When I first read of him, we were both young. Several pages in The Bulletin spoke of his great promise. Indeed, he went on to become one of our most powerful public figures, but was also deeply despised.
Years later, after church, I had to duck into a neighbouring parish with whom I also worked to deliver some equipment. They were still at morning tea when I arrived. Standing somewhat apart from the chatter was a hard faced and bitter figure, yet terribly sad and lonely, who looked uncannily like the man in The Bulletin. I thought, "You poor b— ! Fancy looking like him."
In the gossip column of the next parish rag I learned it was him, visiting friends; some of us move in high circles, apparently! I laughed at the time. "If I'd realised it was him, I'd have given him an earful."
I have been pondering James Alison's essay The Good Shepherd. He is referencing John 10 and Ezekiel 34 as he charts the development or "moments" of our self-consciousness and spiritual growth. A typical beginning moment in our journey might be to read John 10 as a criticism of "the Jews," with whom God was not pleased, and would reject. This betrays an unconscious, unreflective assumption of our innate superiority.
A growth in awareness begins to see that the motif of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, a critique of our community, even of us. As I often say in sermons, how can you read John's attacks on the Judeans without asking, "Am I like that? Is this me?"
Alison calls this phase, this second moment, the protestant moment. It is still characterised by an attitude of "us" and "them."
If ever there was a reason that, although we may stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, we are not a protest movement, this is it:
The key thing about any protest is that it is utterly dependent on there being another over against whom my protest has its validity and its dignity. It is just as dependent on a structure of "we" and "they" as the first [way of reading John] but is, if anything, even more sure, and fired up, about the righteousness of "we" and the evil of "they" than the earlier moment.
When we are living in this moment, our image of the risen Lord can be of a "brandishing of vengeance" rather than one who loves and forgives. Hopefully, we will come to a moment of "subversion by grace of all that went before." In that third moment, something of our need to stand justified and dignified as "me" melts in us. "Our identity collapses," he says.
This means we begin to see Jesus not as "for us" over against others, but as in our midst as one who catches us off guard. The comfortable world of "we's" and "they's" (sic) begins to collapse. The people who before we had been able to identify as lousy shepherds are now just other potential sheep like us. They are in need of someone who will shepherd them.
Allison suggests that this third moment is intimately connected to the Eucharist, especially as we see it in the story of the road to Emmaus. In that story, Jesus is the unexpected one who takes us by surprise as we break bread.
We are approached by someone who does not affirm us in our identity, but by someone who allows our identity to collapse so that a new "we" may be born, a "we" not over against anyone at all, but a we that is being called into being.
The person who lives in this moment is very like the Shepherd who stands at the gate of the sheep fold. He makes the point that gates are about who is "in" and who is "out." Gates are more "we" and "they." But Jesus is
a very special kind of door, because it is by entering through him, which means following him through a certain kind of death, that the sheep will be able to go in and out and find pasture. Now what is extraordinary about this is the freedom involved. It is a strange sort of door which does not seek to define people, but gives access to temporary shelter for the benefit of the sheep without wishing to confine the sheep therein.
And, as Alison notes, "he has other sheep." There is nothing sectarian here; if anything, this is a decisive argument for an open table!
It is here that Alison reminds us of the scandal of death. Death scandalises us; it shocks, outrages, disgusts, and terrifies us because it lessens us and brings us to nothing. We lose ourselves. From this understanding it is easy to see why we live so easily in "us" and "them" moments; our "self" is all we have. We do not want to be lessened. We do not wish to cease being. We resent that which lessens, humiliates and opposes us. It is a threat to our being. "They" who are against us always threaten us with a small dying, if not final death, or so it seems.
When we are in this moment of life, an open door is itself a scandal. It lets "them" come among "us." It threatens to confront us with the face-to-face evidence that "they" are not far different from "us."
When I get close enough to a politician whom I despise to see that he is time ravaged, hurting, and lonely, I see me. How can I hate me? There are two options at such a moment.
I can refuse to see me and, instead, hate him more. I self righteously hate the evil he is a part of propagating, and I pretend to make the difference between us more stark, by transferring all my own self hatred on to him. I feel less bad about me.
We call this projection, but it is also scapegoating. It is an act of violence against another lost sheep.
The only other option is to confess that I too, am lost. I too, despite my high ideals, am totally compromised by Sin. Not compromised by Sin as some esoteric theological concept, but by a concrete enmeshment in a violent, exploitative culture. I am, I succeed, and I have security at the cost of others. I eat, they starve.
To confess this is to diminish my self. I am no longer the most important person in the world. And once the seeing begins, if it gets a hold of us, there is no un-seeing and no stopping it. We begin to die.
The good Shepherd is not scandalised by death, but is able to give his life for the sheep, and puts down his life and takes it up again. This is the talk of someone who is not scandalised by death, and the new "we" that is being called into being is held in being by the same power that does not know death, but which enables us to follow and imitate the non-scandalised one. [This introduces the startling claim] … that we can dare to be weak amongst the weak without fear. Only the indestructible dare to be weak. We dare to be outcast among the outcast, since only those who are so utterly held in being that they don't need to hold on to being at all are able to dwell peacefully among those who apparently are not. Only those who are utterly held in life can dare to be dead, since death is for them as it is for God, something which is not.
At even the most basic level, experiencing such moments means to "let go of our selves." We have, in some small way, to "die to our selves." That is why compassion "works" to grow us spiritually. Compassion is the underpinning of the last great parable in Matthew 25. We can only feed the hungry, and visit the sick and the prisoners by letting go of a small part of ourselves, and sometimes, a great deal more. A small dying acts out and enables the greater dying. It is practice for being. It takes us out of ourselves.
These themes are also present in Alison's book Beyond Resentment (see note 3 at the link) where he reflects that the people on the Emmaus road are met by a man who is dead. (The resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of both his life and death.) Because he is dead there is no longer anything to resent. You will recall that I have said "we resent that which lessens are us." In essence, resentment is another handle by which we hold onto our selves. It is a manifestation of "we" against "they," and, ultimately, not only a sign of separation from others, but a sign of our separation from God, and from the simply being which is eternal life.
The reason this section of his book grabbed my attention, apart from a stunning thought experiment involving a Louisiana prisoner who is dead, is that I am well schooled in resentment. I was one of the scapegoats in my school, and I hated it like hell. The diminishment of abuse is ultimately life threatening; I can see why kids sometimes suicide because of bullying. Long experience of the bottom of the pecking order, and then, of the resentment that came as I made a self that had some status despite the circumstances, makes me very wary of carrying my compassion across certain boundaries of diminishment.
The conundrum which tangles me up is this: how do I give my life away— let go of my self— if I have to live it tomorrow? Not that I want this in any way, but if there is a hostage situation and someone must go with the perpetrator, and will probably die, and if it is down to me or a young person, it should be me. On paper anyway, I could do that.
But if I let you destroy me, how do I still front up to preach tomorrow? How do I get the hymns in on time? How will I be prepared for this meeting? Which is not even to mention the underlying fears of not being, of dying; I mean, where will this letting go stop?
But in the Eucharist, Alison seems to say, not only does Jesus surprise us by meeting us, but he begins the collapse of our selves that lets us enter into another being where we do not fear nonbeing because we know there is, in reality, no nonbeing.
We should have Eucharist more often!
I first saw this in a service where part of our thanksgiving was to bring thorny twigs of rose branch as a symbol of our lives and hurts and place them in a cauldron to which I then set fire. The power of that ritual was startling, primitive even. One of my congregants came forward— a strong, confident, well together high achiever, and I saw her clenching the twig, driving the thorns deep and deliberately into the palms of her hands before leaving them to be burned. Something in me was released at that moment, some reservation about the humanity of other people, some fear of them. I let go of some aloofness and superiority. I felt for her. My diminishment began.
Since then I carefully make eye contact with each person at Eucharist, as we remember that despite what we did to him, he returns, he still loves us, and he forgives us. I name each person; "Mary, the body of Christ, broken for you. Brother, his body, broken for you."
At one level this builds community and increases trust. It is easier to give to those whom we trust. At another level it lessens my resentment. I am less aloof. I am brought closer in the moment of vulnerability when I give bread or wine, or indeed, when it is given to me.
This giving and receiving does not diminish me. (The receiving is almost as important. We know that to receive puts us in people's debt, and we can resent that, too!) This giving and receiving frees me from resentment. It builds me up because it takes me out of myself into a moment of the eternal.
So the two on the road met Jesus in the teaching of the scripture and the breaking of the bread. But they were also practising for resurrection, that being dead to our self which changes everything, and lets us be lifted up to something else.
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