Epiphany III, Year B
1 Cor 7:29-31
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
(1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
On “Following Jesus” and Positive Mimesis
“If the Girardian thesis is correct, that mimetic rivalry is the generative power behind the scapegoating mechanism that led to Jesus’ violent death, and if Jesus’ life-death breaks this spiral of violence empowered by rivalry- the thesis I will argue –then it should be possible to show exegetically that Jesus teachings on discipleship and the early church’s teaching of imitation (later called imitatio Christi) function as antidote to aspirations of rivalry.” (Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation” in Violence Renounced)
Willard Swartley refers here to the transformation of mimesis or what Girardians often refer to as ‘good mimesis.’ Sandy Goodhart points out that Rebecca Adams (of Messiah College) first coined the term positive mimesis. This ‘good’ or ‘positive’ mimesis occurs in the life of Jesus as he imitates the Father. Our humanness is redeemed at its deepest, darkest level. Walter Wink (Naming the Powers) explains this transformation of mimesis in an economical way. He says, “To put the thesis in its simplest form:
The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers must be redeemed.
Both Swartley and Wink point out that not only do the gospels help us to see ‘bad mimesis’ and its implications clearly, the Gospel also tells us a life story of One who transforms mimesis and so redeems it. It is notoriously difficult, however, to talk about this alternative mimesis, this following of the Prince of Peace. To do so is to take Jesus seriously when he speaks to us and to recognize all of the many ways in which we have been trapped in desire and participate on a personal level in the victimage mechanism. (As a pastoral matter, this means remembering God’s forgiveness/non-judgment with regard to ourselves even as we hold it up as a banner for others!)
The first thing that must be said about positive imitation is that it is non-rivalrous. Following Jesus means not allowing the other to model my desire to me, instead I take Jesus as my only model. Any desire that has any other human model, no matter how holy or pure, will inevitably end in rivalry, even if the mediator of desire is removed at a distance. One only has to recall the development of the various cults of the saints. It was all too often the case that after the founders died the movement began a cycle of mimetic conflict. This was even true of the Franciscans, who had one of the most profoundly positive mimetic leaders in Christian history. One can certainly see it in the early church, an excellent example of which was the congregation at Corinth.
The discipleship relationship is a very personal relationship. Especially in this relationship, there is only one journeyman whom we are each called to follow. The person who rejects mimetic desire desires only God, the One who is for each of us and all of us together.
Jesus was a realist. He knew that his mission of revealing the Father’s reign was a direct threat to the Powers that be. He discerned that the ‘messianic complex’ of the crowds would call attention to his ministry of healing and shepherding the people. Following his own Way of Peace would inevitably lead to his death and thus the exposure of the Powers to the human world (in addition to the Synoptic exorcisms see also Colossians 2:13-15, I Corinthians 2:6-10).
Discipleship is costly. Jesus’ call to follow him in turbulent times has been eloquently expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4). Karl Barth says of this book that it is “easily the best that has been written on this subject,” and that, “I cannot hope to say anything better on the subject than what is said here by a man who, having written on discipleship, was ready to achieve it in his own life, and did in his own way achieve it even to the point of death." (Church Dogmatics IV/2)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian during the turbulent years 1930-45. His book on discipleship was written during the years 1935-37 when he was leading the illegal Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. Until the Gestapo closed it down in late 1937, Bonhoeffer trained young men to shepherd the church, to preach, to do good theological thinking. His life would end in the concentration camp of Flossenberg where he was executed in April, 1945.
For Bonhoeffer, there is a very concrete spirituality manifested in the life of discipleship. It is spirituality gained by passing through the fire. “When Christ calls a person, He bids them come and die.” “And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us to follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.”
During this period of his life, it is important to note that Bonhoeffer eschewed violence. He could be considered a ‘pacifist.’ Of course his later turn about to participation in the murder plot on Hitler does signal a very real change in him. Walter Wink raises this question: “If counter-violence appears to be the only responsible choice, this still does not make violence right. Bonhoeffer is a much-misunderstood case in point. He joined the plot to assassinate Hitler. But he insisted his act was a sin, and threw himself on the mercy of God. Two generations of Christians have held back from full commitment to non-violence, citing Bonhoeffer’s example. Had he known, both that his attempt would fail, and that it would have the effect of justifying redemptive violence in the eyes of so many Christians, I wonder if he would have done it.” (Wink, Engaging the Powers).
It was not easy for Bonhoeffer to go back on his commitment to non-violence seen in his book on Discipleship. His later writings indicate that he had spent some considerable time reflecting on the implications of this change. Bonhoeffer’s life and his book on Discipleship are important resources when considering the possibilities of the redemption of mimesis and we recommend them without hesitation.
Today I would also want to emphasize that it is Jesus as the human model that is essential. That is, it is an aspect of Jesus’ priestly function: to model our spirituality for us, our relationship to God. Our is relationship to God is identical to his ‘9(omoousias’, one might say. Why? Because we are included in Him, Jesus is our corporate head, the Second Adam, the One who got it right.
I see that Stanley Hauerwas has a book on Bonhoeffer, Performing the Faith. I will be reviewing it soon. I was glad to see someone else sensed that the Finkenwalde years were the high point of Dietrich’s spirituality and theology. I believe that Bonhoeffer was desperate, in the sense that, he was watching from the inside, the destruction of everything he held dear as a German, a Lutheran, a theologian, a Berliner. It must have been awful.
Yet here we are today, in America, experiencing the exact same reality. We have our facism, our corporate control of government, our media machine, the intrusion of American civil religion into the churches and into legislation. We have our death penalities, our Patriot Act, the IRS going after a peace church in CA, our version of anti-Semitism (anti-Islam). The difference between us and Bonhoeffer is that our leadership has been much more insidious about its victims. We learned not to go shedding blood on our own soil. We went elsewhere to find our victims. But this is changing for even in A
merica, discrimination, racism and other social ills thrive and we are seeing the scapegoating effects of this victimage in the aftermath of hurricanes, war profiteering, corporate fraud trials, government indictments.
Jesus life and death are of one fabric, they both are grounded in forgiveness. And they are both to be imitated as one.
The call to the first disciples of Jesus as recorded by Mark raises many issues, many of which are interesting but not really relevant to our discussion. While we recognize editorial hands and community formation of tradition, still Jesus’ call to follow him where God reigns is in all four gospels. [Not without some irony does the Johannine writer place ‘the other disciple’s’ call as prior to Peter’s (cf. last week’s text). The Synoptic tradition sees Jesus through the eyes of Galileans.]
It would also be possible to ask whether this text has an historical foundation or whether it is a community creation. We might inquire about its rhetorical function within the gospel as a validation of certain lines of apostolic authority. It would be possible to highlight the message of Jesus and discuss ‘the kingdom of God.’
There is however, an important conversation in the research on discipleship that has implications for mimetic theory. Some have argued that discipleship should be conceived along rabbinic lines. Hengel quotes Hans Dieter Betz: “The idea of following Jesus is rooted in the Palestinian Jewish relationship of the teacher of the Torah to his pupil.” Hengel notes that this view “is taken over as an unexamined axiom.” (The Charismatic Leader and His Followers)
What if, instead of conceiving discipleship in master/pupil terms, we had another metaphor? T.W. Manson made an important linguistic contribution that has powerful implications for a positive view of mimesis. He points out that certain sayings in the gospel tradition can have their variants explained as either a mistranslation or interpretive choice from Aramaic to Greek. In this regard he observes that the saying found in Matthew 10:37 and Luke 14:26 has an underlying Aramaic term used for ‘disciple (mathetes). He says: the suspicion arises that Jesus did not use the common word talmid to describe his intimate followers, but the unusual word shaliah.” (The Teaching of Jesus).
Manson goes on to point out that the term Jesus chose is better translated as ‘apprentice.’ He further observes, “It is tempting to see in the choice of the word a definite opposition to the whole scribal system. The talmid of the Rabbinical schools is primarily a student. His chief business was to master the contents of the written Law and the oral Tradition. The finished products of the Rabbinical schools were learned biblical scholars and sound and competent lawyers. The life of a talmid as talmid was made up of study of the sacred writings, attendance on lectures, and discussion of difficult passages or cases. Discipleship as Jesus conceived it was not a theoretical discipline of this sort, but a practical task to which men (sic) were called to give themselves and all their energies. Their work was not study but practice. Fishermen were to become fishers of men, peasants were to be laborers in God’s vineyard or God’s harvest field. And Jesus was their master not so much as a teacher of right doctrine, but rather as the master-craftsman whom they were to follow and imitate. Discipleship was not matriculation in a Rabbinical College but apprenticeship to the work of the Kingdom.”
This term is a deliberate contrast to the rabbinic relationship. It has explanatory power; those who followed Jesus also participated in his mission of mercy and experienced the healing power of Jesus’ abba. They followed Him. Like shaliah, “to follow” (akalouthein), is a technical term used of discipleship in the gospels. These texts, these stories and this life originate from those who lived and traveled with Jesus.
Knowledge of this usage was not limited to those who walked with Jesus, though. Hengel points out that it would be wrong to conclude Paul did not know the term. Rather Paul “was never able to use [the term ‘akalouthein’], because he had not been a follower of the historical Jesus. In his situation the term ‘imitation’ (mimesis) in its different variations was on the other hand entirely appropriate.”
And so we have found a back door as it were into the nature of the relationship of discipleship as a relationship of positive modeling, ‘good mimesis.’ We’ll let Rebecca Adams have the last word:
“To participate in an intersubjective dynamic of loving creativity with others through mimetic desire is to imitate, image or reflect God. I do not believe it is essential to have the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to understand, or more importantly, to participate in this truth. However, I do believe that Christianity does have a unique claim regarding the gospel revelation from a Girardian point of view, a claim which has been made by no other religious tradition or human system of thought: that is that Jesus is the full, historical incarnation of this love which is both fully human and fully divine, and this love is stronger than any system of death which tries to contain it.” (“Loving Mimesis” in Violence Renounced)
As we write this for the website, violence reigns in many parts of the world. Greater violence threatens as the governments mislead their people into believing that violence might actually work to resolve violence. There has never been a greater need for followers of Jesus. As preachers we risk a great deal by holding up this part of who Jesus is in the midst of mimetic contagion. Following Jesus still means accepting the Cross.
One of the great risks though, is the temptation, after having been named as traitors and “un-American” (or whatever other “Power” we dare stand against) that we might fall into the trap of labeling and scapegoating those who have done the same to us. While governments act demonically, it is imperative that we continue to separate the Powers that victimize even their minions from the people who are trapped in them. Any act that separates us from one another is a potential part of the cycle of violence, and it is up to us to hold up Jesus example in all of its manifestations. This is a lesson we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s assassination attempt. Any concession to violence (or exclusion, which is a form of violence) leads only to more.
So, how do we preach peace among a people given to war?
As pastors, we have not always found a ready answer to that question, but our struggle is always to preach for peace rather than against violence. To hold up Peace as a realizable (if difficult) goal seems to be the way to avoid the traps of “excluding the excluders.”
We encourage your continued engagement with this question.
The call of Jesus to follow him is a call to imitate him, to share his values, to see the world through his eyes. It is a call to follow him as he heals the sick and comforts the broken hearted, to cast out the demonic and to speak the truth. Most of all it is a call to become like him.
“In literary terms the divine power of the Cross would be called ironic; it works through its apparent opposite; life appears as death, light as darkness, strength as weakness, and something as nothing (I Cor 1:26-31). Christians intend the world ironically, possessing it ‘as if they did not’ (I Cor 3:21, cf. I Cor 7:29-31). But irony is a violent genre expressing the clash of the violence that constructs the idols with the violence that destroys them. While the view from the Cross interdicts the idols, leaving them in place while deconstructing their power. This irony is, therefore, to be qualified as a gracious rather than a violent irony, and it can be seen only by those who are already in principle and by faith free from the domination of sacred violence. This irony describes the point of view of those who, freed from the principalities, continue to live within their realm.”
-Robert Hamerton-Kelly Sacred Violence (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992, 84)
Living as not. Living in the space between. This is the problem that occurs for the Christian who takes eschatological existence seriously. There is much talk today in some circles about family values, in other circles about the importance of the institutional church, and in others of reforming the socio-political sphere. In these economically difficult times, there is also talk about reviving the economy, of making our educational institutions better, of the need for jobs and health care. All of this is important…but only on one level.
To turn the message of the gospel into a cure all for cultural institutions, whether they are family, church, government or work is to fail to recognize that at bottom, all cultural institutions are founded on sacred violence and innocent victims. The mimetic theory is clear about the ‘pillars of culture’ and their grounding in human violence. Some Christian traditions (e.g., Lutheran) see these cultural institutions as orders of creation, even though Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his usual insight recognizes the difficulty of grounding them in the creative activity of God and refers to them as ‘orders of preservation.’ The mimetic theory opposes to this cultural Christian way of thinking a radical new way of living with these institutions because ‘the time is short’ and ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’
The eschatological horizon of the New Testament limits our thinking at this point, calling to mind that cultural institutional forms are temporary, not permanent. Even such a sacred (pun intended) institution as family is abrogated. This can already be seen in the ministry of Jesus who rejects the cultural norm of family instead creating a new kinship, a new family of God. Not to mention his (and Paul’s) apparent encouragement of celibacy. The temporary nature of these institutions is because, sub species aeternitatis, they are all fixtures of death, not life.
Our attachment to these cultural forms and their dissolution is precisely the conundrum that faces both the preacher and the pew-sitter. On the one hand we think we need them and cannot do without them and so we valorize them and fear when they appear to be disintegrating. On the other hand we can hardly imagine life with them. And we lack this imagination because we lack an eschatological horizon, that is, we lack eschatological imagination, the ability to think outside the cultural box.
It is time to recover our eschatological imagination as James Alison has reminded us in Raising Abel. Without it, the hope that we possess is deceitful, what we really have is not hope but simply the wish for success, for security. But with a vibrant eschatological hope we can live in the irony produced by our experiences of these cultural institutions knowing that from God’s perspective, from the perspective of God’s kin(g)dom, no matter how good and valuable these are for us now in this life, a greater than these awaits us.
Nothing important here today.
So, the question is how do you preach this without getting run out of town on a rail?
To challenge institutional structures as wrong or evil is simply not the way to go for that is to ontologize cultural forms. The task is to announce the immanence of God’s reign and its implications so clearly that the need for these forms/institutions pales in comparison. It is perhaps at this point that we need reminding that those things that are nearest and dearest to us are ‘passing way’ that we cannot seek permanence in even the most nurturing of cultural forms.
But this can only be done where an adequate eschatological vision has already been proclaimed, where the death and resurrection of Jesus have already been laid as that eschatological turning point in history, where Jesus’ ascension and sending of the Spirit have already been announced as ‘final’ acts of God. I do mean that we should refer to some pie in the sky by and by apocalyptic eschatology; I do mean that we recognize that in Christ ‘all things have become new.’
Best of luck!