1. I was drawn in…but. We don’t know that the Gnostics tried to reformulate the gospel as a classic myth—it may well be that the gospel writers tried to historicize myth. And though historical acts of violence have surely often proved the religious basis for social ritual, I think the reverse is equally true—social ritual has also provided the basis for historical violence.

    I do agree that as a society we’ve made some progress in moving away from the idea of inherent evil within a suffering person or a victim, but I don’t believe we’ve made near enough—and where we’ve made the least progress, I believe, is within those most religious.

    My now-past experience within the Christian community was certainly one of the victim being assigned fault. While much of that community is justice-oriented, much of it pays no more than lip-service to the idea of justice for victims. Victims still all too often hear about their own responsibility in the wrong they suffer.

    To those stuck in poverty, substance addiction or abuse; those who have suffered marital infidelity, even illness or rape or social marginalization (including the gay community), the idea of the victim being responsible is still strong. We reap what we sow is still a commonly-held belief. My own experience with a number of these situations continues to bring to light the assumption that my circumstances are my own doing, some action or inherent wrong.

    Which brings me to where I disagree most strongly—justice for victims is nowhere near absolute. One need look no further than at the attitude of the evangelical right everywhere and its ability to turn a blind eye to matters of justice…or than western prisons disproportionately filled with First Nations people, and in the US, African Americans…or than a conservative Christian conversation on the topic of our homeless, or women, or the uneducated, or any group needing empowerment.

    If our focus at Easter-time were on the deeper meaning of the story of Hope—if we moved away from the glorification of the violence inherent in the story and the still-common understanding of redemption coming through that violence—we might make some progress. But it seems to me that no matter what actually happened or didn’t happen 2000 years ago, the idea of redemptive violence is still triumphing.

    I’m sorry for my long-windedness, and I hope I haven’t offended you, my dear friend.

  2. Thanks Connie for your stimulating and inoffensive (friendship should be able to stand some heat:) response.

    First the Gnostics…. actually we do know that Gnostics tried to reformulate the gospel story. There are a number of examples of Gnostic texts that are attempts at remythologizing the gospel, such as the Acts of John, where Jesus is shown to enthusiastic about his own killing, and because as Gnostics believed, he was “pure spirit” he was not affected by violence at all.

    Regarding social ritual, it’s the break down of prohibitions and rites (social ritual) that result in new rounds of cataclysmic violence. But at the same time, your right, social rituals themselves are also violent. However, social ritual doesn’t come into being unbidden. The violence of social ritual is a re-enactment of redemptive violence that often includes actual violence. From human or animal sacrifice to froshing, social ritual is about social cohesion. The “all” against the “one,” the act of expulsion, provides group cohesion. But the point is that social ritual is always a by-product, a selective kind of remembrance of a prior act of violence, so it’s not the “basis” of violence.”

    Finally, on the point of relative progress, leading to the point where you disagree most strenuously with me, well, this is exactly where I’d hoped to make my most obvious point. Which leads me to believe that perhaps you’ve missed my point, or that I didn’t explain but assumed to much (that’s the problem with relatively short articles). So let me try this: Just because the delivery of justice is skewed doesn’t mean that justice for the victim isn’t held as a general (western at least) absolute. In fact the passion with which you rightly argue for justice to be done in the case of homeless people, gays, racial, gender, ethnic discrimination etc. makes my point. We do hold that the rights of the victim is something close to, if not sacrosanct. Of course there aren’t enough people that see behind the self interest in certain areas of justice delivery. But that’s not the issue. Evangelicals (certainly not all), racists, chauvinists, etc. in their proclamations and their acts, all claim victim status, or claim to be defending the “victim.” Whether the victim is “family values” or more bizarrely, the eroding rights of white people. The point is that in our culture, having or being given victim status trumps all comers. (This is good and right but sometimes dangerous and combustible.) All you need to do is look at the run for office of our southern neighbours. No one runs on a platform that might look like it’s in defence of powerful oppressors. And if they do, the powerful oppressors are always recast as the victims of special interest groups. That’s the huge change that has taken place because of the gospel. The mighty know (although don’t always act) that might doesn’t make right.

    Now, the fact that we as a society are as violent, if not more so, is also the result of the gospel. That’s because we still victimize, scapegoat, but the mechanism no longer works like it used to. While we still like to mythologize our violence, the myth is easily punctured. As a result of the gospel, our options have been narrowed to an either/or. And of course the apocalypse, is not, as evangelicals claim, a description of what God will do at the end of time, but a description of what we will do to ourselves unless we stop using redemptive violence at all levels. So far we haven’t followed the pacific alternative to redemptive violence. But we do have models like Jesus, Ghandi, and King.

  3. You clearly have a deeper understanding than I do, but I do have one brief argument regarding your statement that “actually we do know that Gnostics tried to reformulate the gospel story”. I’m no historian or scholar, but from what I understand, that’s a point on which scholars disagree strongly — many, on their look at the evidence, have concluded that in fact the history passed down by the Catholic Church is actually a misrepresention of what happened, and that the Gnostics were in fact the original Christians….not that it matters all that much to me. Like I said earlier, the power in any story/parable/myth for me isn’t whether it actually happened or not, but in the message it’s meant to convey–which I think we’d agree we’re mostly still missing?

  4. Hi Connie:
    I don’t thinkanyone would pretend that the world has evolved to a place where people aren’t scapegoated or subjected to ritualized violence anymore. It sounds like you have experienced some of that on a personal level but one thing is for sure we have come a long way from the day when crucifixion was a common place way for powers to enforce social harmony.

    We evangelicals like to tell everyone how awful things are since our concept of faith has become marginalized but that is of course a ridiculous position to take in a North American context. I think our society with its excess is far preferable to the world Jesus lived within.

    I believe the now accepted and expected process of seeing thru the eyes of the victim makes our civilization much closer to the kingdom preached in the beatitudes than the careless imperium of powers in the past.

  5. Seeing through the eyes of the victim is an excellent thing, without a doubt. It’s just that I’m not at all sure that a historical view of the gospels can take credit for our progress on that front. For one, Christianity’s own history of injustice doesn’t support the premise, and for another, many societies pre-dating a historical understanding of Christianity — including gnostic and pagan ones which included understandings of the feminine divine — were much more equitable and just than our own.

  6. I so appreciate these comments. Thanks Len for your perspective. And Connie, thanks for your challenge. I’m not sure how deeply I understand these things either, but I, like you, just know what resonates.

    On the claim that Gnostics were the first Christians…it’s necessary to have a preconception that the historicity of Jesus, particularly the resurrection, never happened. If however you allow for the possibility of a real resurrection then the claim is doesn’t hold. (Probably, what we beleive of the resurrection will inform the rest.)

    The idea that first came the myth, then came the Catholic church to “historisize” the myth, seems highly unlikely. That’s because making the myth historical would be an act of self-accusation. They would be undermining the very control and power they sought. That again, is what a historical gospel does, has done, that myth doesn’t.

    Now, it’s obvious that Constantine used a twisted form of Christianity as way of power and control. But the reason, I maintain, it’s obvious to us, is because of the nature of the gospel. Twisted forms of the gospel never last; the change, or recovery, may be exceedingly slow, but no matter how deeply buried, the cross remains (our) admission of guilt, and will always surface. The fact that “Constantinian Christianity” engendered the monastic movement–voluntary poverty, and compassion and hospitality to all (i.e. Rule of St. Benedict), is a case in point. Constantine, and those who came later, would have been better off to have taken and canonized Gnostic belief thereby forever perpetuating right of the powerful. Gnostic belief, as in the Acts of John for example, always shield us from our ways of sacrificial violence.

  7. Oh, now it is me that is long winded…but this is interesting and important and I again thank you for being your challenging and interesting self…

    You said: “Seeing through the eyes of the victim is an excellent thing, without a doubt. It’s just that I’m not at all sure that a historical view of the gospels can take credit for our progress on that front. For one, Christianity’s own history of injustice doesn’t support the premise…”

    I can’t defend Christianity’s record of justice. Christians are themselves still subject to distorted desires. At the same time we can’t overlook that where there has been Christian influence, there has also come to be care facilities, hospitals, shelters, etc. (Where I work is an example.)

    You also said: “…and for another, many societies pre-dating a historical understanding of Christianity — including gnostic and pagan ones which included understandings of the feminine divine — were much more equitable and just than our own.”

    This requires some digging. Perhaps you have other examples but the anthropological evidence for a “golden age,” or for societies that were peaceful, and by extension, equitable and just, is quite debateable. Unfortunately this is also true of Goddess worship as marking an age of peace. There is however an abundance of evidence of archaic and prehistorical societies that were violent. See for example, the American Journal of Anthropology, “Myth of the Peaceful Savage.”

    This of course supports Girard’s discovery outlined in his “Violence and the Sacred.” that early cultures were based on an act of violence, that created cultural order but never sustained it indefinitely.

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