michael in a variety of religious scenes?

David LaChapelle: Michael had paintings of himself at Neverland depicting himself as a knight and surrounded by cherubs and angels. People might think he’s an egomaniac, but he’s not. It’s because the world turned against him. I mean, Michael couldn’t even get B-listers to show up for the second trial. [With these pictures he’s saying] “I’m not the joke and the horror the media is making me out to be.”

WWD: Michael stars in the show’s title piece “American Jesus.” Do you believe him to be a modern-day Jesus?

D.L.: I believe Michael in a sense is an American martyr. Martyrs are persecuted and Michael was persecuted. Michael was innocent and martyrs are innocent. If you go on YouTube and watch interviews with Michael, you don’t see a crack in the facade. There’s this purity and this innocence that continued [throughout his life]. If it had been an act, he couldn’t have kept it up. If you watch his [1992] concerts from Budapest and compare it to a Madonna concert of today, you’ll see such uplifting beauty and a message that you won’t see in any other artist of our time.

In the interview with the aforementioned Nowness LaChapelle goes even further and states:

We persecuted Michael Jackson. Every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news, we all contributed to his death by taking in that form of gossip.

The Bible is concerned with ‘truth’ and takes sides with the wrongfully presented and the wrongfully accused persons – the scapegoats! The prophet Isaiah calls out to the people of Israel:

“You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.” (Isaiah 58:9b).

 Jesus, the one who is called the Christ, even goes so far as to bless the victims of gossip and false rumors:

 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me.” (Matthew 5:11).

It is no coincidence then that the easily gossiped-about persons in the Jewish community at the time of the New Testament, like prostitutes or the infamous tax collectors, are among Christ’s favorites. He shares meals with these ‘sinners’, like with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Even one of his apostles – Levi or ‘Matthew’ – is known to be a former tax collector (Luke 5:27-39).

The apostle Paul asks us to transform our imitative, mimetic abilities in order to become ‘children of God’. Instead of reinforcing processes of victimization by imitating the ones who gossip and ‘point fingers’, he asks us to become ‘imitators of Christ’. Christ is the One who was eventually sacrificed, because he completely delivered himself to Compassion:

Be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering  to God. […] There should be no vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting – all of which are out of character – but rather thanksgiving. For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:1-5).

Christ completely imitated and ‘incarnated’ his ‘Father’ – a Love which ‘refuses sacrifice and desires mercy’ – see for instance Matthew 9:13. Therefore Christ could not defend himself by starting some sort of ‘civil war’, because that would imply sacrifices of others. In any case, Christ doesn’t want us to be suicidal, but he is very much aware of the risks in taking sides with the excluded and the outcasts. It might mean that these become members of the community again, but it might also have as a consequence that the outcast’s defender is excluded oneself and that he ‘has to take up his cross’ to be ‘crucified’. Christ’s preference for the victims of gossip and rumors indeed often meant he himself became gossiped-about. Nevertheless, he kept approaching people like tax collectors in liberating ways. Many a victim of gossip, like these tax collectors at the time of Jesus, imitates the reasoning of his attackers and thinks it’s ‘part of the deal’ of being a ‘celebrity’. Jesus points out that people shouldn’t accept being gossiped about by the self-declared ‘righteous’ and ‘elected’:

Jesus told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14).

2. The ‘richness’ of ‘poor’ people and the ‘poverty’ of the ‘rich’

Jesus distinguishes two kinds of motivations to give (of) oneself: there are those who give and sacrifice in order to receive some kind of ‘reward’, and there are those who give in order to let others come to life. The first are the real ‘poor people’ in the eyes of Jesus because they worryingly adhere and enslave themselves to ‘material’, ‘worldly’ things like ‘wealth’ or ‘social status’. They also have the ‘mimetic’ (i.e. imitative) tendency to enviously compare themselves to others and to compete with their thus conceived ‘enemies’ in order to ‘rise above’ them. In the above mentioned parable, Jesus denounces this mechanism wherein people not only sacrifice themselves to a deceitful self-image, but also sacrifice others in presenting them in an equally deceitful and degrading way. Real richness, according to Jesus, comes with those who develop a realistic, ‘truthful’ view about themselves and who are able to give whatever they received:

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4).

David LaChapelle pays particular attention to this kind of unconditional life bringing and therefore community enhancing way of ‘giving’ in his film Rize. Therein socially and economically deprived youngsters aren’t reduced to their situation, but are shown as talented people who are able to rebuild their communities in new, joyful and colorful ways. They really are ‘Church builders’, able to ‘give back’ inspired by the love they experience from each other. From the point of view of mimetic theory, their dancing not only ritualizes mimetic rivalry and restrains violence, but it also celebrates the grateful experience of life itself. Here’s what the synopsis of the film has to say:

“Rize” reveals a groundbreaking dance phenomenon that’s exploding on the streets of South Central, Los Angeles. Taking advantage of unprecedented access, this documentary film brings to first light a revolutionary form of artistic expression borne from oppression. The aggressive and visually stunning dance modernizes moves indigenous to African tribal rituals and features mind-blowing, athletic movement sped up to impossible speeds. “Rize” tracks the fascinating evolution of the dance: we meet Tommy Johnson (Tommy the Clown), who first created the style as a response to the 1992 Rodney King riots and named it “Clowning”, as well as the kids who developed the movement into what they now call Krumping. The kids use dance as an alternative to gangs and hustling: they form their own troupes and paint their faces like warriors, meeting to outperform rival gangs of dancers or just to hone their skills. For the dancers, Krumping becomes a way of life – and, because it’s authentic expression (in complete opposition to the bling-bling hip-hop culture), the dance becomes a vital part of who they are.

Like “Paris is Burning” or “Style Wars” before it, “Rize” illuminates an entire community by focusing on an artform as a movement that the disenfranchised have created. But the true stars of the film are the dancers themselves: surrounded by drug addiction, gang activity, and impoverishment, they have managed to somehow rise above. The film offers an intimate, completely fresh portrayal of kids in South Central as they reveal their spirit and creativity. These kids have created art – and often family – where before there was none.

It is evident that the young dancers are able to found communities in non-exclusive ways. In this way, they really are building the Church – the Community – Jesus dreamt of:

Realizing THOMAS “TOMMY THE CLOWN” JOHNSON had become a positive role model for the kids in South Central, he created the Battle Zone to provide an alternative outlet for the kids in the community to battle it out on the dance floor instead of on the streets. In 2003, Tommy the Clown’s Battle Zone hosted a sold-out performance at the Los Angeles Forum. Tommy continues the battles every third Saturday of every month at Debbie Allen Dance Academy – a non-profit dance studio where kids from the community can learn all forms of dance training. Tommy the Clown emerged as a community icon and was asked to be a spokesperson for Governor Gray Davis’ Census Campaign which involved outreach to schools, neighborhood questionnaire assistance centers and statewide agencies which succeeded with the highest mail-in response rates in four decades. He formed strategic partnerships with counties and cities, all while delivering smiles and laughter. […] Truly an entertainer for all ages, Tommy the Clown’s mission is to reach out to communities across the world that are in need of a positive alternative lifestyle.

DRAGON was born Jason Green in Frankfurt on November 2, 1981. A military baby, he spent his initial years living throughout Germany, his very first in a hospital, the result of being born prematurely. His family eventually moved to California and settled in Compton. Dragon first crossed paths with Tommy the Clown while dancing for Platinum Clowns, a rival clown group, in competition. Dancing since the age of 19, Dragon has appeared in such music videos as Blink 182’s “I’m Feelin’ It,” and in various awards shows including the Choreographer Awards and the 2005 NAACP Awards. Outside of the Clowning world, Dragon is also an accomplished artist whose experience spans across fashion design, the graphic arts, multi-media, airbrushing, and comic book art. Now residing in Carson, CA, Dragon is currently studying to be a minister. He rediscovered the church after years of distancing himself from it, only to realize how truly unhappy he was with his life. Dragon now believes that the principles our nation was established upon – religion, principle, respect – have been compromised by our drive for material things which have no true value. Through the church, he hopes to someday help others find their own spiritual foundation for a happy life.

 TIGHT EYEZ, real name Ceasare Willis, is one of the founders of Krumping. He created the Krump movement in 2000 with his brothers and Lil C and Mijo. While living in New York, Tight Eyez dreamed of launching a dance that would get everyone “hyped up.” He soon moved to Los Angeles and founded Clown dancing, which thereafter evolved into Krumping. He went on to perform with many clown groups before finally meeting and joining creative forces with Tommy the Clown. Tight Eyez has turned his life over to God and changed his life through Jesus. He uses the Krump movement to help young people in faith to change their lives. His goal is to establish his own Krump Organization, of which he would be the CEO, and hopes to open schools for youth to dance, exercise their talent and utilize their inner gifts. Hopefully, by the age of 23…

Christian Jones, a/k/a BABY TIGHT EYEZ, was born and raised in the Church. His grandfather was the founder of the Christian Tabernacle of Love, Faith and Deliverance, and his Aunt is now Pastor of Christian Tabernacle Ministries. After his grandfather passed on in 1998, he took up the organ, which he plays at services. Baby Tight Eyez learned how to Krump dance at the heels of Tight Eyez, Lil C, Mijo, and Dragon, and considers them among his closest friends in the Krump movement. When he is not dancing, he loves to hang with his homies. His goal is to launch a big dance studio where everyone could Krump for free. He would also like to buy his pastors a new church. He hopes to give back to those who do not have, to give back to his neighborhood, to give those who are as he once was.

I compiled a film with some of the documentary’s testimonies, and combined them with fragments of pop diva Madonna‘s 2006 Confessions Tour. I know that her allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – as shown at the ending of this compilation – stirred a lot of controversy, but I hope people are able to see it as an artistic commentary on what happens when deprived people are given voice and rediscover their dignity: it means that the love of Christ, Christ himself, is in our midst. Although some of the youngsters explain their life story in a sacrificial way (in the sense of ‘I had to endure what happened to me to receive a rewarding insight or gift’ – the Nietzschean ‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ type of explanation), above all they try to ‘enlighten’ the world with their dance talents. These are really ‘tales of resurrection’ wherein the gift of life is passed on to others. Watch my video compilation right here

– CLICK TO WATCH:

On a personal note, I’d like to end this post by thanking Mr. LaChapelle for allowing me the use of his Intervention picture for the cover of my book (click the title for more information) Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur. I truly consider it an honor.

David LaChapelle & Erik Buys

Bruce Springsteen‘s take on the story of Christ’s Passion certainly reflects a profound spiritual awareness of what this event is actually about. In an episode for VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen meditates on his song Jesus was an only son, and brings out the universal and existential truths the story of the Passion reveals.

CLICK TO WATCH it right here:

Click here to read a full transcription of this video.

Springsteen’s interpretation of the song’s ending is especially moving. A transformation takes place. Whilst in the beginning of the song Jesus is comforted by his mother Mary, at the end it’s the son who comforts his mother. Mary is asked to respect the particular destiny of her child. Jesus chose the path of compassion and love. He was touched, so deeply, by the suffering of the outcasts that he couldn’t do anything else but reach out to them. By associating him with these scapegoats, he eventually became a victim himself. In refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus was eventually sacrificed himself.

Following Springsteen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot start some sort of ‘civil war’ to defend himself, because that would make him the imitator of his persecutors – Jesus would thus become a sacrificer himself, a ‘prince of this world’, a ‘Muammar Gaddafi’… Christ’s kingdom, on the other hand, is ‘not of this world’. Jesus follows, in the song’s words, ‘the soul of the universe’ which ‘willed a world and it appeared’. Indeed, by withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of the persecutors), Jesus creates the possibility of a new world. Imitating the one who ‘offers the other cheek’, the one who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, allows us to accept our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or ‘crucified’ for doing so…

At the end of Springsteen’s song, Jesus seems confident that his ‘Heavenly Father’ would ultimately refuse the sacrifice of his son – and this confidence is reflected in the stories of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus fully imitates ‘the One who doesn’t want sacrifices or victims’ and therefore he is said to be the ultimate incarnation or ‘materialization’ of Love: A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (KJV, Matthew 12:20). Bruce Springsteen speaks of this mystery of the incarnation at the end of his ‘sermon’:

“Whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… When we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine.”

Love seeks to be concrete and ’embodied’. The very nature of Love is to throw off its spiritual garment, to ’empty’ itself from the ‘sacred’ realm in order to become ‘flesh’ – which is called ‘kenosis’. The story of Christ’s Passover can be considered a pinnacle in our clumsy attempts to express this reality. However, if these attempts produce songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Jesus was an only son, we should be grateful, as we are comforted by the fragile light of hope amidst our own ‘darkness on the edge of town’.

The sports-minded Jesuit Patrick Kelly wrote the following on Bruce Springsteen’s faith and his Roman Catholic background in a column for America Magazine (The National Catholic Weekly) – February 10, 2003 (click here to read):

Faith, hope and love have always played a part in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but this has become more explicit in recent years. Springsteen’s willingness to talk about these themes also is relatively new.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s article, “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” (click to read Am., 2/6/88), seems to have been a catalyst in this regard. The Catholic novelist Walker Percy read the article and wrote to Springsteen in early 1989, particularly interested in the fact that Greeley described him as a Catholic. “If this is true, and I am too,” his letter read, “it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.” Walker Percy died before Springsteen responded to his letter, but the musician wrote in a four-page letter to Percy’s widow:

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s nephew, Will Percy, subsequently interviewed Springsteen about the formative influences on his song-writing for the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles’s magazine Doubletake in 1998 (click here to read).

I assembled some excerpts from this interview. Click here if you’re interested.

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).

Translation:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).

Translation:

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’

– CLICK TO WATCH:

For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.

Last summer, my wife and I traveled the US West Coast. In Los Angeles, strolling down Hollywood Boulevard, right there ‘in the belly of the beast’, we stumbled upon a young lady offering us… a free prayer. It was a temptation we couldn’t resist. Prayers are possible, anytime, anywhere, for free indeed. You can run out of gas, but never out of grace – ain’t it?

“The Christian may sometimes envy
those who have renounced the cares of the world
for the supposed calm of the desert;
but then those who live in the world
may at any time find within themselves the true desert, where no one enters,
where no one is with you,
but where there is only you and God.”

– St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 (from Homilies on the Psalms 38.13).