Friday, September 15, 2006

Gathering and Scattering

“When all the crowds that had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened, they went away beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).

The oldest and easiest path to social solidarity is the path that led to Golgotha: the community gathered together in its shared fear and loathing of another or others. The key to the success of this process is the unquestioned assumption of a moral gap separating the righteous inside and the reprobates outside the communal circle. The crowd that was gathered by this spectacle on Golgotha was privy to a revelation incompatible with the smooth working of this ancient gathering mechanism. Through a glass darkly those who gathered at the Cross glimpsed the innocence of the victim, which in Luke’s account is explicitly expressed by the Roman centurion. This is not just a juridical insight, it exposes as a lie the unspoken assumption that social unanimity is an infallible moral compass.

The Greek word for church, ecclesia, means the gathering of those called out. We might say: the gathering of those who have been scattered by the failure of a malfunctioning gathering principle. Among other things, the Church is an ongoing anthropological experiment in a new form of gathering, a new community made necessary by the crippling of humanity’s ancient reflexive source of social solidarity. Christianity’s gathering principle is Christ and the relationship to Christ which the members of the community experience individually and in their common worship and mission. Contrary to the worldly gathering principle, such a community needs no enemy against whom it can organize itself.

Meanwhile, half a million years of adaptation cannot be set aside, nor can the doctrine of original sin be wished away. Humanity’s social and psychological reflexes predispose us to revert to default forms of social solidarity, especially in times of cultural crisis. The situation is made even more morally problematic by the fact that, whatever small degree of success a society may have had in gathering with Christ rather than against its enemies and scapegoats, it will forever be threatened by real enemies within and without. The task of protecting the always fragile oasis of relative order and tranquility from its enemies – without succumbing in the process to the old anthropological principle – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – will always be with us.

The more ominous an enemy a society faces, the greater the danger that opposing a fierce adversary will become the society’s chief organizing principle, replacing the Christological center and thereby turning the society into yet another of the “kingdoms of this world.” To the extent that this occurs, the society begins to consume its own most precious spiritual resources in its effort to preserve the cultural artifacts in which these resources have been distilled and preserved.

Paul, who experienced that “where sin abounds, grace super-abounds,” asked therefore, “should I sin so that grace may abound?” Analogously, the presence of ferocious enemies can serve to awaken a negligent society to the value of the civil order and social harmony it might have taken for granted under less challenging circumstances. But such enemies can also have the opposite effect: they can cause a panic-stricken society to abandon its moral and cultural treasures in a frantic attempt to ward off its foes. The Roman poet Virgil describes such a moment as the Trojan citadel was being overrun by the Argive warriors. The Trojans dismantle their own fortress in a blind attempt to buy themselves a little time. The metaphor is painfully apposite to the crisis facing Western culture.

In turn the Trojans tear down roofs and towers
to fling as missiles; they can see the end
is near, but even at death’s point they still
prepare defense. They roll down gilded rafters,
our ancient fathers’ splendors . . .

Those faced with implacable enemies, two temptations loom large: to appease them and thereafter succumb to the appetite for total vindication that the appeasement merely whets or to use the ferocity of their barbarous enemies as justification for a reciprocal ferocity which, absent a more profound experience of communion, is spiritually indistinguishable from the aggression it seeks to repel. All these complexities are rendered considerably clearer when seen through the lens of Rene Girard's mimetic theory.

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