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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

James Alison- love your enemies

I've been reading an article (a talk, actually) by Fr. James Alison, - Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self. It begins with a mention of the discovery of mirror neurons and the possible support that may give to René Girard's theory of mimetic desire. I've left out that beginning part and started with his discussion of the limitations of reciprocity (born in part of mimicry) in human relationships and the way that reciprocity is broken by Jesus/God.

I've only posted bits - best to read the whole thing.


Let us take a look at the passage of Matthew’s Gospel which our hosts at St Martin-in-the-Fields have suggested to us by their title for this lecture series. You are all familiar with the phrase:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

and yet comparatively rarely do we give it its full context, as I will do shortly. The result is that it is presented to us as a kind of heroic moral demand, the sort of thing that would make one somehow especially noble, if unworldly. That is, when it is not presented in a more sinister light, as if it could be paraphrased “Jesus wants you as a doormat”. This is what happens when the phrase is used to urge meekness upon a battered spouse, or passivity upon someone who is genuinely being victimized by someone else. And this of course is the danger of reading a phrase which is illustrative of who we are and how we function, and thus is directive, something which sets us free as it gets along side us and enables our perspective on things to be broadened, as if it were a moral commandment spoken straight to our conscious mind which we must therefore struggle to fulfil irrespective of circumstance.

In fact, however, the context of that phrase, as supplied by St Matthew, is rather different. Here are the verses in question (Mt 5, 43-48):

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Now of course the phrase “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy” appears nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet all Scriptures, whatever they actually say, are capable of an interpretation such that those who give voice to them turn them into bulwarks for the cultural creation of identity. Give people a common enemy, and you’ll give them a common identity ...... we are confirmed in our assumptions that we should do good to those who do good to us, and take revenge on those who do evil to us. It is this normal human cultural way of living out reciprocity which Jesus is pointing to. He knows that we are reciprocally-formed animals; he seems to understand that we are ourselves radically imitative creatures who are very seriously dependent on what others do to us, for what we do.

Jesus is offering a contrast between this way of being, this pattern of desire which runs us, and how God desires. God, he says, causes ‘the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust’. And our typical reading of this is as if Jesus were saying that God is somehow indifferent, in that removed, detached sense which we normally give to the word “indifferent”. Rather as though God were saying “Well, they’re such a bunch of losers, that I may as well give up hoping they’ll get up to anything good, so I may as well just carry on doing the kind of regular, creative, thing, causing it to rain or be sunny, which seems to be my lot in life regardless of whether they get anything right”.

Far from it! The sort of “indifference” about which Jesus is talking could not be more removed from that sort of apathetic detachment. Jesus is making a point about a pattern of desire which is not in any way at all run by what the other is doing to it, is not in reaction in any way at all, but is purely creative, dynamic, outward going, and able to bring things into being and flourishing ..... the instruction “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” comes as the mid-point, the point of passage, between these two different patterns of desire: the first pattern in which our identity is given to us and grasped onto by us imitative creatures as we mirror each other in our reciprocity; and the second pattern of desire in which our identity is given to us by someone moving us entirely independently of being moved by us. The instruction is not one about being a doormat, it is one about how to be free ......

What God’s love looks like is being creatively for the other without being defined over against the other in any way at all. That is what is meant by grace and freedom. It is going to involve breaking through the strong-seeming but ultimately fragile dichotomies of “in group” and “out group”, “pure” and “impure”, “good guys” and “bad guys” which are quite simply the ambivalent functions of our cultural identity, and coming to love other people without any over against at all. Living this out is going to look remarkably like a loss of identity, a certain form of death. And living it out as a human is what it is to be a child of God, and to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

I think that we are now in a better position to look at the second half of our title for this evening: the divided self. The main point I want to make is that the divided self is not a particular individual tragedy. It is the normal condition of our being brought into the world ..... One of the things our friends know about us, but we don’t know about ourselves, is that the people we find most difficult, the ones who really get on our nerves, are the ones who are most like us ......

It is here, I think, that we can start to see the genius of Our Lord’s instruction, one which, as I say, completely takes for granted the mimetic, projective nature of humans and of the fact that it is how we are in relation to others which runs our reason, and not our reason which runs the way we are towards others. He makes it clear throughout the Sermon on the Mount that the only path towards having a non-divided self is by loving our enemies, forgiving those who do us harm, and praying for those who persecute and hate us. And this is because it is only in our relationship with others, “out there”, that we have any access at all to what constitutes us “in here”.

And this seems to be true as a matter of experience as well: as I have prayed for and tried to learn to look on certain people in my own experience with whom I have been locked into what seemed at first glance like righteous hatred, I have found that the veriest glimpse of the tiniest iota of affection towards them produced a huge harvest of self-acceptance and peace within me. I could have prayed for years to be able to forgive myself and not got anywhere at all: it was in being able to let the other go, forgive the other, that I began to be able to forgive myself. It is for this reason that I think that telling people that they need to forgive themselves is to place a terrible burden on them. It is to direct them to fruitless introspection and breast beating, since none of us has direct access to what makes us conscious. The only way to forgive yourself is projectively, which is to say, in another person. As you forgive another, so you will find yourself being let go .....

If we want to come to know what really is true about our world, then we will have to learn to have our knowledge set free from being forged in hatred. That, it seems to me, is the basic framework for what, at the publicly expressed invitation of Pope Benedict, my Church is now proposing to study seriously: how to talk about a natural law which is universal in scope and true independently of those who hold it. I suspect that as we grow in our discovery of how mirror neurons work, the phrase “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” may turn out to be closer to the founding principle of that natural law than any of us had any right to expect.



Blogger Paul said...

Yes, I always found those lines far more meaningful in their complete context. It seems to me like they're saying something like: Just be. Or maybe, to mix verses, "Don't hide your lamp under a bushel under any conditions."

Of course it's easier said than done, but to me that's one of the major functions of religion at its best - pointing in the right direction.

2:28 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

yeah, now if only they could figure out which direction is the right one :-)

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So often your posts make me take a hard look at myself and to seek to know God more deeply. Thank you!

10:16 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Dyan,

It's not me - it's the guys whose stuff I post :-)

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But I wouldn't know where to find it if it weren't for you ;) Let's give the glory to God and count ourselves blessed to serve Him!

7:05 PM  

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