Archive for May, 2021

I concluded PART III with a question: But what IF they do not mean what people have thought them to mean?  WHAT IF…   

What if there were another way of reading them?  What if this alternative reading turned out, after close analysis, to be how they were written to be read and understood?  What if the narratives of Genesis were constructed to seem to mean one thing on the surface, AND, with close attention and analysis to reveal to us a second level of meaning?

What if the Hebrew Bible (think: Old Testament for some) understood, as did Girard, as did Greek and Roman wisdom figures, that sibling rivalry is the primal form of violence?  And what if, rather than endorsing it, Scripture set out to undermine it, subvert it, challenge it and even replace it with another, quite different way of understanding our relationship with God and with the Other?  What if Genesis is a more profound, multi-levelled, transformative text than we have understood it to be?  What if it turned out to be God’s way of saying to us what he said to Cain: that violence in a sacred cause is not holy but an act of desecration?  What if God were saying, loud and clear and passionately: Not in My Name?

Now for many, and for years for me also, such suggestion sounds absurd, even contradictory, perhaps, even blasphemous.  Jews, Christians and Muslims have been reading these stories for centuries.  Is it possible, much less conceivable, that they do not mean what they have always been taken to mean?  Yet…perhaps this is not as absurd as it sounds.  Until now each tradition has been reading them from its own perspective – which on one level makes perfect sense. 

Yet…the world has changed.  The twenty-first century is, to put it mildly, radically different than even seventy-years ago.  We are being summoned to a new reading.  This new reading is asking us, is inviting us, is challenging us to seek to understand not only our own perspective but the perspectives of the Others.  Indeed the world has changed.

Relationships are now, truly global.  Our destinies are forever intertwined as never before in history.  The world is different.  Christianity and Islam no longer rule over empires.  The Jews have their own State and are no longer living the myth of the Wandering Jew.  For the first time in history we can, if we so choose, relate to one another as dignified equals. 

‘NOW’ is a time for us to listen, in the attentive silence of the search troubled soul, to hear in the Word of God for all time, the Word of God for our time.  Genesis is inviting us to read her narratives in a radically different light.  We are invited to see the narratives as signposts in our time, in our world.  These signposts are to be read by us as brothers without rivalries; to be read together as searchers and seekers, not as siblings rooted primarily in differences.

This invitation, this challenge requires us to search together, to seek together, to pay attention, to reflect and to learn together.  In my searching and seeking I have uncovered an alternative view of the Genesis narratives – the sibling rivalry narratives.  Gentle Reader, I invite you to search and seek and be open to finding the alternatives that transform sibling rivalry into sibling community.  I invite you to begin your search with the story of Abraham and his two sons.  And I pray you are silent enough to hear the whispers of the Spirit who will guide you in your search. 

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I concluded PART II with: We often assume that the sibling rivalry emerged when Christianity claimed Abraham as her Father.  But did it? 

Theologians have often assumed that sibling rivalry arose with the birth of Christianity.  After all, until then there was only one Abrahamic monotheism. Judaism, and her conflict was not with sibling faiths that were part of the family, but with idolatry.  They assumed that only with the birth of Christianity and then the birth of Islam was the tension born out of competition for ‘most favored’ in the eyes of God birthed. 

It turns out, however, that the sibling rivalry existed from the beginning, long before there was Christianity or Islam.  The key rivalries are captured in the Book of Genesis.  Genesis captures the drama of choice:  Isaac but not Ishmael, Jacob but not Esau.  The sibling rivalry existed within Judaism first.  So sibling rivalry existed first in Judaism, then between Judaism and Christianity and then among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  All claim to be direct descendants of Abraham and thus to be ‘God’s Chosen,’ ‘God’s Favorite.’ 

For me, it now becomes quite perplexing.  Can it really be true that the God who created the world in love and forgiveness, setting his image on every human being, loves me but not you?  Or you but not me? 

Now we know that sibling rivalry exists in nature because often food is in short supply.  Sibling rivalry also exists in human society because material goods – wealth and power, for example – are, at almost any given moment, zero-sum games.  Sibling rivalry also occurs within families.  My parents had six children and five of us knew that the other one of us was mom’s favorite and that another was dad’s favorite.  I don’t think we were the only family that experienced sibling rivalry – sometimes to the point of violence (we, thankfully, did not experience violence but generally good humor). 

Does God really have favorites?  Can the God who IS Love, who forgives, or sheds grace and blessings to all really play favorites?  Are love, forgiveness, grace and blessings in so short supply that God will give them to you but not to me?  YET.

The Hebrew Bible does talk about sibling rivalry.  It is, in fact, the dominant theme of the Book of Genesis.  The point can’t be made more powerfully than this: The first religious act, Cain and Abel’s offerings to God, leads directly to the first murder.  God does seem to have favorites.  There does seem to be a zero-sumness about the stories.  Moreover, it is no accident that Jews, Christians, and Muslims read these stories the way they did/do.

But what IF they do not mean what people have thought them to mean?  WHAT IF…  In PART IV, we will briefly explore this and a few other ‘What Ifs.’ 

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Sibling rivalry – why does violence exist?

Generally, it seems that violence exists because we are social animals.  We exist and find our identity in groups.  AND, groups conflict with one another when it comes to values, needs and perceived threat to survival.  Groups fight over the same resources – especially if the resources are limited: food, territory, water, etc. Groups reveal all that is best and worst in us.  Group members embrace altruism toward other members and embrace suspicion and aggression towards members of other groups. 

Religion plays a major part in this because religion is the most powerful source of group identity the human community has ever known.  Every attempt to find a substitute for religion has resulted in even more violence.  Nationalism led to two world wars and continues to feed regional conflicts.  Political ideology gave birth to Putin and Trump.  Racial hatred led to Hitler and the Holocaust.  The result has been the bloodiest decades in human history. 

The idea that we can abolish identity altogether by privileging the individual over the group/community is the West’s (especially the United States) long-time fantasy and this fantasy has led to the return of religion in its most belligerent form.  Religions are less intolerant of one another than ever before.

Group identity need not lead to violence.  There is, however, a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two – our side, the children of the light, and the other side, the children of darkness.  Evil exists because of THEM, not US.  This belief makes it easy for US to demonize THEM.  This enables US to view ourselves as VICTIMS.  As victims we are then able to guilt free that we can commit evils in the name of good – in the name of God. 

We identity and name a scapegoat.  We then feed our paranoia.  We then develop a politics of hate.  The rest is, as they say, easy.  Hitler was a modern model for us and too many of us continue to embrace his script: scapegoat + paranoia + hate = guilt-free violence.

Sadly, much of this script is religion-rooted.  For the People of the Book it is fed by sibling rivalry.  According to Girard (and others), sibling rivalry is a primal source of violence.  What makes Judaism, Christianity and Islam unusual is that their narratives of identity are stories of sibling rivalry that assign a secondary, subordinate role to the others.  This means that however rare violence between them is, it is always waiting in the wings for its cue to take center-stage. 

We often assume that the sibling rivalry emerged when Christianity claimed Abraham as her Father.  But did it? 

We will briefly respond to this question next time. 

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Lately I have been thinking about violence & sibling rivalry.  One of scripture’s earliest major themes entails violence and sibling rivalry [Note: The scriptures I am referring to are the scriptures of the three Abrahamic Traditions – the ‘People of the Book’].  In scripture the first sibling rivalry emerged between Cain and Able.  These siblings engaged in rivalry which morphed into violence.  There are many other sibling rivalries contained in scripture and a significant number of those also morphed into violence. 

The ‘People of the Book’ – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have been locked in a violent, at times near fatal embrace for so long that we miss that these are three siblings.  Their father is Abraham.  These three sibling rivalries are covered in what Girard calls ‘mimetic desire’ – in this case, the desire for the same thing: Abraham’s Promise. 

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not just three different faith traditions or civilizations.  If they were each one would consider themselves a chosen people.  They would just ignore one another.  Their differences would not have led to centuries of bloodshed and animosity. 

When traditions are merely different, each stands on its own ground.  Pauline Christianity, however, claims that it is heir to the Abrahamic covenant; it replaced Judaism.  Islam is built on the incorporation of Judaism and Christianity into its own belief that it is heir to the Abrahamic covenant.

These three traditions are competing brothers.  Each sees the other as a profound existential threat.  At the heart of each is the idea that within humanity there is one privileged position – the favored son, the chosen people, guardian of the truth and the gatekeepers of salvation. 

A major consequence is conflict of the most existential kind, for what is at stake is the most precious gift of all: God’s Favored Love – God’s Paternal Love.  One tradition’s victory requires the other two being defeated.  Defeat would lead to humiliation – to a dethronement from being the favorite son.  This leads to revenge and violence.

Thus, strife is perpetuated.  Their relationship becomes antagonistic, conflictual.  Only one can prevail by defeating the others.  Two will serve the ‘One.’  This has been the relationship between the three brothers.  As in Biblical times, the younger believes it has prevailed over the older.  Christianity did so to Judaism, Islam did so to both.  This continues to be an intense sibling rivalry.  Each tradition regards itself as THE heir to the covenant with Abraham. 

Strife is inherent in the script.  Strife might lie dormant for years but the seeds of rivalry lay dormant waiting to be nurtured into life.  Each defines and defends itself by negating the other.  It is no wonder that they feel threatened by one another.

I am reading the words Freud used to describe sibling rivalry: ‘impotent rage…elemental, unfathomably deep hostility…death wish…murderous intent…jealous hatred.’ This is the language of violence. 

Why does violence exist? 

We will briefly explore this crucial question next time. 

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Words are powerful.  Perhaps the most challenging agreement we can make with ourselves and with others is to always ‘give our word’ rooted in integrity.  Is your word your bond? – A simple question to ponder. 

Our words are seeds.  In offering these seeds we might prepare the soil-mind of the other or we might just scatter them about and see which ones take root.  Sometimes we are not aware that the words we choose to put out there actually have great impact on the recipient.  Sometimes we are intentional and purpose-full and we choose our words carefully and we deliver them with an intention that they take root in the recipient.  We know stories of how ‘ordinary’ folks were dramatically affected by words delivered.  Authors, dictators, prime ministers, educators, scientists, and parents have all used their words such that the recipients took in these seeds and nurtured them into life.  Because of Hitler’s words, ordinary, good folk, common folk like you and me perpetrated heinous acts. 

Words are powerful.  A few days ago I was recalling and savoring a conversation with my son.  During our conversation he recalled his experience with ‘that guy’ who helped him develop a different self-image because of his words [and how he delivered them].  This event occurred thirty-five years ago, when my son was six years old.  It was clear that Nathan was well on his way to developing a ‘poor self-image’ – when it came to his formal education.  He was learning that he was stupid; at minimum he believed that he was not smart.  He struggled in school because the system was not able to understand, nor respond to how he learned best.  He was given a label and anyone who has been given a label (another word) knows how others then respond to him or her because of the label and they also discover that they actually live into the label; they become the label.  Because the ‘professionals’ had labeled him, I decided to take him to see a more powerful professional that I believed would speak different words to him; powerful words that would, over time, take root and enable Nathan to emerge a different self-image. 

I took him to see the ‘doctor.’  The doctor tested Nathan.  He met with Nathan and me and spoke the words – he even recorded the words on a tape and gave the tape to Nathan.  Here are a few of the ‘doctor’s powerful words: ‘What my testing showed, Nathan, is that you are an artist.  You have gifts and talents and abilities that the rest of us wish we had.  I have listed some of these for you and I have put my words on a tape.  When you are feeling low, listen to the tape.  Do your art.  Become the artist.’  Nathan listened.  School continued to be a struggle for him and he also experienced several teachers that adjusted their teaching to his learning style; they also reinforced his artistic abilities.  Today, Nathan is an artist and is a gifted teacher (he is, by the by, a ceramicist).  He also continues to be an avid learner beyond his discipline.  He is also intentional and purpose-full about the words he offers to his students and to others. 

‘Impeccable’ means ‘faultless and incapable of sin.’  How often are we – you and I – impeccable with our words?  How often do we seek to be impeccable when it comes to the words we choose to offer to ourselves and to others?  I am not talking about being ‘perfect’ I am, however, talking about being more consistent – that is, with being awake and aware and intentional and purpose-full when it comes to choosing (and we do choose) which words to offer. 

I invite you, gentle reader, to spend one day paying attention to the words you give, the words you share.  Then, near the end of the day I invite you to stop, step-back and reflect upon your word choice during the day.  Just notice which words you offered to others and to yourself.  Do not use more words to judge yourself.  Just notice!

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