musings from my rich inner world…

Reflections on Faith Beyond Resentment

Of all the material that I have read for this independent study, I have found Faith Beyond Resentment: fragments Catholic and gay to be the most thought-provoking.[1] I am not sure whether this is because of my own lack of familiarity with Catholic theology or perhaps because so much of what Alison has to say is fresh and new. Based on the responses that I have seen from accomplished theologians and people much more familiar with Catholic theology, I am inclined to believe he has added something new to the conversation by applying Girard’s theories to the gay question within Catholic discourse. However, Alison’s insights are not narrowly related to LGBT issues only, but rather can be adapted to larger questions of group dynamics within the Church and personal identity in a life of faith. In the paper I will reflect on a few key insights from the text that have helped me to review certain events in my own life from a different point of view.

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay book coverMoving ahead from the introductory material and the description of theology that comes about from the barren uncomfortable places where we sometimes find ourselves, I found Alison’s explanation of Jesus as the fraternal relocation of deity a powerful description of the desacralization of authority and an excellent anthropological basis for theological reflection. In several areas of my studies over the past year I have been grappling with the apophatic nature of God and how it is impossible for us to know or comprehend God from the limited vantage point we possess as human beings. While all of Creation may very well point to the wonder and power of God, theologians remind us again and again that if you can name it and describe it, then it’s not God. Though Elijah witnessed powerful forces of wind and earthquake and fire, none of these things could rightly be described as God who instead was the whisper of nothingness that came after the theophany (1 Kings 19:11-12). In my first theology course we discussed Karl Barth’s assertion that Jesus is the flesh and blood revelation of a God of love who is far beyond our comprehension. If we want to know who God is, then we must look at how Jesus, who as God incarnate, is portrayed in the gospels. In the chapter titled "Jesus’ fraternal relocation of God" Alison uses a Girardian hermeneutic to tease the meaning out of the difficult Johannine passage in which Jesus speaks with the Pharisees about the concept of Divine paternity (John 8:31-59). What he ends up with bears witness to Barth’s teaching regarding Jesus as the accessible model of Deity offered to humanity. By imitating Jesus, we enter into a relationship of "horizontal discipleship" that allows us to come to perceive who God is and to discover our relationship with God as Father (Alison 59).

One of the primary implications that Alison presents is that all temporal authorities, whether religious, political, familial, etc., are no more than fraternal voices that pass themselves off as being on a higher level (hence hierarchy), but are no more than brothers and sisters who have donned the drag of authority and attempt to back up their claims through the threat of violence should we choose to ignore their commands. Because of our many encounters in this life with these "authorities," we are not in a position to hear the voice of God in a paternal relationship. Putting this another way, even if God were to speak directly to us, most of us are carrying enough baggage around due to our encounters with temporal authority that we would be unable to immediately hear and interact with God in a proper relationship between paternal authority and offspring. Alison posits that it is because of this reality that God took on human flesh and became through Jesus Christ a brother to us who speaks without overbearing authority and threats of punishment, but who rather models for us God’s love and provides an object worthy of imitation. By focusing on a lateral relationship with Jesus and imitating the model that he has provided for us (in Girardian terms, positive mimesis), we are able to enter into relationship with an equal which leads us to an understanding of God as Father through his Son.

Once it becomes clear that all temporal authority is merely our brothers and sisters pretending to authority that they do not possess, we are free to evaluate their instruction and make our own decisions regarding obedience. I am in no way advocating for disobedience before civil, familial or ecclesial authority simply for the sake of disobedience. However, in light of understanding that these power structures are made of folks who put on their pants every morning one leg at a time, the same as anyone else, we dispel the myth that their orders to us should automatically be equated with Divine mandate. Growing up as a Southern Baptist with the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers and an emphasis on personal responsibility in the study and interpretation of Scripture, this is not a great leap for me. However, as I reflect on my adult experiences within religious community I do find areas where Alison’s discuss really hits home.

In 2000 I returned to the Church after a 13-year hiatus. I had left in the first place when I graduated high school and set off for college, knowing that should my gayness become known that the reaction would most likely be more than I was ready to deal with at the time. Years later, having reconciled my sexual orientation with my ideas of how God viewed me, I felt ready to take a chance again on participating in a community of faith. In a metropolitan area the size of DC, I was able to locate a Charismatic Christian community that ministered specifically to gays and lesbians. It didn’t take long before I was actively involved with the church and after a year of attendance and a short discernment process, I accepted a position with the deaconate. This community had become integral to my everyday life and had provided me with some real opportunities for spiritual development. However, its Achilles heel was the lack of pastoral preparation (in both pastoral care and biblical studies) within the leadership. When the church leaders decided to adopt a hyper-authoritarian governance style I quickly ran afoul of the pastor (now "apostle") in matters of biblical hermeneutics. On arrival at a leadership meeting I was confronted with accusations of having a rebellious spirit and threatened first with removal from ministry and the potential for expulsion from the community. Videotapes of the service had provided authorities with evidence that I was not properly worshiping God during service, as I did not share the same hand motions and facial expressions as the rest of the body. If I did not "straighten up" immediately I would be "set down." Thus I was presented with an incredibly difficult choice: kowtow to my brothers and sisters who had donned titles of prophets and apostles or face expulsion from the community of faith. While the choice may appear obvious, it was in no way an easy one to make at the time. As I contemplated leaving my spiritual home, my fear was that there would be no other community in which to participate. The fear of exile to nothingness can be quite powerful in locking one into abusive situations, yet in the end I attended services only once more before departing never to return.

For some time afterwards I went through stages of separation that Alison describes in his chapter on "the exilic transformation of anger into love." I felt totally annihilated, as though I was no one when separated from the body that had provided affirmation in my ministry and I went through a period of demonization in which I could no longer think of the leadership of the church as human beings, but rather as delusional creatures, possessed of raving spirits of control attempting to strip the will away from their brothers and sisters in Christ and to subjugate them to their newfound "apostolic authority." During this first stage, as Alison points out, I was much more bound to those who I thought I was rejecting than was comfortable to admit (120). Much of how I defined myself was in opposition to those I felt had rejected me. It is ironic that Alison uses the texts of the woes against the Pharisees as a jumping off point in describing these steps, as I spent the next several months working my way through several books on spiritual abuse in the church, all of which based their criticisms on the these passages in Matthew 23. For me at this time, the authorities of that particular church were the modern day embodiment of the Pharisees as they are often portrayed in the two-dimensional morality plays of the modern Church. It was only after much time that I was able to again see these people as my brothers and sisters and their actions as fraternity dressed up as paternal authority. (I must admit that this process is not yet complete, as I still have my moments where I can fall back into demonizing the leadership of that body.) However, as time passes I am better able to maintain perspective. Though I still recall the hurt of that situation, I no longer see those with whom I was in conflict as either spiritual authorities or as inhuman persecutors. And as I come to understand how I, too, am quite capable of exerting the same forms of undue coercion on others and of withholding affirmation as a control mechanism, I have begun to see, as Alison points out, that the woes against the Pharisees in Matthew are not about one set of people or another, but stand as a warning to all of us of the trap that we can fall into when we propose ourselves as authorities with power over our brothers and sisters (121).

As a sign of moving away from anger into love, Alison proposes that our approach to the Eucharist and our understanding of the self-giving sacrifice of God that it embodies may serve as an indicator of our progress (123). As I reflect on my own life, I find some agreement with this statement, though I must confess that I do not grasp the agency involved. As a Southern Baptist, I was raised with a typically Zwinglian approach to Communion – a purely symbolic act reminding us of the sacrifice of Christ. It was only through exposure to spiritual mentors of other traditions that I began to understand the Eucharist as a sacrament conveying grace to those who participate in it. And then, over time, in the MCC and subsequently in the Episcopal Church (without explanation or instruction from those in that body) I began to experience the sacrament of the Eucharist as an event during which I experienced the touching of heaven and earth, in which something unseen was occurring. At the time I had no words for what I was experiencing. I only knew that on receiving the host and wine and returning to my seat I was overcome by an incredible sense of love and belonging that invited me into something larger than myself. For a period of a couple of years a common response to the Eucharist for me was silent tears, expressing what I had no words for. Through my exposure to Girardian thought I have been equipped to express this as an understanding of the forgiving victim in Christ who willingly surrendered his body and life rather than fighting the fate that he faced and resisting the aggression being perpetrated against him which would have resulted in being co-opted into the endless cycle of retributive violence. Along with this, I experience the profound sense of co-fraternity with all those present who are also participating in the sacrament. Eucharist becomes the great leveler of human authority systems as we all stand as equals, complicit in the mechanisms to which Christ willingly gave his life that we might see our own participation in systems of sacred violence and come to a place of yielding to the Holy Spirit’s redeeming power, which lifts us out of the system and transforms us into something completely new. The Eucharist now provides a focal point, reminding me of the self-emptying model set by Christ as the only response in the face of violence. And though I am still apt to participate in the systems we as humans have instituted that depend on the threat of violence for enforcement, I am more and more aware of my complicity and, in some cases, am able to step up and say no.

As I have reflected on this process, I am also aware of the (especially feminist) criticism against promoting a kenotic response to violence in those who are already oppressed. I fully admit the dangers involved in taking what I have been describing as the standard for all people in all situations. However, it seems to me that the oppressed are in no position to freely empty themselves out in the face of violence from another – especially if through subjection to these forms of violence they do not have a strongly defined "self" to offer or any choice in the matter of the offering. To put that in other words, I cannot give what I have not possessed. Thus, it is of utmost importance not to rush the stages of anger felt by those who have been the victims of violence in our systems of temporal authority and hierarchical dualism. We must allow time and space to process through these feelings and to recover from the sense of the annihilated self, crushed under the weight of systems of oppression.  [Instructor Comment:  Good points here.  We should talk about this.  How do we distinguish between annilhilated self and what Jesus did?]

However, we must be conscious of the pitfalls of moving from grief and anger to the temptation to revel in self pity over the role we have played in the victimage mechanism. When we self-righteously occupy the position of the victim, demanding retribution and recompense for the abuses we have suffered at the hands of human authorities with their violent enforcement mechanisms, we are not able to move into the area of identifying with the oppressors as our brothers and sisters who are also trapped in the same systems that we occupy. It is this "resentment" of which Alison speaks in the title of his book. As long as we are trapped in our resentment we will be unable to fully imitate the model presented by our brother, Christ Jesus, and enter into full relationship with God the Father.[2] Though I am not capable of consciously willing away resentment, I am capable through the agency of the Holy Spirit, of surrender to the transformation offered by God that will, over time, result in detachment from my demands for retributive justice in the face of violence perpetrated against me, both real and perceived. In his chapter "On Not Being Scandalized," Alison makes the claim that:

"The Christian faith enables us to inhabit the space of being victimized not so as to grab an identity but, in losing an identity, to become signs of forgiveness such that one day those who didn’t realize what they were doing may see what they were doing and experience the breaking of heart which will lead to reconciliation" (172).

This to me has become integral to the Good News of the witness of Jesus Christ and the call of discipleship for those who choose to follow after him. It is a call against which we must check all of our religious impulses for creating ritual or standards that we seek to enforce with both ourselves and our Christian sisters and brothers. It is the freeing from the heavy loads that religious systems seek to tie on the backs of adherents and the first insight into a God who looks absolutely nothing like any of the gods that humanity has imagined before – one who does not require a set of rituals and sacrifices from us to prove piety, but who rather sits with us in the hard spaces and imbues us with a quiet and sustaining strength as we let go of our idols, face expulsion from human religious systems, and find ourselves in the presence of the whisper of nothingness that appears when the fires have died down and we have experienced the worst of the winds and the ground-shaking wrath unleashed by those who are upset with our lack of complicity in the drag shows of ecclesial authority that, if left unchecked, so often masquerades as the very voice of God. It is the quiet presence which allows us to inhabit the place of annihilation and be still, knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work, transforming us and using our lives as a witness for those who will one day be called to their own places of weakness and transformation.

[1] Even though this is not the last book in the reading list, this paper was written after finishing all texts for the study.

[2] As Alison, I am also aware that references to the paternity of God the Father is deeply rooted in the hierarchical dualism of sexism (58). However, I use these words for lack of gender-neutral terms for God as parent (understanding that even the word parent is based in the Latin pater).

Works Cited

Alison, James.  Faith Beyond Resentment: fragments Catholic and gay.  New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001.

Instructor’s Comments

Bryce —

This has been the best reflection paper yet.  Your text takes Alison’s work and use it to look at the particularities of your own life.

A question that lingers for me is how does this book help you in your theological work?  What could or would or should you do with these insights?

Well done.  I look forward to the conversation on this book.

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