June 12, 2016
4th Sunday After Pentecost Year C
1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Not too long ago you may have read in the news the story about a fight that broke out in a parking lot, where (apparently) one man had claimed an available parking spot, another man wanted it and tried to take it, so the two men got out of their cars and attempted to resolve the dispute with physical violence.
Our first reading this morning, is a story specifically about the sin of covetousness; covetousness that leads to selfishness, human greed, and violence. Rene Girard (Philosopher of Social Science who actually just died recently) refers to this behaviour as mimetic desire which suggests that we often tend to desire something because someone else has it. He suggests that such mimetic passions include jealousy, envy, covetousness, resentment, rivalry, contempt, hatred, and all of this leads to violence and greed. Girard suggests that we see evidence of this behaviour in young children; one child appears to be enjoying a particular toy; a second child wants it, and might even grab it away from the one who first discovered it. And the way in which this turns out often involves fighting, yelling, sometimes to the point of hitting and almost always ending up in tears.
And furthermore, Girard goes on to point out that we spend the rest of our lives perfecting this skill. Adults exhibit this behaviour all the time; some adults just learn to be a little more subtle. How many times have we seen in the news, for instance, in addition to park lot altercations, adults fighting over a limited amount of items that are being sold at a particularly low price? How often have we heard or seen examples in the work place where one person covets someone else’s job and is prepared to destroy people's whose careers if that's what it takes. There are many different faces to the ways in which things are unlawfully and unfairly taken; stories of covetousness rising out of mimetic desire: (1) someone has it; (2) someone else want it; (3) and will do whatever is necessary in order to get it.
And this morning’s first reading speaks of such a story. (1) Naboth has a particular piece of property (vineyard) that is situated close to the palace; (2) King Ahab wants it; (3) and along with his wife is prepared to do whatever is necessary in order to get it.
In this story, the king says to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard; I’ll reimburse you for it; but nevertheless; give it to me; I want it.” Naboth refuses the king; (real estate among the Israelite people was difficult to purchase, because it was passed from one generation to the next as part of the family inheritance; it could be sold only in dire emergencies and then preferably to someone in the family).
So, of course, Naboth would be surprised and likely even appalled at the king’s presumptuous expectation that he should even consider giving up his land. The king, then, in all his wisdom, goes home and pouts. When his wife, Jezebel, discovers why he is pouting, she designs a manipulative and devious plan which leads to Naboth’s death. Jezebel, rooted in an authoritarian, dictatorial approach to power, is infuriated to discover that Naboth would dare say no to the king (even though the king’s demands are completely unjust and unfounded). So, hiring a couple of false witnesses, she has Naboth condemned to death by the elders on a false charge.
Having accomplished this, the king immediately takes possession of the land, but all is not as Ahab had hoped, because Elijah, God’s messenger, quickly goes to the king to confront him, to tell him that the consequences of their behaviour will be serious, and will affect him, his wife and his entire household. The king’s visible sign of repentance, however, postpones the consequences of this to the next generation – the consequences suffered by the generations to follow are, however, inevitable. (A reminder, that when we sin, the consequences tend to be long and hard.)
Indeed, as we read and reflect on the story of Naboth we recognize it as one of mimetic desire. Naboth had the vineyard; Ahab wanted it and was prepared to do whatever was necessary in order to take it. Clearly - not a new story - but one that is replayed over and over again throughout history and within the course of our everyday lives.
Is this not – for instance - the story of colonialism: Original settlers occupied the land; Europeans wanted it (and all that it could offer) and were prepared to do whatever was necessary to take it, and then taking this one step further, taking dominion over those whose land was taken. This has been devastating and the consequences of this abuse of power and dominance continue to exploit. And this reality is complicated by the fact that the church has too often been complicit rather than offering a prophetic voice in opposition to such things.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflects on the connection between Christianity and the colonization from an African perspective when he says, “They used to say that the missionaries came to Africa and they had the Bible and we had the land. And then they said, ‘Let us pray.’ And when we opened our eyes, we had the bible and they had the land.” Having a bible can be/is – indeed – a very good thing but using it to steal the land and dominate others is diametrically opposed to the Bible’s teaching. And, of course, in Canada, we know that the church was not a prophetic voice in the act of colonization (the role of the church in Residential schools is a symptom of this truth).
Now the wealth accumulated from colonialism fueled the Industrial Revolution which in turn further consolidated the power of Europe over the colonies. And since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there has been (and continues to be) a tendency to exploit workers, concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and devastate the earth of its natural resources. Transnational corporations now scour the earth in search of the cheapest labour, the laxest environmental regulation, lowest taxes and greatest profit. The poor are often oppressed and the earth becomes polluted in the process.
Many of us (for example) have adopted the habit of looking for the best bargain; and that is often the criteria on which our decision to purchase is based. The developing countries have great and rich resources, but we allow the transnational corporations to rob them of the wealth that is rightfully theirs. If the product I purchase is really inexpensive because a factory worker in a developing country is forced into slave labour, then there is a huge disconnect between the teachings of my faith and the decisions I make in my day to day life. I, then, enable and support the abuse of corporate power which says, (1) you have the resources; (2) I want the product that is created out of those resources; (3) and I will do whatever is necessary to take it from you in a way that is unjust and unfair.
I've said it before, & I'll say it again; that is why shopping at 10,000 Villages is a faithful decision; It will be more expensive but your money will support artisans and farmers themselves rather than the corporations that would otherwise run them out of existence.
So, this mimetic desire (fundamental to human behavior) (1) you have it; (2) I want it; (3) and I’ll do whatever is necessary to take it (as cheaply as possible) – this behavior occurs at every level of our existence: globally (the way in which we treat people in developing countries) as well as locally (those closer to home.). And this behavior also exists on a personal level: the way we treat each other within the context of our day to day lives (everywhere from how courteous I am when it comes to that one available parking spot to how fair I am in all my dealings with my family, friends, church, communities, coworkers, etc. The inclination to take what is not ours to take, is indeed, woven into the very fabric of our existence – our culture.
We as a people of faith have a responsibility to live and model something radically different. And the Good News is that because we are human and simply do not possess the strength to do this on our own, our God has given us Jesus who has done this for us – who (himself) has reversed this mimetic desire – and now longs to work through us to continue to transform this world into a collection of communities that are fair and just. As a Christian people our lives are informed and guided and empowered by this powerful gift. Jesus, in his teachings, his life, his death and his resurrection, makes it very clear that his place is with those who suffer under the abusive power of others and, through him and the power given us in the Holy Spiri, our lives are to be modeled after his.
- It’s not O.K. to be a Christian and be complicit or complacent, when it comes to the unfair treatment of others.
- It’s not O.K. to be Christian and live off benefits gained from slave labour.
- It’s not O.K. to rape the earth in order to support the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.
To do this is to take what is not ours and that is a sin.
As we reflect on Ahab and Jezebel's mimetic desire, we find that our Gospel reading this morning specifically makes the point that Jesus opens our eyes to see things in new and faithful ways, turning our attention away from our own wants - our own sense of greed - toward the needs of others. This story, to be sure, could be and often has provided the necessary material for an entire sermon in and of itself, but for today's purpose suffice it to say that while the community saw the woman in this story as less than favourable, Jesus saw beyond this perception and offers her a new life - a new beginning. When we are busy taking what we want because we want it, Jesus is always offering to open our eyes so that we may see beyond this selfish desire; so that we may see our mandate to be mindful and respectful and responsive to the needs of others.
This past week we have been following the news of another kind of mimetic desire; one that we would define as physical rape. I am referring to the coverage of Brock Turner's sentencing after having brutally raped a young woman who was unable to consent to such an act. In a letter to the court, this young woman describes the sense of violation.Her body is something that is sacred; it is hers', given to her by God; her rapist wanted it; and without her consent, he took it.
After indulging himself in this horrific way, he was sentenced to 6 months, with a possibility of parole in maybe 3 months. Millions of people have retaliated against this light sentencing, and I believe that through all this, Jesus is opening our eyes to an injustice that has been intrinsic in our culture for way too long - that is, a culture that sanctions such acts through a serious complacency in turning a blind eye. Many would say that rape culture on university campuses has reached epidemic proportions, and the question is how could we let this happen.
I think the response to this question is found in one particular comment made by Brock Turner's father, whose attitude toward this grave situation is indicative of the underlying attitude within and throughout the culture in which we live. After highlighting many of Brock's positive attributes (which I have no reason to doubt) he then goes on to say that this 'incident' has ruined his son's life. He says, "This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."
This single comment highlights what some may consider a root cause of this dire situation, and that is a commitment to minimizing the brutal, violent, destructive nature of this brand of mimetic desire. Women have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of this implicit, complacent, self justifying attitude. And, I would argue, the Brock Turners of this world have suffered and continue to suffer because of it as well. This young man who is gifted with all sorts of other wonderful characteristics and skills, was raised by a man who views rape as simply 20 minutes of action... He was shaped by this attitude, and yes - because of this HIS life will never be the same...
As I ponder this troubling situation within the context of our readings this morning, I find myself wondering if I see Jesus working through this terrifying ordeal in ways that may open the eyes of this blinded culture, to see a new vision for how such rape must be viewed. It seems that through this incident the eyes of this culture have been opened, and voices are being raised. I've read so many postings from people who are saying ENOUGH. This rape mentality - this mimetic desire - must stop.
Indeed, when we are busy taking whatever it is we want - simply because we want it - Jesus is always offering to open our eyes so that we may see beyond this selfish - mimetic - desire. The woman in this morning's Gospel story worshipped and honoured Jesus with the very best that she had to offer. To worship Jesus with the very best we have to offer is to be mindful, respectful, and responsive to the needs of others. To worship Jesus with the very best we have to offer is to be outraged, vocal and active when we see the dignity of others being violated in any way.
May it be so.