Wie ernaar zoekt, vindt op het wereldwijde web gemakkelijk vergelijkingen tussen Jezus van Nazareth en allerlei mythologische helden. Dat zulke vergelijkingen mogelijk zijn, is op zich niet vreemd. De auteurs van het Nieuwe Testament geloven immers dat Jezus van Nazareth ‘de Christus’ is, en om te verduidelijken wat dat betekent maken ze gebruik van alom gekende mythologische thema’s. Daarbij putten ze voornamelijk uit de Joodse traditie.

Dat soort observaties leidt regelmatig tot misvattingen. Er wordt wel eens geopperd dat mythologische verhalen en andere beeldende taal de historische werkelijkheid vooral geweld aandoen. Alsof schrijvers dergelijke taal alleen inzetten om met leugenachtige overdrijvingen hun publiek te betoveren. Het verhaal over een op het water lopende Jezus is in die optiek bijvoorbeeld een overdrijving van zijn uitmuntende schipperscapaciteiten. De aanhangers van de zogenaamde Jezusmythe gaan nog een stapje verder: uit de mythologische elementen van het Nieuwe Testament besluiten zij dat Jezus nooit heeft bestaan.

Beide ideeën zijn wetenschappelijk gezien onhoudbaar. Het eerste getuigt van onvoldoende inzicht in de doelstellingen van klassiek mythologische taal, het tweede van onvoldoende inzicht in het onderscheid tussen vorm en inhoud van een bewering. Als je bijvoorbeeld in een afscheidsrede voor de begrafenis van een vriend zegt dat jouw vriend soms een ‘echte teddybeer’ was, verwijst jouw uitspraak niet naar zijn eventueel dichtbehaarde lichaam. In plaats van een mogelijke realiteit (dichtbehaard lichaam) aan te grijpen om een fictie te lanceren (transformatie in een teddybeer), probeer je in beeldende taal uitdrukking te geven aan een diepmenselijke en tegelijk persoonlijke ervaring. Je geeft ook je visie weer op die ervaring. Natuurlijk doe je dat op een manier die voor mensen met een gelijkaardige culturele achtergrond verstaanbaar is, zonder bijkomende uitleg. Iedereen begrijpt onmiddellijk dat je de overledene als een gezellige en vriendelijke mens hebt meegemaakt. Wie wil peilen naar de waarheid van je bewering, moet niet vragen of de overledene soms werkelijk veranderde in een teddybeer. Hij moet vragen of je eerlijk verslag doet van je ervaring.

Hetzelfde geldt voor het verhaal over Jezus die op water loopt. De tijdgenoten van de evangelisten maken daarbij onmiddellijk associaties met onder andere het verhaal over Mozes die de Rode Zee splijt, en met de betekenissen van dat verhaal. In het licht daarvan is de vraag niet of Jezus werkelijk over water heeft gelopen, maar wel of mensen Jezus hebben ervaren als een ‘nieuwe Mozes’. En dat laatste betekent: als iemand die anderen vertrouwen en bevrijding tracht te bieden in stormachtige situaties.

Het is intussen wel al duidelijk in welke zin de aanhangers van de Jezusmythe de bal misslaan. Het is niet omdat je het verslag van de ervaringen met iemand op een mythologische manier vormgeeft dat de inhoud waarnaar je verwijst – namelijk die ervaringen en de persoon in kwestie – niet historisch zou zijn. Gemythologiseerde beweringen bestaan trouwens over veel historische figuren uit de oudheid. Ze zijn een geijkte manier om duidelijk te maken welke betekenis mensen als pakweg Alexander de Grote en keizer Augustus voor hun omgeving hebben. Op basis daarvan het historische karakter van die vorsten in twijfel trekken zou al te belachelijk zijn. Het is dan ook niet toevallig dat de hypothese van de Jezusmythe in de wereld van de historische kritiek geenszins ernstig wordt genomen (lees bijvoorbeeld: On Richard Carrier’s Doubts – pdf). In de wetenschappelijke wereld heeft de Jezusmythe hetzelfde statuut als het creationisme of de klimaatontkenning.

Uiteraard figureren in de meeste mythen louter fictieve personages. Maar zelfs dan geven die verhalen uitdrukking aan concrete ervaringen en bevatten ze een visie over hoe je ermee dient om te gaan. Het Bijbelverhaal over Adam en Eva of het daarop volgende over Kaïn en Abel gaan onder andere over jaloezie en waartoe die kan leiden. Tegelijk proberen ze daaromtrent goede raad te geven, wat in de volksmond ‘de moraal van het verhaal’ of ‘de levensles’ heet te zijn.

Wat betreft Jezus hebben de schrijvers van het Nieuwe Testament op velerlei wijze geprobeerd om de universele relevantie van de mens die ze als Christus beschouwen te verhelderen, en lang niet alleen door mythologische elementen te gebruiken. Eigenlijk behoren de nieuwtestamentische auteurs tot de grondleggers van een traditie die de ontmoeting met Jezus telkens weer mogelijk wil maken voor toekomstige generaties. Ondanks de vaak ontstellend lage wetenschappelijke kwaliteit van de vergelijkingen tussen evangelie en klassieke mythologie, kan dat soort onderneming wel degelijk licht werpen op wie Jezus is en wat hij ook nu voor mensen kan betekenen. Tenminste, als de vergelijking tussen de klassiek mythologische held en de figuur van Christus uit de evangeliën niet gedreven wordt door negatieve sentimenten aangaande de joods-christelijke traditie, noch door a priori apologetische bekommernissen.

Alleszins levert een grondige vergelijking tussen ‘mythe’ en ‘evangelie’ verrassende resultaten op. Er blijkt een radicaal verschil te bestaan tussen de klassiek mythologische held en de figuur van Christus uit de evangeliën. Onder andere de Frans-Amerikaanse denker René Girard (1923-2015) heeft daarop gewezen. In de wereld van de klassiek mythologische verteltrant zijn de verhalen over Christus de vreemde eend in de bijt. Die vreemdheid heeft overigens ook gevolgen voor wie niet vertrouwd is met het klassiek mythologische wereldbeeld. We blijven immers vaak leven vanuit dynamieken waarvoor de klassiek mythologische held een rolmodel vormt, terwijl de figuur van Christus als ‘alternatief rolmodel’ een fundamentele kritiek op die dynamieken levert.

Oedipus of Myth vs Jesus of Gospel

De mythologische held denkt dat hij alleen zichzelf en anderen kan redden als hij een ‘monsterlijke vijand’ weet uit te schakelen of zelfs te doden. Paradoxaal genoeg zal hij soms denken dat hij zichzelf moet uitschakelen. Dat is het geval wanneer hij zichzelf als het probleem ziet. Oedipus is daarvan een voorbeeld. Hij kan als een archetype gelden voor wie zichzelf niet goed genoeg vindt voor deze wereld. Ook vandaag de dag beschuldigen veel mensen zichzelf voor de afwijzing en haat die ze van anderen ondervinden, terwijl de rechtvaardigingen voor die afwijzing en haat eigenlijk ongegrond zijn. Niettemin geraken sommigen zodanig overtuigd van hun negatieve zelfbeeld dat de wereld beter af lijkt zonder hen. Zelfmoord is de meest extreme uiting van die dynamiek.

Andere mythologische helden denken een monsterlijke vijand buiten zichzelf te moeten uitschakelen om de wereld te redden. Theseus behoort tot die dichtbevolkte groep. Mythen met dat soort helden geven de overtuiging weer dat de vestiging van een harmonieuze wereld offers eist. Wat of wie als boosaardig wordt beschouwd, moet er dan aan geloven. Voor sommigen zijn dat vandaag de dag ‘de ongelovigen en hun decadente levenswijze’, voor anderen ‘de gelovigen en hun achterlijke overtuigingen’, voor nog anderen etnische minderheden of politieke tegenstanders, enzovoort.

Een derde soort mythologische helden is bereid om zichzelf op te offeren in de strijd tegen de zogenaamd monsterlijke vijand. Achilles bewandelt dat pad. Hij lijkt wel een blauwdruk van de hedendaagse zelfmoordterrorist, of van de soldaat die bereid is om voor zijn vaderland te sterven. Tragisch (en op een bijzonder pijnlijke manier ook komisch) is natuurlijk dat zij zichzelf vernietigen uit angst om vernietigd te worden. In de evangeliën geeft Jezus die dynamiek weer als hij zegt: “Wie zijn leven wil redden, zal het verliezen.”

In tegenstelling tot de klassiek mythologische held in al zijn varianten, redt de figuur van Christus anderen omdat hij weigert te doden (of op een andere manier te ‘vernietigen’). In zijn dood weigert Christus zelfs niet alleen om anderen te vernietigen, maar weigert hij paradoxaal genoeg ook zichzelf te vernietigen: hij blijft de belichaming van de geweldloze, vergevende en leven gevende liefde die hij altijd is geweest. Omdat hij weigert geweld met geweld te beantwoorden, behoedt hij zowel (trouweloze) vrienden als haatdragende vijanden voor een burgeroorlog. Noch anderen, noch zichzelf doet hij geweld aan. Hij wordt gekruisigd.

Nogmaals, de dood heeft de liefdesdynamiek van waaruit Christus leeft niet kleingekregen. Integendeel, door te sterven heeft hij de dynamiek van geweldloze liefde volbracht. Als hij sterft aan het kruis kan hij niet meer bezwijken voor de verleiding om zelf geweld te gebruiken. Met zijn sterven sterft ook de macht van die verleiding. De logica van het offergeweld is alleen mogelijk indien het slachtoffer op een of andere manier kan voorgesteld worden als behorend tot het monsterachtige doembeeld van vernietigend geweld. Die voorstelling wordt onmogelijk in het geval van een weerloze, gekruisigde Christus. Aan het kruis openbaart Christus een liefde die zich onafhankelijk van de logica van machtsstrijd, offergeweld en de dood beweegt – en in die zin is ze ‘almachtig’.

Christus navolgen betekent zijn vergevingsgezinde terugtrekking uit de gewelddadige offerlogica navolgen, wat uiteindelijk zowel onze (al dan niet vijandige) naasten als onszelf redt. De manier waarop Nelson Mandela in 1990, bij zijn vrijlating na 27 jaar gevangenschap, de weg van de vergeving bewandelt in plaats van die van de wraak, is maar een van vele voorbeelden waaruit dat blijkt. Hemelvaartsdag (Ascensio Domini) symboliseert en viert het vertrouwen dat we als mensen in staat zijn om elkaars ‘verlosser’ te worden, ook zonder de onmiddellijke aanwezigheid van die Jezus waarin sommigen de Messias of Christus hebben herkend. Bevrijd van mythische illusies blijken mensen, zowel vroeger als nu, de werkelijkheid van de liefde waarnaar het Christusgebeuren verwijst vorm te kunnen geven. “De Geest waait waarheen Hij wil.” Ook dat behoort tot τὸ εὐαγγέλιον – het evangelie; vertaald: het ‘goede nieuws’.

Een oproep tot herbronning binnen de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk naar aanleiding van de recente stellingnamen van de Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer aangaande homoseksuele relaties.

Bezeten

In de evangeliën staat een eigenaardig verhaal over een bezeten man die zichzelf slaat met stenen (Marcus 5, 1-20). De manier waarop hij zichzelf behandelt, blijkt onder andere een imitatie te zijn van de manier waarop zijn stadsgenoten hem behandelen. Hij verblijft tussen de graven. Hij is duidelijk ‘dood’ voor zijn gemeenschap. Als je omgeving jou veroordeelt en waardeloos acht, vergroot de kans dat je jezelf ook niet langer respecteert.

De meerdere persoonlijkheden die de man in hun greep hebben, vormen de keerzijde van dat gebrek aan zelfliefde. Ze worden geboren uit een wanhopig streven naar waardering. Niets mag echter baten. Geen enkele identiteit lijkt bij anderen in de smaak te vallen. Het angstvallige verlangen naar sociale erkenning bereikt dus het tegenovergestelde van wat het beoogt: wie erdoor bevangen is, wint de wereld niet voor zich, maar geraakt juist meer en meer geïsoleerd (Marcus 8, 35-36).

Het evangelie verhaalt dat de bezeten man zich in die toestand van zelfverlies bevindt tot hij Jezus ontmoet. Jezus bevrijdt de man van een kuddementaliteit die bepaalt wat waarde heeft en wat niet. Hij biedt hem het vertrouwen om, in weerwil van die mentaliteit, zichzelf opnieuw te waarderen. De liefde die door Jezus wordt belichaamd, stelt de man in staat om zichzelf te beminnen.

Bevrijd

Jezus geeft ook de sleutel om die liefde in allerlei mogelijke situaties te ontketenen (Marcus 12, 30-31): “Bemin God en je naaste als jezelf.” Voor de Jood die Jezus is, houdt het eerste deel van dat dubbelgebod eigenlijk een radicaal verbod in. “God beminnen”, het eerste en belangrijkste van de tien geboden, betekent zoveel als “niets vergoddelijken” (Exodus 20, 4-5a)  of, in niet-religieuze taal: “niets verabsoluteren”.

De menselijke identiteit wordt op het eerste gezicht bepaald door een samenspel van biologische en culturele factoren, door nature en nurture. Jezus beweert echter dat we niet volledig afhangen van biologische impulsen en culturele normen. In zijn ogen zijn we ook “kind van God”. Daarmee bedoelt hij: kind van een liefde die niet gebonden is aan ‘natuurlijke’ of ‘culturele’ criteria.

Dat heeft waarlijk emancipatorische gevolgen. De bekende Nederlandse hersenonderzoeker Dick Swaab wijst bijvoorbeeld op een biologische aanleg voor pedofilie, maar dat betekent natuurlijk niet dat pedo-seksuele handelingen geoorloofd moeten zijn, zelfs niet als een of andere culturele context die toelaat. De ontmoeting met de ander is altijd ook een ontmoeting met een realiteit die anders is dan wat in het gezichtsveld van de eigen neiging of verbeelding verschijnt. In die zin roept de ander op tot een liefde die mensen bevrijdt van wat ze ‘moeten’ volgens lichamelijke impulsen en van wat ze ‘mogen’ volgens sociale normen.

De ander liefhebben is een werkelijkheid liefhebben die voorbij natuurlijke behoeftes, sociaal aangewakkerde verlangens of een cultureel gevormde verbeelding ligt. Paradoxaal genoeg brengt de overgave aan die liefde mensen tot zichzelf. Een pedofiele priester die ingaat tegen zijn neiging om kinderen seksueel te benaderen, is niet langer onderworpen aan een verwoestende affectieve dynamiek waarin hij ook zichzelf verliest. Hetzelfde geldt voor een alcoholverslaafde die zich uit liefde voor zijn naasten laat behandelen, ondanks bijvoorbeeld een gedoogcultuur aangaande alcoholgebruik in zijn werkomgeving. Overigens dient een samenleving de meest kwetsbaren tegen zichzelf te beschermen. Dat gaat van gedwongen opnames tot regelgeving in verband met seksualiteit. Immers, zelfs als een kind zogezegd instemt met seksuele handelingen door een volwassene, heeft die instemming meer dan waarschijnlijk te maken met manipulaties van de kant van de volwassene. In die lijn moet ook bijvoorbeeld regelgeving betreffende euthanasie bij minderjarigen van grote omzichtigheid getuigen.

Kortom, de liefde voor de ander als ander ondergraaft de verabsolutering van om het even welke lichamelijke neiging of cultureel en historisch bepaalde norm. Daardoor ontdekt ook degene die liefheeft zichzelf als toch nog “anders dan de optelsom van genetisch materiaal en opvoeding”. Wat de mens ten diepste bezielt, overstijgt dan ook wat zichtbaar en meetbaar is. De joods-christelijke traditie noemt die transcendentie “God”.

Realiteitsbesef

In de evangeliën schept Jezus voortdurend ruimte voor die bevrijdende transcendentie en het daarmee gepaard gaande grotere realiteitsbesef. Dat blijkt onder andere uit het welbekende verhaal over zijn ontmoeting met een overspelige vrouw (Johannes 8, 1-11). Op de vraag van een woedende menigte of die vrouw, naar aloude wetsgetrouwe gewoonte, moet gestenigd worden, antwoordt Jezus: “Wie zonder zonde is, mag de eerste steen werpen.” Dat is een geniaal antwoord. Jezus offert de bestaande orde immers niet zomaar op om, zoals veel machtswellustelingen voor en na hem, zijn eigen wetten te stellen. Integendeel, hij heroriënteert de bestaande regels naar een liefdesdynamiek die in plaats van slachtoffers ‘authentiek leven’ wil.

Wie na die woorden van Jezus nog een steen werpt, zou impliciet van zichzelf beweren perfect te zijn. Die persoon zou dus zichzelf vergoddelijken, en dat is een overtreding van het belangrijkste gebod in de joodse traditie. Jezus brengt de omstanders ertoe om “God te beminnen”, en dat wil zeggen dat ze zichzelf en hun culturele identiteit niet langer vergoddelijken.  Uiteindelijk is er niemand van de omstanders die de vrouw nog veroordeelt. Een realistischer kijk op eigen zwakheden en tekortkomingen, en de ermee gepaard gaande grotere zelfliefde, leidt blijkbaar tot het geven van ‘ademruimte’ aan anderen. Als je jezelf niet vergoddelijkt, kan je wel degelijk “je naaste beminnen als jezelf”.

Op het einde zegt Jezus tegen de vrouw: “Ik veroordeel u ook niet. Ga nu maar, en zondig voortaan niet meer.” De vraag is wat Jezus in deze context precies bedoelt met ‘zondigen’. In het verhaal over de bezeten man die zichzelf stenigt is dat overduidelijk. Omdat die man de negatieve blik van zijn omgeving op hem overneemt, is hij niet in staat om van zichzelf te houden. Daardoor kan hij ook voor anderen geen zegen zijn. De ‘zonde’ is in dit geval dus de verabsolutering van sociale normen en het gebrek aan zelfliefde en liefde voor anderen die er het gevolg van zijn. Jezus bevrijdt de man van dat kwaad en schenkt hem het vertrouwen om opnieuw van zichzelf te houden.

In het geval van de overspelige vrouw bevrijdt Jezus in de eerste plaats de omstanders van hun ‘zonde’, zijnde een verabsolutering van hun patriarchale culturele normen. Daardoor krijgt een vrouw die ooit is uitgehuwelijkt meer ruimte. Het is niet denkbeeldig dat haar eigen echtgenoot haar slecht behandelt en dat ze bij een geliefde voor wie ze wel zelf kiest respect vindt. ‘Leven in zonde’ zou dan betekenen: jezelf opnieuw onderwerpen aan de culturele normen die je echtgenoot gebruikt om macht over jou uit te oefenen. ‘Niet meer zondigen’ is dan: kiezen voor de geliefde van wie je respect krijgt, en vanuit dat herwonnen zelfrespect ‘vruchtbaar’ zijn voor anderen. De overspelige vrouw hoeft zichzelf niet langer te veroordelen, temeer daar Jezus ook haar omgeving heeft bekeerd tot de liefde die haar niet veroordeelt. Kortom, “ga nu maar, en zondig voortaan niet meer” betekent in dat opzicht: “Ga maar ten volle voor de situatie waarin je jezelf kan respecteren.”

Dood

In navolging van het optreden van die Jezus uit de evangeliën moet de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk erover waken om zichzelf niet te vergoddelijken. Zij mag haar eigen leer niet verabsoluteren. De Kerk en haar historisch gegroeide wetten zijn zelf niet God. Ook de Bijbel is zelf niet God. Kerk en Bijbel zijn op hun best wegen naar de bevrijdende liefde die zich in Jezus belichaamt. Vanwege die belichaming wordt hij ‘Christus’ genoemd en spreken zijn volgelingen over zichzelf als ‘christenen’ (en bijvoorbeeld niet als ‘bijbelsen’).

De recente verklaringen van de katholieke Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer aangaande homoseksuele relaties doen in het licht van Jezus’ optreden de vraag rijzen waar de ‘zonde’ zich precies situeert. “God liefhebben” doe je volgens het dubbelgebod ook “met heel je verstand”. Als de Congregatie zich beroept op de Bijbel, moet ze dat dus ook op een contextuele (historisch-kritische) manier doen. Die contextualisering behoort trouwens tot de traditie van de Kerk zelf. Als de Bijbel al homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt, dan is dat om dezelfde reden als waarom ze heteroseksuele relaties veroordeelt: het gaat om seksuele belevingen die de menselijke integriteit zouden aantasten. Verkrachtingen binnen (gearrangeerde) huwelijken zijn daarvan een voorbeeld. In dat geval zijn echtscheidingen aangewezen.

Een cultureel bepaalde morele opvatting die homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt als zondig (zoals recentelijk die van de Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer), is eveneens een broedplaats van discriminatie en geweld – ook van sommige mensen naar zichzelf toe. De ‘zonde’ situeert zich dus op het niveau van de opvatting die homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt. Die opvatting druist in tegen een liefdesdynamiek die mensen ten volle wil doen leven. Ze voeren naar ‘de dood’ (zie 1 Johannes 3, 14): “De mens zonder liefde is nog in het gebied van de dood” – zoals de man die zichzelf stenigt (zie hoger) “tussen de graven” verblijft. Kortom, in het licht van het evangelie is het een ‘zonde’ om homoseksuele relaties ‘zondig’ te noemen.

Leven

Een ethiek die mensen ertoe aanzet om zichzelf te ‘stenigen’ en hen verhindert om zichzelf te respecteren, moet te allen tijde onder kritiek geplaatst kunnen worden. Zeker als een gemeenschap trouw wil blijven aan haar roeping om de liefde van Christus gestalte te geven. In de Bijbel wordt niets God genoemd behalve die liefde (1 Johannes 4, 8). En die is zo radicaal dat ze de maatstaf vormt voor elke cultureel en historisch bepaalde norm om menselijke relaties vorm te geven. Ze zegt dat “regels er zijn voor de mens en niet omgekeerd” (Marcus 2, 27). Hoewel de liefde zich dus moet concretiseren via regels en normen, is ze zelf niet aan die regels gebonden. In die zin relativeert ze elke vergankelijke culturele ordening.

Vandaar dat, volgens Jezus, in de onvergankelijke leven-gevende dimensie van de liefde “mensen niet trouwen en ook niet worden uitgehuwelijkt” (Marcus 12, 25). In dezelfde lijn wijst Paulus op de betrekkelijkheid van de gebruiken waarmee de ene gemeenschap zich van een andere afgrenst. De liefde, belichaamd in Christus, maakt alle mensen tot één volk en doorbreekt culturele grenzen (Galaten 5, 6): “Want in Christus Jezus is niet de besnijdenis of de onbesnedenheid van belang, maar het geloof dat werkzaam is door de liefde.” Paulus ziet in Christus een liefde werkzaam die de hele schepping herijkt en die alle sociale begrenzingen, voortkomende uit aloude machtsspelletjes zowel binnen als tussen gemeenschappen, op losse schroeven zet (Kolossenzen 3, 10-11): “Bekleed u met de nieuwe mens, die wordt vernieuwd tot het ware inzicht, naar het beeld van zijn schepper. Dan is er geen sprake meer van Griek of Jood, besnedene of onbesnedene, barbaar, Skyth, slaaf, vrije mens. Maar alles in allen is Christus.”

Augustinus van Hippo (354-430), een van de belangrijkste kerkvaders, vat de kern van de houding waartoe de mens in navolging van Christus is geroepen. De mens die leeft vanuit Christus’ bevrijdende liefde heeft geen wetten nodig om te weten wat hij in de immer wisselende omstandigheden van een historisch gesitueerd bestaan moet doen of (niet) mag doen. Die ‘waarachtig levende’ mens geeft de juiste plaats aan ‘de wetten’. Hij interpreteert ze niet naar ‘de letter’ maar naar ‘de geest’ (2 Korintiërs 3, 5-6; Romeinen 2, 29), waarbij de liefde primeert en richting geeft. Augustinus schrijft dus allesbehalve toevallig (Ep.Io.tr. 7, 8): “Bemin en doe dan wat je wilt.” Als christenen dienen we ons telkens weer te laven aan die bron van liefde. Ja, dat geldt ook voor de katholieke Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer.

A call for renewal of the Catholic Church in response to the recent statements on homosexual relationships by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Possessed

There is a peculiar story in the Gospels about a possessed man who beats himself with stones (Mark 5:1-20). The way he treats himself turns out to be, among other things, an imitation of the way his fellow townsmen treat him. He lives in the tombs. It is clear that he is dead to his community. When your community condemns you and deems you worthless, it is very likely that you will no longer respect yourself either.

The flip side of the man’s lack of self-love consists of multiple personalities taking hold of him. They are born out of a desperate search for appreciation. However, nothing works. None of the identities seem to appeal to others. An anxious desire for social recognition thus achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do: those who are captivated by it do not “win the world,” but rather become more and more isolated (Mark 8:35-36).

The Gospel relates that the possessed man finds himself in this state of self-denial until he meets Jesus. Jesus frees the man from a herd mentality that determines what is (not) valuable. Jesus offers him the confidence, in defiance of that mentality, to value himself again. The love embodied by Jesus enables the man to love himself.

Liberated

Jesus also gives the key to unleashing that love in all kinds of situations (Mark 12:30-31): “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” As a Jew, Jesus knows that the first part of that double commandment actually implies a radical prohibition. “Love God,” the first and most important of the ten commandments, means as much as “do not deify anything” (Exodus 20:4-5a) or, in non-religious language, “do not absolutize anything.”

At first glance, human identity is determined by an interplay between biological and cultural factors – in short, by nature and nurture. Jesus, however, asserts that we are not entirely dependent on biological impulses and cultural norms. In his view, we are also “children of God.” By this he means: children of a love that is not bound by transient natural or cultural criteria.

Understanding human identity in that way truly has emancipatory implications. For instance, the well-known Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab points to a biological predisposition for pedophilia, but that does not mean that pedo-sexual acts should be permissible, even if some cultural contexts allow them. The encounter with the other always also is an encounter with a reality that is different from what appears from the perspective of one’s own inclination or cultural imagination. In that sense, the other calls for a love that frees people from what they “must” do according to bodily impulses and from what they “may” do according to social norms.

To love the other is to love a reality beyond natural needs or culturally determined desires. Paradoxically, people who surrender themselves to that love become free and thus find themselves. A pedophile priest who goes against his inclination to approach children sexually is no longer subject to destructive affective dynamics in which he also loses himself. The same applies to an alcoholic who allows himself to be treated out of care for his loved ones, despite, perhaps, a culture of tolerance regarding alcohol consumption in his work environment. Moreover, a society must protect the most vulnerable from harming themselves. That responsibility goes from compulsory admissions to regulations on sexuality. After all, even if a child allegedly consents to sexual acts by an adult, that consent is more than likely related to manipulations on the part of the adult. Legislation on euthanasia concerning minors should also be subject to great caution for similar reasons.

In short, love for the other as other undermines the absolutization of any bodily inclination or culturally and historically determined norm. The one who loves also discovers himself as “different from (or ‘other than’) the total sum of genetics and education.” What truly animates a human being transcends what is visible and measurable. The Judeo-Christian tradition calls this transcendence “God.”

Reality Check

In the Gospels, Jesus continually makes room for that liberating transcendence and the greater sense of reality that comes with it. This is evident, among other things, in the well-known story of his encounter with an adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). An enraged crowd asks Jesus if that woman should be stoned to death – as she should according to time-honored laws and customs. Jesus replies, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That is a brilliant reply. Jesus does not simply sacrifice the existing order to set his own laws, like many power-hungry people before and after him. On the contrary, he reorients the existing rules toward a dynamic of love that wants “authentic life” instead of victims.

Whoever throws a stone after those words of Jesus would implicitly claim of himself to be perfect. That person would thus deify himself, and that is a violation of the most important commandment in the Jewish tradition. Jesus reminds the bystanders “to love God,” which means “to stop deifying” themselves and their cultural identity.  In the end, none of the bystanders condemns the woman. A more realistic view of one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings, and the accompanying greater self-love, apparently lead to giving others breathing room. If you do not deify yourself, you can indeed “love your neighbor as yourself.”

At the end, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The question is what exactly is meant by “sin” in this context. The story of the possessed man who stones himself leaves no doubt in that regard. Because that man imitates the negative view of those around him, he is unable to love himself. As a result, he is no blessing to others either. So the “sin” in this case is the absolutization of social norms and the lack of self-love and love for others that result from it. Jesus frees the man from that type of evil and gives him the confidence to love himself again.

In the case of the adulterous woman, Jesus first of all frees the bystanders from their sin. Their “sin” really is an absolutization of their patriarchal cultural norms. As Jesus liberates the bystanders from their old ways, a woman who has been given in marriage receives more freedom as well. It is very well possible that her own husband treats her badly, while the other man treats her with respect. “Living in sin” would then mean: re-submitting yourself to the cultural norms your spouse uses to exert power over you. “To sin no more,” by contrast, would mean: to seek the presence of the beloved one who does respect you, and to become a blessing for others as a consequence of a regained self-respect. The adulteress no longer has to condemn herself, especially since Jesus has also converted those around her to the love that does not condemn her. In short, “go now, and sin no more…” means, in this context, “Just go for the situation in which you can respect yourself.”

Death

If the Roman Catholic Church wants to imitate Jesus as he is known from the Gospels, it must be careful not to deify itself. It must not absolutize its own teaching. The Church and its historically developed laws are not themselves God. Nor is the Bible itself God. Church and Bible are, at their best, paths to the liberating love that is embodied by Jesus. Because of that embodiment, he is called the Christ. That is also why his followers speak of themselves as “Christians” (and not, for example, as “Biblians”).

The recent statements of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding homosexual relationships as so-called “sinful,” again raise the question where exactly the “sin” is located. “Loving God” according to the double commandment is also done “with all your mind.” Therefore, when the Congregation appeals to the Bible, it must do so in a contextual way, if not historical-critical. Contextual readings of the Bible, by the way, belong to the tradition of the Church itself. As it turns out, the Bible condemns homosexual relationships for the same reason that it condemns heterosexual relationships: it always concerns sexual relationships that are said to threaten human integrity. Rape within (arranged) marriages is an example thereof. In that case, a divorce is appropriate, perhaps even more so if it goes against a patriarchal culture that sustains violent dynamics in marriages.

A culturally determined moral view that condemns homosexual relationships as sinful (such as the one recently expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) is also a breeding ground for discrimination and violence – even of self-directed violence. In this case, “sin” is thus situated at the level of the view that condemns homosexual relationships. That view goes against a dynamic of love that wants people to be fully alive. It leads to “death” – oppression of oneself and others. See 1 John 3:14: “Anyone who does not love remains in death,” like the possessed man who lives in the tombs (see higher). In short, it is a sin to call homosexual relationships sinful.

Life

An ethic that prompts people to “stone” themselves and prevents them from respecting themselves, must be severely criticized. Especially if a community wants to remain faithful to its calling to imitate the love embodied by Christ. In the Bible, nothing is called God except that love (1 John 4:8). It is so radical that it is the measure of every culturally and historically determined standard for shaping human relationships. It claims that “rules are made for man and not vice versa” (Mark 2:27). Thus, although love must concretize itself through rules and norms, it is not itself bound by those rules. In that sense, it considers relative every transitory cultural arrangement.

Hence, according to Jesus, in the imperishable life-giving dimension of love “people neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). In the same vein, Paul points to the relativity of the customs by which one community demarcates itself from another. Love, embodied by Christ, makes all humans one people and breaks down cultural boundaries (Galatians 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” In Christ, Paul sees a love at work that recalibrates the whole of creation and which challenges all social boundaries that arise from power games – both within and between communities (Colossians 3:10-11): “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

White Privilege Forgotten by the Right

Another Brick in the Wall Lyric (Pink Floyd)

I’ve had students defend their rather negative attitude at school like this:

“High school is a time for rebellion. As a high school kid, you should disobey your teachers in order to discover yourself. Perhaps most of all, high school is a time for pranks and practical jokes.”

Anthropological considerations aside, from a socio-economic perspective this type of attitude towards high school is often a sign of privilege. Some parents even encourage their children to “experiment” at the very spot where their offspring should be preparing for the future. And by experimenting they don’t mean developing philosophical thought experiments or exploring a scientific hypothesis. They rather refer to a kind of mischief that is supposed to build a strong character and personality. When teachers complain about the conduct of their children, those types of parents either pretend to agree with the teachers or they try to excuse the misconduct by using phrases like “we’ve all been young” and “with youth comes youthful indiscretion…” Those parents know that what their children don’t learn at school, they will learn from high paid tutors who eventually get them into university.

James Baldwin Quote on Imitation

Apart from developing the weak spine of a spoilt brat, adolescents who grew up that way didn’t do anything else but imitate the kind of behavior that is advertised in pop culture time and again. We all develop an identity by mimetic (i.e. imitative) processes, of course, but it is quite ironic that the high school rascal thinks of himself as an original and daring character. This is the typical narcissism of the youngster who thinks of himself as a hero and doesn’t see that there is nothing heroic about “transgressing rules” at most of today’s permissive high schools. He is unable to love the reality of his situation, but is all the more in love with an unrealistic self-image of which he wants the confirmation by his peers. In the end, however, his eventual professional ambitions are often not “original” at all, as they turn out to be imitations of the ambitions of his parents and their social network.

Malcolm X on Education

When children come from a poor neighborhood and have to walk 10 miles a day to the nearest school, they don’t have the luxury to waste the precious time and money that their community invests in providing a good education. As it happens, some of those disadvantaged children end up at schools surrounded by rich kids who behave like so-called high school rebels. However, the poor child who starts imitating his “rebellious” classmates does not have the resources to compensate for the potential voids in his education as a consequence of his so-called rebellious behavior. There is not an army of high paid tutors waiting at home.

Moreover, in the process of growing up the disadvantaged kid will also start noticing that his mischief is separated from the same mischief committed by privileged youth of the same age group. Indeed some rich parents who do excuse the misconduct of their own children as “youthful indiscretion” will condemn the same behavior as “juvenile delinquency” when it is performed by so-called uneducated poor people, even more so when these are people of color. Racism runs deep. Add to this the fact that a lot of socio-economic problems today in communities of colored people are the consequence of a history dominated by white elites, and it becomes clear why a movement against discrimination calls itself Black Lives Matter to create “privilege for all” and not predominantly “white”.

James Baldwin Quote on the Paradox of Education

People on the political right should be more aware of the double standard behind blaming disadvantaged people for their own miserable situation. The fact of the matter is that opportunities are not equal for all. Some enjoy the privilege of getting away with so-called “youthful indiscretions”, for instance, while others are incarcerated for the very same youthful sins. Those types of privilege are often forgotten by the political right. Also, if we would truly live in a meritocratic society, and not just on paper, the likes of Donald Trump would never make it into the US presidential office (even if they were backed by powerful elites who were planning to use that type of president to push their own agenda).

Condoleezza Rice on Victimhood

In a worst case scenario, the downtrodden develop a deep-seated feeling of ressentiment. They develop an aversion to the ambitions they previously imitated from their privileged peers. They comfort themselves by getting a sense of self-worth in groups that claim to oppose everything privileged people stand for. As a privileged elite points to their mistakes and blames them for their miserable condition, while at the same time that privileged elite can afford making similar mistakes without having to pay for them, they are easily manipulated by recruiters who abuse their sense of victimhood. They fall for the basic story of every manipulator: “They reject you, but I see your potential…” Thus they become the slaves of false Messiahs who promise to deliver them from victimhood, but who actually keep the victimary status alive to gain power over their followers. Gangs thrive upon ressentiment, from ISIS to the Black Disciples to groups of Neo-Nazis.

It is important to realize that the violence originating from ressentiment cannot be disconnected from instances of systemic violence and oppression as described above. Ressentiment ultimately results from a comparison by people who feel disadvantaged, one way or the other, with people who are at least perceived as privileged. Although privileged people often cannot be held personally responsible for racism and other types of discrimination, there are historically grown structural injustices, which result in some people literally having more chances than others. So gang members are indeed personally responsible for pulling the trigger in acts of violence, but the way society is structured as a whole often hands them the weapons. As for the latter, we all bear some responsibility, if just for our voting habits.

To realize the depth of historically grown structural injustices, it is good to listen to the following speech of Kimberly Jones (be sure to watch the video below of Desiree Barnes against looters to get a complete picture of what this article is all about). Jones ends her powerful statement by saying “They are lucky that as black people what we are looking for is equality and not revenge…”:

White Privilege Forgotten by the Left

While the political right often remains blind to instances of deeply ingrained, historically grown systemic violence and social oppression, the political left often does not want to hear about individual freedom and responsibility. Since on many issues I tend to belong to a community of “white liberals” more than to a community of “white conservatives”, I will write in the first-person plural to develop a self-critical reflection. That is not to say I wouldn’t lean to the right as well sometimes. I guess I’m left in the middle.

Anyway, we liberal white folk, we think love for our neighbor should always include a recognition of our neighbor’s potential traumas. Especially in education we should be aware of the violence in its many guises children carry with them. We are all victims, one way or the other, be it of socio-economic circumstances, bullying, verbal and physical abuse, learning disabilities or mental disorders. Although the recognition of that reality is crucial to become a self-responsible person, it becomes a danger when it is used to simply excuse children for not taking part in the educational process as they should.

There is a significant difference in approaching children as being somewhat determined by their problems or as being free to learn despite their problems. In other words, there is a difference in approaching children as mere victims or as people with potential (think of the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect in this regard). Not being demanding is not a sign of love and respect in education. You might become popular and powerful among young people in that way, but in the meantime you deny them the dignity to develop their talents. In fact, you become the double of those severe teachers who are only strict to gain a sense of power as well. It does happen, although perhaps more or less unconsciously, that the question to let a pupil pass during deliberations eventually has more to do with a powerplay between teachers than with the interest of pupils themselves. In any case, children from a privileged background will once again find ways to compensate for voids in their education as a consequence of an all too soft approach, while disadvantaged peers in the same educational situation remain the victims of oppressive circumstances. The political left often forgets that type of privilege. Again some people can afford being spoilt during the educational process, while others can’t.

Malcolm X Quote on White Liberal

We, white privileged liberals, should be aware of potentially similar dynamics in our assessment of systemic injustices experienced by people of color. Malcolm X (1925-1965) criticized a liberal approach that turns out to simply abuse the victimhood of colored people in a fight over power with white conservatives. He came to the conclusion that many white liberals, consciously or not, have an interest in maintaining that victimhood. Presenting themselves as liberators of a problem they will in fact never solve, those liberals time and again become false Messiahs who gain power and wealth by locking up their followers in an idea of victimhood. In 1963, Malcolm X formulated it this way:

“In this crooked game of power politics here in America, the Negro, namely the race problem, integration and civil rights issues are all nothing but tools, used by the whites who call themselves liberals against another group of whites who call themselves conservatives, either to get into power or to retain power. Among whites here in America, the political teams are no longer divided into Democrats and Republicans. The whites who are now struggling for control of the American political throne are divided into liberal and conservative camps. The white liberals from both parties cross party lines to work together toward the same goal, and white conservatives from both parties do likewise.

The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way; the liberal is more deceitful, more hypocritical, than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor and by winning the friendship and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or a weapon in this political football game, that is constantly raging between the white liberals and the white conservatives. The American Negro is nothing but a political football.”

For more, listen to:

Against this quite cynical stance of Malcolm X I would argue that the majority of us, white liberals, is genuinely touched by the fate of disadvantaged people, especially oppressed people of color. We feel for them. We sympathize with their just cause to better their socio-economic situation. We are prepared to stand next to them in the fight against racism. Because of the prevalence of drug abuse, poverty and crime in some of their neighborhoods, we understand that it is often very difficult for young black people to fully participate in a good educational process. Hell, we know that some of our own children, growing up in the best of circumstances, wouldn’t take their chances at school if it wasn’t for the high paid tutors to pull them through. Let alone that they would be able to take their chances if they would grow up like some of their disadvantaged black counterparts.

Blaming those black youngsters for their own situation would thus be hypocritical. This is all the more so because the system we receive our privilege from is the same system that keeps them oppressed. Moreover, as privileged white folk we are always partly responsible for maintaining that system and its inherent oppressive violence. That’s why we quite easily refer to socio-economic circumstances when we are confronted with criminal conduct of black youth. We are convinced that at least some of that conduct may be excused, since it is to be partially understood as a consequence of our own violence. And so it happens that by taking up the cause of the disadvantaged fellow citizen, we clear our conscience. We take the moral high ground by judging everything and everyone we perceive as oppressive or racist, while maintaining the same privilege and wealth as them.

Reflexes of the Privileged – The White Conservative in the White Liberal

On the surface we, white liberals, might seem very different from white racists who openly look down on poor and oppressed people of color. However, we don’t really change our white privileged mindset if we merely approach those downtrodden as “helpless victims” who cannot achieve anything without “white” help. At the same time we rave about Steven Pinker’s claim that the world becomes less violent because we rarely ever have to deal with violence directly. We rave about Rutger Bregman’s observation that most people are good until we have to personally deal with those good people doing bad things. In that case we very conveniently refer to the latter as “psychos” – or we use some other convenient monstrous depiction.

James Baldwin Quote on Real Change

The same goes for our attitude towards people we perceive as having a “free spirit”. We rightfully celebrate someone like James Baldwin (1924-1987) as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement. However, we despise the 25 year old gay colleague who falls in love with a 17 year old adolescent. Perhaps this means that we would have only gossiped about James Baldwin if he would have been that colleague, because that is exactly what happened to him at 25.

This ambiguous attitude depends on the (physical or mental) distance between ourselves and the others we compare ourselves with. French American thinker René Girard (1923-2015) points out that others can become our heroes in a process of external mediation. This means that others who are somewhat external to our day-to-day life can become models or heroes we admire, and that they mediate some of our ambitions and (secret) dreams.

When those same others become part of the internal circle of our life, however, the dynamic of comparison may turn them into rivals. In a process of internal mediation our models easily become obstacles in the pursuit of our ambitions. They are often perceived as threats to our own position or way of life. That’s why we can stand the free spirited James Baldwin who is far away, and not the same free spirited person who is close by. The latter is often too intimidating. Just his mere presence is already experienced as competing with everything we unwittingly hold dear.

And so we listen to Charlie Parker (1920-1955) and Billie Holiday (1915-1959) in our hipster coffee houses, yet walk around the struggling musician, addicted to heroin, on the way home from work. We pity the poor young man who seems unable to escape a life of crime, yet condemn a poor young man from mixed descent like Diego Maradona, who did become successful and maintained his parents’ family from age 15. We Billie Holiday Quote on Plantationcuddle the rascal as long as he remains on the streets, but when he rises to the level (or beyond) our privileged situation we tend to look down on him. We actually don’t understand that you can take the man out of the street, but never completely the street out of the man, although we do pay lip service to that sentence. Someone like Maradona is a hero of the poor and the oppressed, first and foremost.

The fact that we often feel sympathy for the poor and the oppressed but sometimes look down on their heroes, is a sign of our complacent, paternalistic and condescending supremacy. Maybe we do want to remain saviors, so the problem we want to save people from has to also remain. Disadvantaged communities don’t need this type of false Messiahs. Therefore, we privileged liberals should realize that we often are more concerned with taking down our conservative “enemy” than with actually focusing on the victims of systemic injustices in our institutions. We should truly reflect on the fact and its implications that our lives, spent in the privileged layers of society, have more in common with the lives of our privileged conservative neighbors than with the lives of the disadvantaged. As long as we use movements like Black Lives Matter in a polarized political powerplay that actually drowns the potential for a policy of social reform, we will remain the folk that Malcolm X characterized so sharply.

Taking Matters into Own Hands

On February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shoots 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida. He has already attempted suicide by then. His autism is one of the factors that makes him a target of heavy harassment throughout his youth. His story makes clear that it is not his autism per se that makes him violent to himself and to others, but the social rejection he experiences by bullies, time and again.

David Dorn

On June 2, 2020, a young man shoots David Dorn in front of a pawnshop in St. Louis. David Dorn is a 77-year-old African-American retired police captain. During the social unrest after the police murder of George Floyd, he tries to protect a friend’s pawnshop from looters. It becomes fatal to him. 24-year-old Stephan Cannon is arrested a week later on suspicion of murder.

What Nikolas Cruz and Stephan Cannon have in common is the experience of social rejection. Something like that has similar effects on the brain as physical violence. The former experiences systematic rejection because of his autism, the latter experiences systemic rejection because of his skin color. Both forms of rejection are to be condemned. Unfortunately, neither Cruz nor Cannon seem to experience this condemnation. As a result, they ultimately share another violent reality: they make innocent others, i.e. scapegoats pay for the frustrations they both experience in the course of their lives.

It might be tempting to further isolate perpetrators such as Cruz and Cannon and to explain their violent actions on the basis of a hyper-individual problem from which they would suffer. However, this is all too easy and actually indicates a cowardly attitude. The way communities are made up does play a role in the way individuals behave. In other words, each community has a share and a responsibility in the violence perpetrated by some individuals. Again, a social environment might not pull the trigger, but it often does hand the weapons (see above). This is not to say that perpetrators of violence themselves bear no overwhelming responsibility. Cruz and Cannon do have a freedom of choice. In the end, they pull the trigger – or not.

It is important that Black Lives Matter acknowledges that someone like Stephan Cannon is also one of those blacks who feel rejected in a society dominated by white privilege. Stephan Cannon’s violence, as a revenge against the violence of social discrimination, is an actual imitation and continuation of white supremacy violence. It is precisely for this reason that Black Lives Matter, in addition to making an analysis of the causes of revenge against innocent third parties, must also clearly condemn this form of violence. If it doesn’t, it puts that condemnation in the hands of its opponents. The latter can then continue to live with the illusion that they have nothing to do with the frustrations of a young criminal. In that case, a society dominated by white privilege remains blind to its own violence. The condemnation of violence is therefore not a side issue in the struggles of movements such as Black Lives Matter. It belongs to their essence, at least if they don’t want to become part of the violent hatred they thought they were opposing.

So it is important that protesters against injustices listen to people like Desiree Barnes (a former Obama aide, by the way):

Alphonso Jackson Quote on Victimization and Blame

Malcolm X did not advocate violence as a necessary means to solve the problem of racial injustices. Following Malcolm X, oppressed people of color are not helped by an approach that turns perpetrators of violence from their communities into mere victims of other violence. It only turns those communities as a whole into the poor victims privileged liberals paternalistically love to use in their rivalry over power against privileged conservatives. Again, if movements like Black Lives Matter do not condemn violence against innocent bystanders, those conservatives will easily put the blame for violence on the side of protesters and remain blind to the reality of systemic violent oppression.

In short, following Malcolm X and other African-American voices on the matter at hand, black people in America should not look at themselves through the eyes of some of the white conservatives or white liberals, who often treat them as criminals or victims respectively. They should look at themselves as people with the potential to create a more just society, who can take matters into their own hands, and who can become agents of change.

James Baldwin Quote on Higher Dreams

 

James Baldwin Quote on Love for America

Malcolm X Quote on Human Beings

 

Malcolm X Quote on White Liberal

 

WHY WE HATEIn de loop der jaren heb ik heel wat materiaal verzameld waarnaar expliciet in de documentaire-reeks Why We Hate wordt verwezen. Ik deel het relevante materiaal graag per aflevering, telkens ook met aanduiding van enkele kerngedachten. Wie interesse heeft in de psychosociale dynamieken die het menszijn beheersen, krijgt op die manier misschien aanzetten tot verdere reflectie.

WHY WE HATE – AFLEVERING 1: OORSPRONG

Kerngedachte 1: de bron van een bepaald soort liefde is dezelfde als die van haat

De eerste aflevering van Why We Hate laat zien hoe het vermogen dat ons in staat stelt om lief te hebben ook de bron kan zijn van haatdragend en gewelddadig gedrag. Empathie (het vermogen om je in te leven in de situatie van iemand anders) leidt niet automatisch tot liefde. Hoe meer we ons bijvoorbeeld verbonden voelen met de mensen van een eigen groep of kliek, hoe haatdragender we soms zijn tegenover mensen die we percipiëren als “vijanden” van onze bondgenoten.

De wereld van apen en mensapen houdt ons een spiegel voor aangaande de bokkesprongen van de empathie. In deze aflevering verwijst evolutionair antropoloog Brian Hare onder andere naar het onderzoek van zijn mentor, primatoloog Frans de Waal, in verband met vergelijkingsgedrag bij kapucijnaapjes. Op het moment dat één van twee zulke aapjes druiven krijgt in plaats van komkommer, wordt het aapje dat komkommer blijft krijgen gaandeweg kwaad. Het is niet de ongelijkheid op zich die voor die kwaadheid zorgt, maar wel het vermogen van het ene aapje om zich in te leven in het andere aapje. Door dat inlevingsvermogen kan het zijn eigen situatie vergelijken met de situatie van het andere aapje.

LINK: FAIRNESS STUDY (FRANS DE WAAL)

Ons menselijk rechtvaardigheidsgevoel, dat natuurlijk te maken heeft met dergelijk vergelijkingsvermogen, kan dus ook kwaadheid, haat en zelfs gewelddadige reacties veroorzaken. De paradox is dat een ervaring van verbondenheid (jezelf kunnen inleven in de situatie van een ander) in sommige omstandigheden leidt tot rivaliteit. Niet het verschil op zich veroorzaakt vaak problemen, wel de mate waarin mensen zich met elkaar identificeren. In dat identificatieproces verdwijnt juist het verschil – althans “theoretisch”. Als we iets verlangen of ambiëren omdat we ons vereenzelvigen met een bewonderde ander, dan zal die ander onze gehate rivaal worden op het moment dat we het wederzijds verlangde object niet kunnen of willen delen.

Kortom, net omdat we ons in de positie van iemand anders kunnen verplaatsen, omdat we kunnen doen alsof we iemand anders zijn, of nog anders geformuleerd, omdat we het vermogen hebben om anderen te imiteren, kunnen anderen ook onze rivaal en onze vijand worden. Het mimetisch (= imitatief) vermogen dat de basis vormt voor ons empathisch vermogen, kan resulteren in vormen van verbondenheid en liefde, maar ook in vormen van vijandschap en haat (voor meer, lees: The Two Sides of Mimesis: Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Embodied Simulation and Social Identification van Vittorio Gallese). René Girard heeft het verlangen op basis van een imitatief identificatieproces, dat soms leidt tot rivaliteit en geweld, de mimetische begeerte genoemd.

LINK: HET GEWELD ZIT DIEP IN ONS (DIRK DRAULANS)

Kerngedachte 2: de liefde voor een sociale status leidt tot zelfhaat en haat tegenover anderen

Cicela Hernandez vertelt in de eerste aflevering van Why We Hate hoe ze van “gepeste” zelf “pester” werd. Ook uit haar verhaal blijkt dat identificatieprocessen aan de basis liggen van haar haatdragend gedrag. Het slachtoffer dat ze het hardst had aangepakt, was een meisje waarin ze zichzelf herkende. Eigenlijk had Cicela naar zichzelf leren kijken door de ogen van wie haar vroeger pestte. Ze begon zichzelf in zekere zin te haten, waardoor ze ook anderen haatte in wie ze zichzelf weerspiegeld zag. Gedurende een vrij lange periode in haar middelbare schoolloopbaan imiteerde ze letterlijk het gewelddadige gedrag van de boosdoeners in haar leven. En waarschijnlijk zouden sommige van haar slachtoffers later op hun beurt pesters worden. Aldus houdt de vernietigende dynamiek van het geweld zichzelf in stand.

Het verhaal van Cicela maakt duidelijk dat het verlangen naar macht en status alweer berust op imitatieve processen. Cicela had geleerd om zich te spiegelen aan degenen die haar pestten, en op basis daarvan was ze beginnen te verlangen naar hun status en machtspositie. Tegelijk vergrootte dat de haat tegenover bepaalde aspecten van haar eigen persoonlijkheid. Kortom, de (mimetisch aangestuurde) liefde voor een sociale status binnen een “eigen” groep impliceert altijd een vorm van zelfhaat.

Anderzijds toont het verhaal van Megan Phelps-Roper in deze aflevering dat de liefde voor een groepsafhankelijk zelfbeeld niet alleen gepaard gaat met zelfhaat, maar ook met haat tegenover anderen. Megan is een voormalig lid van de Westboro Baptist Church, een fundamentalistische groep christenen die het vooral niet begrepen heeft op katholieke christenen, Joden en de LGBTQ-gemeenschap. Binnen de Westboro Baptist Church is er een grote samenhorigheid, geborgenheid, harmonie en vrede. Die vrede is echter gebaseerd op het uitsluiten en demoniseren van zogenaamde “vijanden”. Juist zoals sommige kliekjes in om het even welke context “vrede” creëren door anderen te onderdrukken of simpelweg af te wijzen.

Dat sociale afwijzing een vorm van geweld is met gelijkaardige effecten in de hersenen als fysiek geweld, komt ook aan bod in deze aflevering. School shootings zijn te begrijpen als wraakacties. De jonge daders imiteren het sociale geweld dat hun is aangedaan. Dat hun slachtoffers vaak niets met dat geweld te maken hebben, deert hen niet. In hun kwaadheid op de wereld beseffen ze zelfs niet dat ze eigenlijk zondebokken laten boeten. Bovendien leidt de grote media-aandacht soms tot copycat gedrag. Andere gefrustreerde jongeren die zich sociaal niet aanvaard voelen, zien in het gewelddadige gedrag van school shooters een manier om toch een vorm van sociale erkenning en aandacht op te eisen – zij het negatieve.

LINK: WOMEN AND THE SPIRITUAL CLASH WITH TERROR

Als lid van de Westboro Baptist Church werd Megan Phelps-Roper natuurlijk ook door een groot deel van de samenleving scheef bekeken en afgewezen. Alleen voelde zij niet de noodzaak om die ervaring van afwijzing te compenseren door een of ander fysiek haatmisdrijf. Ze ervoer immers waardering van haar familie.

Kerngedachte 3: kritiek van zelfbeelden is noodzakelijk voor waarachtige liefde en vrede

De getuigenis van Megan Phelps-Roper laat de gevaren zien van elke sociale constructie. Op het moment dat je denkt “verlicht” of “zuiver” te zijn omdat je niet behoort tot een bepaalde groep (in haar geval katholieken, Joden en de LGBTQ-gemeenschap), verblijf je eigenlijk in de duisternis die de menselijke soort al heel haar geschiedenis achtervolgt. De atheïst die zich heeft afgekeerd van bepaalde religieuze waanvoorstellingen en religie als bron van alle kwaad beschouwt, is in hetzelfde bedje ziek als de gelovige fundamentalist die vanuit eenzelfde superioriteitsgevoel het zogenaamd “kwaadaardige” atheïsme veracht.

Zolang het kwaad “buiten” de eigen groep en het eigen hart wordt geplaatst, kan het kwaad juist voortwoekeren. Je hebt dan immers een rechtvaardiging om groepen zogenaamde “boosdoeners”, “onverlichte barbaren” of “perverselingen” af te wijzen, te discrimineren of zelfs te elimineren. De geschiedenis bevat keer op keer de ironie dat het grootste geweld onder zowel religieuze als seculiere regimes wordt gedaan vanuit de overtuiging dat daarmee “een vreedzame wereld” wordt nagestreefd. Om dat soort psychisch, sociaal en/of fysiek geweld te vermijden is kritiek op die overtuiging binnen de eigen groep dus noodzakelijk.

Toevallig kwam Megan Phelps-Roper online in contact met de Jood David Abitbol en zijn blog, Jewlicious. In plaats van haar onmiddellijk te “klasseren”, ging hij met haar het inhoudelijke gesprek aan, meer specifiek het inhoudelijk theologische gesprek. Op die manier kon ze uiteindelijk breken met bepaalde ideeën uit haar groep en kon ze ook kritiek geven op het onrealistische beeld dat ze van zichzelf had gehad. Ze ontdekte dat de “buitenwereld” helemaal niet zo demonisch was als ze gewoon was te denken. Tegelijk ontdekte ze bij zichzelf dat ze helemaal niet zo “moreel superieur” was.

Megan had zich heel haar leven verbonden gevoeld met een groep die hartstochtelijk werd gehaat. In een poging om hun “vijanden” te overtroeven en zich op die manier van hen te onderscheiden, beantwoordde de groep die haat met haatberichten, wat de vicieuze cirkel van de intolerantie uiteindelijk in stand hield. De tragische paradox is dat de poging om de gelijkenissen met anderen te ontkennen ertoe leidt dat mensen juist steeds minder van elkaar verschillen en op elkaar beginnen te gelijken. Hoe meer haat met haat wordt beantwoord, hoe meer de hatende partijen elkaars dubbelgangers worden.

Daarentegen is het erkennen van een gedeelde menselijkheid de mogelijkheidsvoorwaarde om elkaars verschillen werkelijk te leren respecteren. Megans erkenning dat anderen in de eerste plaats “mens” waren zoals zij, maakte de liefde en het respect voor anderen mogelijk, alsook voor zichzelf, niettegenstaande ze werd uitgesloten door haar familie. Alleszins blijkt uit haar situatie dat intolerantie in de eerste plaats ligt bij mensen die anderen uitsluiten en de dialoog weigeren, en niet bij wie uitgesloten wordt.

Kerngedachte 4: geweldloos conflict in plaats van gewelddadige vrede is mogelijk

black-lives-matter-fontElke emancipatorische beweging moet zich afvragen in welke mate ze werkelijk emancipatorisch is. Wil de Black Lives Matter (BLM) beweging bijvoorbeeld geen factor zijn die de polarisatie in de samenleving aanwakkert, dan zal ze mogelijke kritiek niet automatisch mogen zien als een aanval op de beweging zelf. Als ze geen kritiek kan verdragen, dan kunnen vijanden van de beweging immers gemakkelijk zeggen: “Zie je wel, die beweging is niet eerlijk; ze wil bepaalde feiten niet onder ogen zien!” In dat geval speelt de beweging in de kaart van het racisme.

Als de beweging daarentegen werkelijk het racisme wil aanpakken (en dus eigenlijk zichzelf op termijn overbodig wil maken), dan zal ze mogelijke tegenstanders moeten ontwapenen door zich de reflex van een gezonde zelfkritiek eigen te maken. Want je wil niet vervallen in het mechanisme van een gesloten gemeenschap als de Westboro Baptist Church, waarbij een lid dat kritiek geeft op de eigen organisatie onmiddellijk als een “verrader” wordt verbannen. Zoiets houdt op termijn alleen maar een gewelddadige vrede in stand – een vrede die gebaseerd is op het geweld van uitsluiten, discrimineren, haten en elimineren.

Peace I leave with youHet is dus goed dat een beweging als Black Lives Matter ook zogenaamd “dissidente stemmen” uit de eigen, zwarte gemeenschap beluistert. Op die manier wordt ze niet de zoveelste beweging in de geschiedenis van de mensheid die eigenlijk het kwaad in stand houdt dat ze dacht te bestrijden omdat ze haar eigen (fysiek en ander) geweld beschouwt als “goed en gerechtvaardigd”. Het boek Virtuous Violence, dat in de eerste aflevering van Why We Hate te zien is op de tafel van Brian Hare, beschrijft dat proces (zie slides). De mogelijkheid van debat in eigen rangen kan exemplarisch zijn voor het streven naar een samenleving waarin de vrede van geweldloos conflict (respectvolle discussies) het uiteindelijk haalt van de opeenvolgende gewelddadige vredes “van deze wereld”.

LINK: DE NARCIST

LINK: GEEN VREDE, MAAR EEN ZWAARD

LINK: MIMETIC THEORY (RENÉ GIRARD) – VIDEO SERIES

Zie vooral, voor wat de laatste link betreft, het beeldmateriaal van chimpansees dat ook aan bod komt in de eerste aflevering van Why We Hate. Scroll naar PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS).

P.S. Een reflectie ter illustratie van inzichten uit de eerste aflevering

Atheïsme brengt niets slechts voort. Je kan niets verkeerd doen in de naam van “er is geen god”.

Atheïsme brengt evenwel ook niets goeds voort. Je kan niets goed doen in de naam van “er is geen god”.

Atheïsme is niet immoreel. Het is ook niet moreel. Atheïsme heeft simpelweg geen onmiddellijke morele implicaties. Het is amoreel.

Vandaar dat seculiere regimes hemels kunnen zijn, maar ook de hel op aarde, wat doorheen de geschiedenis al is gebleken.

Wie denkt dat “de bron van het kwaad” ergens concreet te situeren is volledig “buiten” zichzelf – bijvoorbeeld in “godsdiensten” -, en wie denkt dat de eliminatie van die zogenaamde bron op termijn zorgt voor vrede, stapt eigenlijk mee in een proces dat juist het kwaad veroorzaakt.

Om dat proces te vermijden moet elke emancipatorische beweging – zowel van godsdienstige als van niet-godsdienstige aard – bereid zijn tot zelfkritiek. Doet ze dat niet, dan blijft ze blind voor haar eigen vooroordelen en speelt ze in de kaart van tegenstanders die haar die vooroordelen kunnen aanwrijven. In dat geval groeit de maatschappelijke polarisatie.

Een beweging die geen zelfkritiek toelaat en dissidente stemmen onmiddellijk als “verraders” verbant, wordt zelf de belichaming van een intolerantie die ze dacht te bestrijden. Ze wordt een sektarische, gesloten gemeenschap die zich opsluit in een echokamer.

De geschiedenis bewijst echter dat mensen ook de respectvolle discussies van het democratische “geweldloze conflict” aankunnen, waardoor de uitsluitingsmechanismen van totalitaire “gewelddadige vredes” worden vermeden.

 

WHY WE HATE OUT OF HATE INTO HOPE

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

The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).

I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.

CLICK HERE TO READ SOME INTRODUCTORY REMARKS FOR EACH VIDEO AND TO SEE AN OVERVIEW OF THEIR CONTENT (PDF)

PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED

PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II-III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II

CHAPTER III-IV

CHAPTER V-VI

PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II

CHAPTER III-IV

 

PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

Cave I

A FAMILIAR SCENE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION

“Why don’t you girls get along with June anymore?” Regina’s mother asked. Regina and her two friends, Gretchen and Eve, stared at her in bewilderment. They were about to go on a shopping spree. For weeks they had gone out without June. “She has changed so much,” Regina answered. “Yes, she spoils the whole atmosphere of the group,” Eve added. “Quite frankly, mother, June has become this ordinary slut,” Regina concluded. Now it was her mother’s turn to stare at the three girls in bewilderment. And off they went.

About a month later, Gretchen accidently ended up next to June in the bus to school. The silence between them was awkward enough to make them talk to each other. Gretchen learned that her pretty companion had been going steady with Lysander for several months. And then it dawned on her: Regina had been gossiping about June being a slut because June had run away with Regina’s big crush, Lysander!

As soon as she had the chance Gretchen confronted Regina. “I talked to June and she is still the same old friend I knew!” she exclaimed. “You’re just jealous of her, that is the truth! You two are the same, you want that Lysander guy as much as she does! June in no way is a slut!” At that moment Eve stepped in to defend Regina and claimed both of them would turn their back on Gretchen if the latter didn’t change her opinion on June.

All of a sudden the clique of three were arguing about who betrayed who and they accused each other of being delusional. Their internal peace at the expense of an outcast had been broken. One of them had shown love for their external enemy, and had thus created internal enmity, within their own household. A new expulsion seemed imminent. Or would they all eventually be able to reconcile themselves with their former enemy?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI VS RENÉ GIRARD ON MYTH

Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)

In his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (London, Vintage, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari points out the consequences of the so-called Cognitive Revolution in human evolution. Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago new ways of thinking and communicating allowed our ancestors to share more information with each other, not in the least about dangerous animals. Predators regularly threatened bands of humans from the outside. On the other hand, members of the same group of humans could also threaten each other. Hence, as we are primarily social animals depending on cooperation for our survival, we need even more information about each other and about potential threats from the inside.

“Our language evolved as a way of gossiping,” Harari concludes (p. 25). “Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders (pp. 26-27).”

Harari paints a rather positive picture of gossip. He even refers to it as providing “reliable information about who [can] be trusted,” which allowed our ancestors to “develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation (p. 26).” René Girard (1923-2015) would agree that gossip is a way to unite people. As the story of the introduction makes clear, the bond between Regina and her friends is indeed strengthened by their exclusion of June. However, Girard would also include the more common understanding of gossip as providing questionable or untruthful information. According to this scenario, June can be characterized as a scapegoat. She is accused of things she is not responsible for and seems to be the victim of Regina’s own misjudged desires. It is a type of misjudgment that is already at play very early on in human life.

When a child notices a playmate’s interest in a toy that the child had forgotten about, the child’s desire for the toy will very often be re-awakened. Instead of enjoying whatever he was doing, the child most likely will reclaim the toy as being his and insist that he was “the first” to want it. More often than not the playmate will mirror the child’s behavior and will also claim being the first. In other words, both the child and his playmate imitate and thus reinforce each other’s desire for an object until they forget about it and end up fighting about their very “being”. The more they try to distinguish themselves from each other by pretending that their own desire is not mimetic (i.e. imitative), the more they do imitate each other and become doubles. That is the tragic comic paradox of mimetic rivalry.

While the fighting children both deny the mimetic nature of their desire and claim that their desire is primary, they also both claim that their own violence is secondary. Both children will justify their own violence as a “necessary defense” against a so-called “first aggression” of the other child. Peace is restored when one of the parties either surrenders, is banned, or is somehow eliminated. Of course, the one with the most allies often has a better chance at winning a fight.

Research has shown that we more easily commit violence in groups than on our own, and this is one way by which a sense of personal responsibility for violence evaporates. After all, we are social, mimetic creatures. The well-known bystander effect is but one example of the consequences of our imitative behavior. At the same time, we tend to understand our own violence as “acts of self-defense” against potential threats and rivals, like the above mentioned two fighting children. It allows us to interpret the victim of our violence as the primary cause of that violence. This is yet another way by which a feeling of personal responsibility for violence disappears.

History knows many examples of violence that is justified by the myth of self-defense, which often gives rise to a mimetic dynamic of revenge over different generations. Al-Qaeda, for instance, justified its attacks on 9/11 as acts of self-defense. On April 24, 2002, the Islamist organization released a document about the matter, which also contained the following statement regarding the attackers:

“The only motive these young men had was to defend the religion of Allah, their dignity, and their honor. […] It was a service to Islam in defense of its people, a pure act of their will, done submissively, not grudgingly.”

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US eventually decided to invade Iraq in 2003 and presented its move as a preemptive strike. The violence was justified as an act of self-defense against a regime that, according to the US, possessed weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found, but the aftermath of the war did create the conditions for the rise of ISIL… Violence begets violence.

The myth of self-defense indicates the flaws in Harari’s understanding of myth. Harari characterizes myths as merely fictional products of collective imagination, which allow people to develop complex networks of cooperation (pp. 30-31):

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. […] States are rooted in common national myths. […] Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. […]

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

The myth of self-defense partly agrees with Harari’s line of thought. It is indeed a story that allows people to develop a large-scale cooperation towards a common goal: the establishment of a peaceful world by eliminating the (so-called) potential sources of violence. What Harari misses, however, is that myths are not merely interchangeable products of collective fiction which create new “imagined” realities, but that they are also interpretations of an already existing reality. As such, myths can be wrong, deceptive and mendacious.

The introductory story of this article already points this out. Regina and her friends justify their own behavior against June by believing the myth of their collective imagination: “June is a slut and we have to defend the group atmosphere by excluding her.” Although this kind of gossip tightens the bonds between Regina and her friends, it also turns out to perpetuate some blatant lies and unacknowledged desires: June is not the slutty girl she is accused of being, and as Regina fancies June’s boyfriend Lysander she is more like June than she likes to admit.

It is striking that Harari presents gossip as a means to provide “reliable information” about other people. It is even more striking that he separates myths – “imagined realities” – from lies (p. 35):

“An imagined reality is not a lie. […]

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.”

René Girard is heir to a tradition that tries to understand the human mind, and its imaginative and rational powers, from within the context of the fears and the desires of the human animal. Our imagination, whether individual or collective, is often a distorted reflection of those dynamics, not just an innocent expression thereof.

Girard more generally understands myths as stories that cover up the complete picture of violent situations. Myths allow people to deny their own responsibility for violence. Hence, for instance, managers can say “it is the economic reality which forces the company to fire half of the employees.” The economic reality is, of course, a myth or – in the words of Harari – “an imagined reality”. From Girard’s point of view, Harari’s story about myths as mere products of collective imagination is itself a myth: his story once again obscures the violent reality (or, better still, the “violence against reality”) behind the cultural imagination.

In the case of the introductory story of this article, Gretchen’s final assessment of June could still be dishonestly presented as “a matter of opinion” equally valid to Eve’s and Regina’s assessment. In the context of, say, the Oedipus myth, it is unequivocally clear that the mythical interpretation of reality does contain lies.

Myths are, apart from fictions, also lies about reality that people believe in, used to justify sacrificial violence.

The Oedipus myth presents the plague in Thebes as the consequence of the behavior of Oedipus. The citizens of Thebes believe that they are violently punished with the plague by disgruntled gods because they tolerate Oedipus as their king – a man who killed his father and married his mother. They as well as Oedipus also believe that the plague will end if Oedipus is expelled from the city.

Just like other myths, the Oedipus myth deceptively deals with the reality of violence. There is no causal relationship between killing your father and marrying your mother on the one hand, and the eruption of the plague on the other. There also is no causal relationship between the expulsion of Oedipus and the potential ending of the plague. In reality Oedipus is a scapegoat, wrongfully held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not responsible for. Nevertheless, the community of Thebes justifies the sacrifice of Oedipus as a divine commandment to finish off the disaster of the plague. The violence of the plague is interpreted as a divine punishment.

In short, the Oedipus myth reveals the two faces of the sacred in archaic religious communities. On the one hand, everything that is considered sacred is taboo because it is associated with potentially uncontrollable chaotic violence. On the other hand, if the sacred is made present in a controlled, structured way through ritual, it is believed to have beneficial peaceful outcomes. Hence destructive epidemic violence is taboo, while the violence of ritual sacrifice is allowed. The latter is the vaccine of controlled violence that should defend communities from the wildfire of violent disasters.

It is no coincidence that Oedipus pays for the wrath of the gods. After all, he is perceived as an embodiment of violence whose presence threatens the stability within the community. He did not honor the hierarchical position of the king. He violated the taboo against killing the king in an unlawful way. He also violated the taboo against desiring the wife of another. Moreover, he violated the taboo against sexuality in a ritually inappropriate way by unlawfully marrying his mother. By violating these sacred taboos, however unwittingly, Oedipus is perceived as having unleashed the violent wrath of the gods and as someone who needs to be sacrificed.

The justification of sacrificial violence is an essential component of mythic storytelling, which is not just “a figment of the imagination” but a deceptive interpretation of reality. The gossip of Regina and her friends reflects a deceptive understanding of themselves and June, which is used to justify the expulsion of June. The fighting child and his playmate have a deceptive understanding of themselves and each other, which is at work in their attempts to expel each other. The religious myth of Al-Qaeda reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and the US, which is used to justify the suicide of its members and the killing of US citizens on 9/11. The nationalist myth of the US reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and wrongfully accuses the former Iraqi regime of having weapons of mass destruction, which is used in 2003 to justify the destruction of that regime. The myth of a so-called inevitable economic reality is used to justify social and ecological sacrifices. The religious myth of the Theban community reflects a deceptive understanding of natural disasters, which is used to justify the expulsion of Oedipus. And so on. The list of stories that represent the deceptive myth of redemptive sacrificial violence is endless.

And yet Yuval Harari separates myths from lies and barely mentions sacrifice in his exploration of the religious and cultural imagination. He refers to sacrifice explicitly only twice. René Girard, on the other hand, remains much closer to today’s common parlance about myth as a story that is basically not true. His mimetic theory explains how our religious and cultural imaginations continue to develop from mimetic origins which are easily misjudged and which lead to the justification of sacrificial institutions.

It is not difficult to imagine how distorted perceptions of mimetic mechanisms underly the mythical imagination of the human animal, from the very beginning until now. Already in early human communities, mimetic rivalry over food, women, social status, power or territory could easily escalate until one of the fighting parties was overwhelmed by a group of opposing allies.

The transformation of a chaotic fight of “all against all” into an orderly unity of “all against one” has an astounding restorative effect, which is not only observable in bands of fellow humans but also in our ape cousins.

As illustrated earlier by the fight between a child and his playmate over a toy, mimetic doubles tend to blame their rival for the violence they experience. When one rival overcomes his enemy by banding together with some allies, his sense of responsibility for the violence will disappear even more. After all, humans feel less personally responsible when they are part of a group whose members imitate each other.

Hence, the phenomenon of victim blaming must have occurred regularly in early human communities as the result of restorative group violence. The rival who becomes the victim of collective deadly violence is perceived as the troublemaker. As long as he was alive, the community experienced violence. After killing him, the community experiences a renewed peace.

Instead of acknowledging its own share in the violence, the community will consider its victim as the exclusive cause of the violence, according to the two mechanisms described above. At the same time, the victim is perceived as the one who restores order in his presence as a dead creature. In other words, the victim is a scapegoat. He is exclusively held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not exclusively responsible for. He is at once villain and hero, horrifying monster and admirable savior (“mysterium tremendum et fascinans”).

On the basis of that deceitful scapegoat mechanism, violence and its victim get an ambiguous meaning. An outbreak of violence is perceived as a return of the “troublemaker” in the community. However, that victim is not visible anymore (in reality, he is dead). Nevertheless, violence more and more becomes associated with those kinds of “invisible persons” – later called ghosts, gods or forces.

Gradually, human communities will consider sacred everything they associate with violence. Insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with destructive violence resulting in disorder, they are taboo. On the other hand, insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with order, ritual allows for a controlled violation of taboos.

René Girard accurately characterizes myths as representing the taboos and the deceptive idea of “redemptive violence” by which communities maintain themselves. Myths are essentially stories that make a distinction between so-called “good” and “bad” violence in any given community.

The so-called good violence of ritual sacrifice is presented as a necessary, often sacred demand that preserves the taboo on uncontrollable violence (of sacred wrath). In terms of the introductory story, the “ritual” expulsion of June is deemed necessary to preserve the peaceful atmosphere within Regina’s group of friends. In terms of the Oedipus myth, the “ritual” expulsion of Oedipus is deemed a necessary divine commandment to restore peace and order. What these myths obscure, time and again, is the community’s own responsibility for violence. In this sense, the cultural order, in whatever guise it appears, continues to imitate the lie concerning the first victims of collective violence: every sacrificial expulsion that is justified by a myth of redemptive violence is actually a “re-presentation” of the scapegoat mechanism at the origin of human culture.

Some stories, however, challenge the ever-present myth of redemptive violence in the world of the human animal. The Gospel in particular tells the story of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who consciously runs the risk of being sacrificed. After all, he constantly sides with the ones who are sacrificed (expelled or eliminated) on the basis of the myths of redemptive violence by their respective communities. This makes him suspect. Jesus is subversive to the extent that he reveals the lies behind every sacrificial structure. He thus challenges the core of the cultural order, as that order relies on sacrifice time and again.

Jesus of Nazareth calls people to love the external enemy of their particular groups and thus creates animosity in one’s own “household”. In this sense, he brings an end to the violent peace of the sacrificial order and creates the peace of non-violent conflict – internal debates, for instance.

To come back to the introductory story, Gretchen is a type of Jesus. She reveals that June is not that different from Regina. She reveals that June is not the monster she is called out to be. She reveals the sameness between June and Regina, which is a scandal in the context of the myth about June that Regina tries to defend.

The outcome of this revelation is not sure. Regina and Eve might restore their sacrificial order by expelling Gretchen as well, or they eventually might have a conversion and acknowledge the sameness between themselves and their former enemies.

The latter choice, acknowledging that sameness, paradoxically creates the possibility of accepting the other as other… and not just as a figment of one’s own imagination. 

P.S. Find highly recommended further reading here (pdf): Evolution and Conversion, by René Girard.

Evolution and Conversion (René Girard)

THE FOLLOWING IS THE RESULT OF A CONVERSATION WITH AN ATHEIST WHO ASKED ME SOME BASIC QUESTIONS ABOUT MY CHRISTIAN FAITH.

the-preaching-of-foolishness

What is the purpose of the New Testament?

Well, the writers of the New Testament want to enable an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

Why would that be important?

The New Testament authors all believe in God. They are convinced that God is revealed in the person of Jesus, who is therefore called “Christ”. Basically they claim that knowing Jesus is an excellent way to know God.

Okay, now suppose there is a God – which I don’t believe, by the way –, why on earth would it be important to know God?

Maybe you will label the following answer as an absurdity, if not as an outright offensive statement.

The New Testament writers are convinced that you cannot know yourself if you don’t know God. So, according to them, if you are interested in knowing yourself, you must know God.

Your prediction turns out to be right. The Christian faith sounds ridiculous. It claims that there is a God, which is a first absurdity to my atheist ears. Second, it claims that I should somehow learn to know a poor Jewish guy who lived and died two thousand years ago in a remote area of the Roman Empire if I want to know that “God”. Indeed, that sounds absurd!

Does the Christian tradition claim that this is the only way to know God? What about the people who lived before Jesus? What about the people who have never heared of him?

I don’t know about all the Christian churches, but I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges other ways through which God can be known. In that sense the answer to your question is no. The Bible and the Christian tradition as a whole are not the only ways to experience the reality of Christ.

Anyway, what you are saying still sounds patronizing. I’m an atheist. I don’t have to know a fictitious “God” to know myself. Moreover, what if I’m not interested in knowing myself at all? Why would it be important to know myself?

Let me ask you this question: is it possible for people to know themselves without love?

What do you mean? What has that got to do with anything we are talking about?

Well, you will need to be a little patient now. I’ll try to explain it.

I’ve learned from child psychiatrists that there are basically three types of child neglect, which are often mixed together. All of them have to do with a lack of love. The first one is treating a child as if the child is worth nothing. That is the merely negative approach. The second is treating a child as if the child doesn’t exist. That is the indifferent approach. The third is treating a child as if the child is a superior being. That is the merely positive approach.

Children who are treated in these ways will grow up craving attention and recognition. In order to satisfy this craving, they will tend to present an image of themselves that they believe will give them the desired attention.

The child who ends up thinking he is worth nothing might try to avoid further negative criticism by attempting to meet everyone’s expectations. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being whoever people want him to be. He has difficulty recognizing his own talents because he suspects others might ridicule them. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look up to others – as if they are flawless and he is full of mistakes.

The child who experienced a lot of indifference while growing up might think he must be a bully to get recognition. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being a bully. He reduces life to a powerplay.

How seldom we weigh our neighbor in the same balance with ourselves (Thomas a Kempis)And the child who is used to be treated as a superior being might think he indeed is superior to others and might only listen to people who confirm his self-concept. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being the narcissist he has become. He has difficulty recognizing his own flaws. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look down on others – as if he is flawless and they are full of mistakes.

If those children would have been treated with love, they would have discovered their talents as well as their flaws without being ashamed of them. Moreover, if people can recognize their own true talents, they will be more able to recognize and appreciate the talents of others as well, beyond inferiority complexes, powerplays or jealous competition.

In short, loving others is only possible if you truly love yourself and that’s why you should know yourself in some sense. If you believe loving yourself and others is important, then you should develop a minimum of self-knowledge. This is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself. If you open up yourself to receive love, you will be able to love yourself as well as others.

I understood everything you said until your next to last statement. Could you please explain what you mean by “love is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself”?

It is a short version of Mark 12:28-31, in which Jesus summarizes the teachings of the Bible:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees debating Jesus. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, the teacher of the law asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The Greatest Commandment in Hebrew.jpg

“To love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine or “perfect” (see Exodus 20:3-4). It is the prohibition on idolatry. Now let’s connect this principle to what was mentioned earlier.

If you want to learn something that will help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you (Thomas a Kempis)Someone who suffers from an inferiority complex has the tendency to idolize others and to blame himself for everything that goes wrong in his life. He also has the tendency to compare himself to those so-called “perfect” others in order to develop an acceptable self-image. Thus he is primarily interested in others as “mirrors”. Others are reduced to means who should confirm a certain self-image. Having experienced a lack of love while growing up, the person who suffers from an inferiority complex is not interested in himself apart from the image he hopes will give him some social recognition. Unable to truly respect himself he is also unable to respect others. As said, he is only interested in them as means, not as ends in themselves. His whole life is dominated by fear, more specifically by the fear of punishment or rejection by others if he doesn’t live up to a so-called acceptable image in his main social environment. His life is hell. Hell is real. 1 John 4:18 puts it this way:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

The same reasoning goes for someone who suffers from a superiority complex. This comes as no surprise, as a superiority complex is often a compensation for feelings of inferiority and shame about one’s own flaws. The person who suffers from a superiority complex has the tendency to idolize himself and is again only interested in others as means to confirm his so-called “perfect” self-image. Fearing failure the person who suffers from a superiority complex turns his own life and the life of others into hell.

Love is the abandonment of the fear of not being perfect. It is the abandonment of any kind of idolatry, which creates the possibility to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Again, “to love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine, neither yourself nor others. As such, it is the conditio sine qua non “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Respect for the prohibition on idolatry as an absolute commandment is the recognition of the singular divinity of love. That is the paradox that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Indeed, the Christian tradition claims that “God is love”. Hence, in this light it is true to say that you can only know yourself if you know God: you can only know yourself if you know love.

See for instance 1 John 4:16b:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

agape love

Love allows us to discover the truth about ourselves and others, beyond illusory self-images. It allows us to discover each other’s beauty, as we no longer consume each other as means to satisfy our desire for recognition, but recognize each other as ends. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodies the reality of love in an excellent way. That’s why they call him the Christ and that’s why they call for an Imitatio Christi. The importance of that kind of mimesis in the Christian tradition runs from the apostle Paul over Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) to René Girard (1923-2015) – to name but a few.

Jesus criticizes both superiority and inferiority complexes in people in order to enable “re-connections” and reconciliation between them. He offers the grace of forgiveness so that we might no longer be ashamed of ourselves and that we might be able to forgive and accept the flawed nature of others as well. Whenever that happens and the reality of love is established, there is “heaven” – “the Kingdom of God”. Love leads to the salvation of ourselves and others.

The glory of God is a human being fully alive (Irenaeus of Lyons)As Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202) writes, “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The human person who is “fully alive” is the person who overcomes fear in order to love more deeply. Love transforms fear from fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor).

I guess my next question is superfluous. You do believe in God, heaven and hell?

In Christianity you are not martyring yourself (René Girard)Yes. I do believe in the reality of love, and I do believe that wherever it is given room to establish itself there is “heaven”. As I also believe that wherever fear takes over there is “hell”. And as far as this world is concerned, we always find ourselves between heaven and hell, between love and fear. The challenge is to distinguish between those two “spirits” or dynamics, and to rely on love ever more deeply. In reference to Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), discernment is key in order to follow the transformative and creative power of love, which turns fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor). We can only hope people will imitate each other in this way.

So love over fear, even if love can bring you in a situation where you end up being despised, rejected or crucified by people who hate the criticism of their socially mediated self-images?

That’s the challenge, yes, in which we more often fail than succeed.

Isn’t it foolish, if not absurd to live that kind of risky life?

Hell yeah, it is! But I would rather live an authentic life in the realm of love than die to an inauthentic one because of fear. As that saying goes, derived from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),

“It’s better to have lost at love than never to have loved at all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson In Memoriam XIV_XXVII_XXXV

I believe that is true. There is a comfort in love that does not depend on its eventual outcomes. In that sense it is “all-powerful”, however much vulnerable and fragile it is.

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