Monday, February 29, 2016

Re-reading Lent with Rene Girard: Is it I, Lord?

Nazareth, photographed in 1870.
Something happened in Nazareth that day. We don't get the whole story in today's Gospel, which is the conclusion of a very rich passage in Luke that begins with Jesus, fresh from his victory over temptation in the desert, and filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming in his hometown synagogue that “today, in your hearing, the Scriptures are fulfilled.”

At first, his hearers were filled with excitement. Jesus gave a marvelous homily; they were starstruck, except for the fact that this was their own neighbor, someone who had never outshone them before. But then there were reports of miracles in other parts of Galilee... Surely, then, Nazareth would be home to even greater wonders! Expectations were high. Nazareth was practically beside itself with images of its own future glory, outshining that of prosperous Capernaum (scene of so many cures). And then Jesus drops this bombshell: “There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” An uproar ensues, and then mob action.

After a lifetime studying cultural narratives, Rene Girard noticed something. Until the time of Christ, in the historic narratives and myths, the self-defining stories that people told about their tribe or culture, the mob was always right. When a unanimous crowd rose up against a single offender, or a single group of outcasts, nothing was more self-evident than the rightness of their cause, and the enormous guilt of the nonconforming “other.” It is only through the unfolding of the Gospel, and especially the events that we will commemorate three weeks from now that the world was introduced to the very peculiar notion that a mob action points to the guilt, not of the object of their common wrath, but of the unthinking, unanimous crowd.

There were already more than a few hints of this in the various books of the Old Testament that give voice to the victims of mob violence with protests of innocence that are absent from the ancient myths. And in today's Gospel, Jesus is guilty of nothing more than laying bare the self-aggrandizing expectations of his fellow townsfolk.

And yet Jesus was not lynched that day at Nazareth. Something happened to break the unanimity of the crowd, without which the process of self-confirming victimization cannot happen. I wondered today, in my meditation, just what it was that allowed Jesus to “pass through the midst of them” and walk away (for good). Then I saw it. He looked at the person nearest him, an old neighbor who was almost choking with resentment at what he considered Jesus' betrayal of his kin. Jesus looked at that neighbor. He saw him. He “looked at him with love” and that look managed to break down, in the one person, the hypnotic power of the mob. The neighbor looked and suddenly saw Jesus, the Jesus he had known for years, the Jesus he had watched growing up next to his own children. He saw not a traitorous ingrate, but the boy and man he had known. The blind, insane anger melted, and he slipped away. And Jesus looked at the next person, and saw not the sputtering puppet of the anonymous crowd, but the local potter. And the old potter found himself being looked on and known deep down. And he shrugged off the vise-grip of the mania and went back to his wheel.

Jesus “passed through the midst of them” that day. One day, though, the anonymity and unanimity of the mob would be complete, and there would be no simply way though. There would be the death of a final victim of human rage, and it would be he himself, taking away the sins of the world. From then on, Girard noted, wherever the Gospel would penetrate, the victim mechanism would begin to lurch out of alignment until it ceased functioning entirely. 

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Reflect: What factors leave me open to "possession" by a mob mentality, allowing some other person, group or ideology to define values or judge persons and events for me? During Lent, how can I "be transformed by the renewal of the mind" to "have the mind of Christ" in those areas of life that cause me the most anxiety?

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