What just happened?

What just happened!?

At the end of a couple of painful and divided meetings of Presbytery and Synod, the Chairperson reminded us that this would be the last meeting organised by the current Associate General Secretary. It's an enormous task to make these meetings work, and he's done it for years. As we began to applaud, we stood up and turned to where the Chairperson indicated the Associate Gen-Sec was standing at the back of the meeting. And so it was that I saw about 30 people who had remained seated as a group, stunned, grey, grim, barely applauding, if at all. They had just lost a vote to force the Assembly to reconsider recent decisions about marriage within the Uniting Church. What happened next is the subject of this paper.

As someone who is often very judgemental, and was deeply angry about the opposition to the Assembly decision on marriage, I was surprised at my lack of anger or judgement of them— where did that come from!?

I was even more surprised, with a moment's reflection, to find I had considerable sympathy for them; it is a terrible thing to be sure that you are right, and then to be ignored, to be rebuffed, and to find that the meeting continues on without you— as though what you hold dear is done with, and even irrelevant. There was a time when my feelings toward these folk would have been schadenfreude and condemnation; instead, my response was "You poor blokes"— what has happened to me!?

Indeed, it even occurred to me that perhaps some of them were not refusing to stand and applaud out of some principle, or anger, or churlishness, but were simply profoundly shocked by the place in which they found themselves when, shortly before, it had seemed they would win the day. Coming from me, that was unexpectedly charitable. My compassion was unexpected, and a surprise to me.

As a child I had determined to be nothing like the children at school who made my life a misery, and whose scars I still carry. I would be better than them; much better. But I found, in the end, that in opposing them, I had become just like them. I was much more like them than I was not like them.

This is called being defined by our enemies. The uncomfortable suspicion that even when I have been right on issues, I have often been more consumed by the same fears and hurts which drove my childhood companions to abuse me, led me to one more shock at Presbytery: I saw that the nature of marriage was not the problem we had faced. The problem was how we related to each other. We were no different to each other. Each was doing the other a violence whilst blaming the other side for being violent. We were blaming the belief of the other for being the problem when all of us together, the way we were church together, was the problem. We were snookered into our apparently perpetual binary divide, forced into making a decision which could only leave a significant proportion of us devastated.

This is no claim to some spiritual superiority on my part; my partner needed to nudge, poke, and shush me, at various times during the meeting, and it's just as well she was there to do it! Rather, what I understood at an uncomfortable gut level, partly due to those prods and pokes, was that I was no different to the people with whom I so strongly disagreed. We were all part of a way of being which was more damaging for us that any "right" or "wrong" that we may have determined by winning a vote.

Somewhere in the last few years, I found I had been changed from the time of my childhood. I found one day that I felt a profound concern for the children who began the process which made my school life a misery. I had not set out to forgive them, yet not only had that somehow happened, but I mourned for what I now recognised had been done to them. They were, after all, little kids like me. And I recognise that something similar has happened in the aftermath of our presbytery meeting. I have a deep concern, even a love, for those with whom I disagree so fervently. I am the least likely person to be in this situation.[1] I can only ask, "What has happened to me!?"

Something is intruding into my life, despite myself. It's this intrusion which I am seeking to understand and to describe in this essay. For all its discomfort, I like it. The new self I am glimpsing is a lot easier to live with!

The simple explanation for all this is that the Spirit of God is intruding into my life. But God does not violate our humanity by forcing us to change. God invites us to be healed. Neither is God capricious, offering to heal me, but not you. God offers healing to us all, at all times, and in all places. This implies that something changes in us to allow us to respond to the invitation rather than reject it. Indeed, something changes in us which means we are finally able to hear the invitation, rather than being a creature which is deaf to that which is always present.

I am convinced that God loves me and desires my healing. How God manages that healing is beyond what we can know. What I can see, is something of how and why I am blind and deaf to God's constant invitation. And I can see something of that which, from my side of the relationship, begins to open me to the love which has always embraced me. This is the subject of this essay.

One more cycle

For as long as I have been able to understand such things, I have seen a divide through the churches which nurtured me, and through the Uniting Church for whom I am a minister. It has variously been over the status of the bible, an emphasis on justice vs. an emphasis on evangelism, the degree to which women may hold authority on an equal footing to men, the inclusion of LGBTIQ folk, questions about whose race and culture is normative for the church and, now, in this latest cycle, who may marry whom.

But none of these issues have been the issue, not even the issue of biblical authority and interpretation, even though that has often been a central point of contention within other issues. All of these issues have simply been the current or most recent occasion for an argument, and for an anxiety, about something deeper.

I call this argument the tension between living under Babylon or living under Grace. It could called choosing between the Empire of Babylon and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, which is the realm of grace as opposed to the slavery of Babylon. I will sketch out this tension in the next few pages and then unpack the notion of Babylon in more detail.

The Deeper Issue: Babylon or Grace?

We have been involved in an ongoing search and struggle for grace. Grace is that gift and presence of God which we experience as a settled peace and contentment within all the fear and anxiety of life. It is a "but anyway" sense of something which underpins us even though circumstance threatens to undo us. And even as circumstance does undo us.

Grace is Israel's discovery in exile that the creation is good, (Genesis 1: and God saw that it was good, vv 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, 31) and that God is for us. Grace is the fact, which we are sometimes blessed to experience, that we are not hated by God, are not an inconvenience to God, but are the desire of God's heart, and the apple of God's eye. But, like Israel in exile, we live within a Babylonian[2]  culture, by which I mean that we have inherited Babylon's fear of the gods who hated them, and for whom they were created as slaves. It is a rare thing for us to live fully within the truth that God is Love. (1 John 4:8)

Not only have we been searching for grace, but underlying our cyclical Uniting Church arguments has been an attempt to guarantee grace. Our struggles with each other have been a search for the power and authority to know objectively— to know for sure— that "we are saved." We preach that "by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God," (Eph 2:8) but our human frailty can never quite believe this, much less live with the reality that a gift does not have guarantees, but is… a grace we must trust! Grace flickers in and out of focus. We glimpse grace, and then fear that we will lose sight of it in all the noise and contradiction of the world. We glimpse grace and then fear God will withdraw it from us.

A part of the guarantee I seek in such a place is that my description and my experience is accepted as the correct one. For my glimpse of grace is too fragile to bear the truth of your glimpse of another aspect of the same God beyond all gods.

Until we cease seeking to humanly guarantee grace, and until we cease seeking to win the argument— whatever it is over this time— all sides of the argument will finally only add to whatever problem we have this time, and there will be no solution, only another temporary victory.

This is important to understand. We are all formed in Babylon. Therefore, all sides live and argue in the mould of Babylon, even if they happen to be objectively correct (at the moment) about whatever the argument happens to be.

This means that to win on the floor of Synod is to win nothing. It serves only to confirm my prejudice and to diminish you, (or the reverse...) until next time because, to win is the mindset of Babylon. In seeking to win— in seeking to guarantee grace for ourselves— we allow Babylon to hold us in a repetitive cycle of violence which never ends. If we listened to ourselves at Presbytery and at Synod we know that no one wanted to do violence, yet most of us felt violence. We could not help ourselves.

This is a place of pathos and pain: How will I know my glimpse of God is true if you do not agree with me? If you will agree with me, I will know I am right. So I work to persuade you. I seek the power to enforce your agreement, and if you won't agree, I will make you invisible in some way, so that you don't threaten my picture of the world where, at last, I have begun to find some peace and security.

Psalm 133 says

How very good and pleasant it is
   when kindred live together in unity! ...
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
   life for evermore.

Is not this a true word? And is it not incredibly difficult to achieve? In fact, I don't think we can achieve such a unity in any healthy way. Unity is given to us at times. It is an occasional discovery. Part of our training in grace seems to be learning to stick around each other even though we feel no blessing of unity! But my desperation for certainty and safety is such that I am driven to achieve unity. I make it my god, my idol. I need to make it happen so that my deep fear of not belonging, and my deep fear of being driven out, will cease. Or, at least, be controlled a little.

For if I do not win the argument and persuade you to agree with me, God might disappear; grace might not be real. This is one of the driving fears of fundamentalism.

My conversion at twenty-one was followed by a great peace and energy—grace indeed. And then I heard a fundamentalist voice saying that some people have belief all wrong, and they will miss out. Although it was dressed up in fine words which sounded like deeply reasoned argument, what it was saying was, "Perhaps you are wrong. How do you know for sure that you have got this right? How can you trust your experience of the God who met you?"

I let go of the simple peace and relief in my life when I first believed, and turned instead to the approval of someone a little older who seemed to like me—a person who seemed to know what was right. And who gave me books to believe. A person who no doubt felt what I later felt when other people trusted me: confirmed in their belief of what someone had written or said, because, after all, I agreed with them. And so I held onto the security of a carefully patrolled set of propositions, a false unity, rather than resting upon the trust of God. For Babylon, which had formed me, knows the gods are not to be trusted, and I think this instinct informs our deep selves more than we know.[3]

Ernest Becker said

Early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about the situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism, that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety, even when there are none. (sic)[4]

Babylon imagined and created its gods out of this hyper-anxiety.

I used to think that it was taking me an extraordinarily long time to escape this underlying fear from my fundamentalist past, but now suspect it to be a fear which is present in all of us to greater or lesser extent. It is the fear which hides its face from us so that we only see its back side; its back side is the desperate struggle to gain and maintain power; the power to state and enforce "This is how we know what we know. This is what is true. We are safe if we believe this." Of course, if we have the numbers, or if we control the money, then we are able to remain quite blind to this peace and piece of self-delusion. We (think) we have nothing of which to be afraid, because we define our world and our church and, therefore, we define what we allow ourselves to see.

Where does all this come from? Why are we so afraid about grace, or the lack of it? Our whole cultural formation says that to relax is to die. You have to work. You have to stay on top. You have to stay alert to the gods or whatever it is that will try to take advantage of you. All our socialisation says that grace— living by gift— is foolishness. Even if I have a glimpse of it, I have to hold onto it. If I don’t hold it, control it, stop it getting away from me, I will be back in the desperation and alienation— the nothingness— of my teenage years. I can't risk you spoiling it, or I might die. This, too, is the teaching of Babylon, of which we must become aware.

Unpacking Life in Babylon

There are three key things underlying the previous pages. As I have understood these, and their effect upon me, God's love has become startling in its clarity. And the power of Babylon to blind me to this love and to divert me away from it, has changed from something treated lightly, barely perceived, to a real threat.

At the bottom of the box is the question of how we know grace, or anything, especially given the fact that we, our selves, are "largely functions of public desire." [5] "We always learn to see through the eyes of another." Society precedes us and forms us, and the "desire of another makes available to us what is to be seen."[6]

Here is an example that fleshes out the preceding statement: My friend, desiring his own salvation, and mine, directed me to reading material that blinded me to the wider and mainline traditions of the church. And he no doubt came to that place under the influence of other folk who had pointed him to the same material.

We are nothing like the free agents we take ourselves to be. It takes time to discover this; indeed, it is appalling to discover just how much we have been formed by things outside of ourselves. All our instincts are to deny it was so. It can leave us feeling terribly abused. To discover that "We" are not who we thought we were is a kind of dying.

It takes a while to get down to this layer of our formation, because we first have to deal with the layer above it: the fear of death. Not only is the fear of death universal, but it is a fear which forms, and drives human culture. Since biblical times, at least, the fear of death has been regarded as a slavery. Hebrews 2:14–15 says

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

A six year old once told me he planned not to die— problem solved— and I've heard younger thinkers assert they have no fear of death. Which I take to mean that they have not yet reached the age where there is no such thing as a casual visit to the doctor. We know that without some sort of grace we are going to be dead when we die, end of story. We are terrified by this, and the society which forms us has designed itself as a denial of our dying. The gaining of any peace about this, any sort of equanimity, is hard won and fragile.

Finally, Babylon is the layer of life above the fear of death. It is the almost surface place of slavery where humanity tries to manage and overcome the fear of death. Babylon is the ever present Empire: Egypt, Rome, or The American Dream, where those who get to the top of the heap feel they have some security from death and its causes. As I have already said above, Babylon is the culture in which we live.

The Bottom of the Box

I use the metaphor of the bottom of the box, because it seems to me that we frequently seek explanations which provide us with a plausible answer we can live with at the moment, but do not probe too deeply into ourselves. This is because if we dig too deeply into the box of our life and being, we find the carefully and deliberately buried spectre of death. We live in a culture of death avoidance. Because it is so carefully— so necessarily— buried, our fear of death is not something we see easily. Especially hard to see is the all-pervasive character of this fear, which shapes everything, for to admit this fear is to admit we do not possess[7] ourselves, but are owned by something else.

It is always easier to blame someone else during a conflict (or when we are anxious) than to wonder if there might be a deeper issue which is influencing both of us. We mercilessly expose the philosophical, theological, or psychological flaws in an opposing view, whilst allowing ourselves an easy pass under the same scrutiny. And that's because a part of us still knows that, deeper in the box, there lies something fearsome: death, and then, the terrible question of who or what it is that we might be.

You will note that I have not said death is at the bottom of the box. That is because I consider that the way in which we think about death has already been formed for us.

It is in exploring and confronting these layers of myself that I have begun to find some escape, glimpses of an escape, from the destructive divide and power struggles within our church, and within our society, and from the divisions and discord within myself. To avoid digging down to the bottom of the box, as much as I am able at any time, is always to avoid the truth about myself. It is to settle for a defensive world view[8], which finally, is to avoid the gift of the reality which God gives me.

In this essay, I plan to begin at the top, Babylon, and work down.


Much of the Old Testament can be read as an exploration of the consequence of Israel refusing to live by grace.[9] Instead of living within the gift of God's guidance, Israel chose to live by its own rules. Paul might say Israel exchanged the worship of the creator for the worship of the creature. (cf Romans 1:25) The consequence was to be overrun by Babylon, which meant to be controlled and formed by Babylon's way of seeing the world. When we live apart from God, Babylon is the result.

Babylon understood the world to be a chaos, a place where perpetual struggle was as good as it ever got.[10] People only existed because the gods, who were also in perpetual struggle with each other, discovered a need for someone to do all the menial tasks to keep things going. The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, and shows us something of the way Babylon understood the world.

There is one other point about the Enuma Elish which needs special mention. The tablet containing this part of the story is damaged, but it seems the gods complained they had too much work to do. So Marduk created human beings to "free the gods from menial labour" (Sarna The Meaning of Genesis pp1-4) and made the first human being from the blood of Tiamat's second husband, Kingu. We are born of violence in the Enuma Elish. We are born for servitude in the Enuma Elish.[11]

The early chapters of Genesis seem to have been written during the Exile, or shortly afterward, to contradict the story, or mythology,[12] of Babylon. Genesis says Babylon is fundamentally wrong in its understanding of the world. Genesis asserts that the world is good. God loves us; we are not a nuisance after-thought. And then there is Israel's solution to a difficult problem.

For Genesis to be the story of how Israel and its world came to be, there must be a Flood. The Flood was ... general knowledge, one of the stories which formed the background for life. At the time Genesis was written, Israel had effectively spent two or three generations, seventy or so years, in Babylon. A story of the world not only had to include the Flood, it had to deal with the horror that the gods, or in Israel's case, God, had caused the Flood. For us reading today, it is imperative to read with this understanding. Genesis is not a story of a brutal God; Genesis, in its situation, is the story of a stunningly just and merciful God.[13]

This is because God will never again bring a flood which destroys the whole world. (Genesis 9:11-17) In some versions of the Babylonian stories, the gods periodically wipe the people out by flooding.[14] This is a different God altogether.

It is this story of Israel that we cannot bring ourselves to fully trust. We have inherited the Babylonian mistrust of the gods. Given the horrors of life, this is hardly surprising. It is an act of great trust to live as though the creation is truly good. We struggle to believe that God really loves us, and this makes the counter story of Babylon seem attractive, for it suggests we can often manage things better ourselves by destroying those who would destroy us.

 Babylon Today

Walter Wink's classic article Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence[15]  provides an acute and devastating sketch of how Babylon forms us today. I have made an extensive quotation here, but suggest you read the whole article. It shows us as we are. When he says myth, he means the story by which people live their lives.

[The] Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today... [It is] one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, [and is] the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 BCE... [In this world] order is established by means of disorder. Chaos... is prior to order... Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent....

In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods...

I wonder how much that feeds into our sense of ourselves when we win on the floor of Synod?

The Babylonian myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently...

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation... No other religious system has even remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. (Bold emphasis added by me.)

We are so enculturated by this myth, so much a part of it, so formed by it, that we do not recognise it as anything other than "the given" of reality. It seems to be something inevitable about human beings. We are like a fruit fly maggot in an orange, which has no way of knowing that its orange-ness is not an ontological and inevitable part of it, but is only a happenstance consequence of what feeds it; a fruit fly that cannot even imagine that if it lived in a plum, everything would be a different colour.

To be Babylon is to live in a cycle of violence, convinced willingly or reluctantly, that violence is necessary to create peace. When we enforce unity, when we enforce doctrine, when we settle for a vote instead of waiting to find consensus, Babylon has entered the room. The fact that it is sometimes so difficult for us to wait with the Manual for Meetings until we can find consensus is the indicator of how much Babylon and its myth controls our thinking.

Babylon's final authority is that it authorises death. Even though a part of us knows it is an absurdity to think we can solve violence with more violence, we still seek to stop death by killing. We can see no other option.

I think The Myth of Redemptive Violence means we Christians often live within a worldview or paradigm— an orange— formed by the need for escape from punishment, rather than in the plum position formed by the ontological teaching of Genesis, and the teaching of Jesus, that life is a gift to enjoy. In the orange, as it were, we imagine God is like us and is more violent than us— we don't like to say this out loud— and that God solves problems with violence. We can't imagine anything else. We cannot imagine God as Love because we are formed by the culture which birthed us, a culture in which love is conditional and limited.

Which brings us to death, the Babylonian gods' ultimate sanction against those they do not like. Death is not merely an inconvenient and frightening ending to our future; it is the constant breathing of Babylon down our necks.


We are in Synod, or some other council of the church. I know I am correct about the issue which conflicts us. But I am so serenely secure and confident in the love of God for me, and in the love of God for the church, and for the world, that I allow those who are not correct to have their own way. I know that in the long run God will persuade them, heal them, and the kingdom will come one step closer. We will be brought there.

Why is this not me? Why can I not allow these folk to have the little bit of security they need at this moment? Why can I not bear to be diminished; indeed, why does the thought of indulging their weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8)[16] in order not to damage their faith, even feel like a diminishment of me? Why do I “discover” that this issue is so important, and that it is crucial that my view rules the day? How am I so sure that Paul, watching from afar, might not think I am the one with the weak conscience?

My irenic little dream of Synod might seem naive, or even irresponsible and damaging to the church. But do we not seek to disciple ourselves upon Jesus, who suffered death rather than insisting on winning? Jesus allowed himself to lose the argument on the floor of Synod (Matt 26:52-54)[17] ; he even seems to have remained silent at the end, rather than argue, even for his life. (eg Luke 23:9)[18] If we take our Lord seriously, then having to win might be considered a failure of discipleship!

All human power which determines to persist devolves into violence. The difference about Jesus, and his power, is that he chooses to go into Jerusalem to die. Jesus understands that God's way must include everyone, or God is, in the end, just one more Herod. Jesus understands that God would rather die than be like that.[19] One Man's Web

In our Manual for Meetings, we strive for Consensus or, at least, Agreement. In requiring us to consider if we must make a decision now, should we not be able to reach Agreement, the Manual is encouraging us to follow the Christ and not insist on a human victory, for Jesus only wins, only has victory, only finally fulfils the call of God, by dying. 

By contrast, I seek to win in order not to die. This may sound extreme, but it is what lies deeper in the box when we discover that something must be won, and when we unpack our fears, and especially when we unpack our inability to love deeply.

Sometimes we get cornered by circumstance or stubbornness. We find, or believe, that we are forced to vote. But even at this time we can vote with reluctance and even a kind of shame, regretting our actions, or we can rejoice in victory. But to rejoice, even if our victory is "correct," it is to step into the sphere of Babylon. To win is, finally, to have failed.

The Fear of Death

As a 15 year old, I was cutting home through our scrub when I heard the most horrible groaning and gasping in the quiet of the bush. It filled me with instant, unbidden, overflowing fear. My Dad was one of those deeply contemplative farmers who, instead of welding up new pig crates, or sitting in the pub, spend their spare days walking the land, and I knew in a moment that he was lying somewhere nearby in the scrub, dying. In the event, I found a poor old ewe sheep, unable to get up, and gasping out her last hour. Shaken to my core, I hurried home, found Dad, and said casually, man to man, "There's a sheep dying down over the back creek. You might want to put a bullet in her." And then, in a day or two, forgot. Except that, fifty years later, I still remember.

That was not even my dying, but only the thought—the assumption—of my Dad's dying. Where did the instant knowledge that it was him come from? After all, there were 500 sheep in that scrub and only one of him, if he were there at all. It's too much to live with the horror of death up near the top of our box. We need to bury it out of sight and mind, so that we don’t go mad. But it will not stay buried.

In his book The Slavery of Death, Richard Beck introduces the idea of 'heroism,' which describes the way we persist in life to make something of it even though we know we will die. We determine to make our mark, to be worth something, despite death. We gain some self-esteem, self-worth, soften the blow of death, even if it may seem that everything is pointless. He goes on to say

[Earnest] Becker argues that the quest for self-esteem is fundamentally an attempt to cope with the terror of death: “heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.”[20] He implies that culture itself, which determines the routes toward heroism, is massively engaged in the repression of death awareness. As Becker notes, “cultures are fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial.”[21] [This precis begins on page 36 of Beck's book. I have added some extra paragraph breaks for clarity. Becker's first couple of introductory chapters in The Denial of Death are worth reading in full.]

Reading the paragraph above, I wonder how much the need to speak on the floor of Synod is actually a need for self-esteem. Some of us, who would not dream of posting a selfie on Facebook, always have something to say at a meeting, even if we have nothing to say. A shallow inspection of the box of life allows us to have a little smile about the idiosyncrasies of other folk, but going deeper, we find that all of us have something that provides esteem; something that is us, and that we will not bear others touching or questioning— all of us. We can't live without a sense of self-worth. And we cannot bear to be dispossessed of ourselves. To win is to be in control and to still possess ourselves. Self-esteem seeks to say that despite death, we are still somebody. Death says we are, in the end, nobody.[22]

And, going back to the meeting, we might wonder, as we peer into our murky depths, what on earth we would do, if someone did not fill the silence, because what would we look at or listen to then!!? We might have to look at our upcoming death. As a compulsive talker I must ask, "Why am I afraid to be silent? Why must I always contribute? Why must I be heard?"

Beck continues his summary of Becker:

From [Becker's] point of view, the higher cognitive and symbolic capacities of humans make our workaday lives existentially unbearable. The specter of death looms over all, making a mockery of our life projects. Our primal instincts for self-preservation come up short in the face of our cognitive capacities, which continually remind us that death is unavoidable. This clash between our self-preservation instinct and our ever-present death awareness creates an extreme burden of anxiety that other animals are spared:

The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else. It is only if you let the full weight of this paradox sink down on your mind and feelings[] that you can realize what an impossible situation it is for an animal to be in.[23]

This experiential burden threatens madness or despair. How do we make life “count” in the face of death? Here is where cultural hero systems step in to provide paths toward death transcendence—a means toward a symbolic (or literal) immortality. Life achieves significance and meaning when we participate in these “greater goods” that can transcend our finite existence. For example, my life is deemed meaningful because my children outlive me, or I wrote a book, or I helped the company have its best quarter of the year. Child, book, and company are all forms of “immortality,” ways to continue living into the future in an effort to “defeat” death.

The upshot of this analysis—that we strive for a heroic existence and that a cultural hero systems help us cope with the terror of death—is that our identities [— our selves— ]  are being driven, deep down, by death anxiety.

And here is where we see just how far down the rabbit hole we have gone in following the thread of death anxiety, where we come face to face with our enslavement to the fear of death. Ponder again the verdict of Hebrews 2:14–15:

[We are "those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." ]

What does it mean to say that we are enslaved—all our lives—to the fear of death? Becker helps us see this slavery, suggesting that our sense of life meaning and self-esteem, the very bedrock of our identities, are actually forms of death denial, an existential defense mechanism, an illusion to help us avoid the full force of our existential predicament.

This is why Becker calls human character—our personal route toward self-esteem—a vital lie. Our identity is a lie because it is a fundamental dishonesty, in the moment, about our true existential situation. This lie obscures the fact that our self-esteem is borrowed, that it rests upon a cultural hero system. More, the lie hides the fact that our self-esteem is fundamentally a form of idolatry, a service rendered to the cultural hero system—what the Bible calls a principality and power.

The Vital Lie, and Grace

The idea of the "vital lie" is important. How else will the six year old survive the sudden insight and fear that drives him to say, "Well, I'm not going to die." We need a space where we can grow to gain, or be given, the ability to face our deaths.[24] This is the space of grace. Grace is a resting place in the presence of death; it is the gift of being able to pause when death thrusts itself into our face, and to remember the Christian teaching that death is not the definition of our being. Grace is the place where we can be open about our fear, yet know that we are not judged or rejected by God because of our fear, and grace is also the place where we can find that our fear is, as John Newton said, "relieved."[25] For here, death begins to lose its hold on us.

Grace is also that place where God says that God knows we are lying, but that it's OK. Grace is the giving of time and life to learn to let go of the lie and to find a deeper freedom to hold onto. "I know you need something to hold onto. Here is the place to learn how to hold on to me."

Our culture is bedevilled by the notion of the easy fix. The idea that we will quickly overcome the fear of death, for example, whilst forgetting, or not yet realising, that death is the foundation of our culture and cannot be so easily thrust aside; for one thing, we must die. But we can be changed, if we will give ourselves time, and if we refuse the temptation to take refuge in a defensive world view.

Death and Resurrection

In a vision, I was transported to the top of the Grenfell Centre in the middle of the night, the dark tower which was at that time the tallest building in Adelaide. And there on the parapet, I began to overbalance into a roaring void of horror, losing my mind. I knew that I was about to fall into that darkness and be destroyed by it. But in the physics of visions, it turns out that your feet can be glued to the cement, and in a kind of bending and twisting which preceded Elastigirl by twenty years, I swayed out and into the void… and then back to normality. Where I sat in my upstairs room and shook with some of the same horror as the horror of the back scrub, all those years ago.

I was talking about this to a spiritual adviser, years later, and he said, "Ah, the moment of revelation! What if the darkness had supported you rather than consumed you?"  And I realised it was so. But it took years to realise and to experience that the glorious darkness of an outback night, and the embracing quiet of a country paddock when you shut down the tractor at 2am, are the same darkness I had met at the top of my tower! And longer again to begin to see that grace might mean to be destroyed, in some sense, so that we can fundamentally be remade, an experience we call... resurrection.

Grace is discovering that the darkness is warm and embracing. And grace is the love which persists, and is the learning and the experiencing of that persistence, even when the last visit to the doctor has brought death snarling into our face, once again.

The Cost of Love betrays our Fear of Death

In a blog post, Richard Beck said that in the complexity of life,

we … struggle with basic anxiety− worries about physical survival−  even in affluent parts of the world… we…worry about becoming depleted, exhausted and used up. It's hard to make room for others in our lives because we have no margin. We feel that if we "add one more thing" to an "already full plate" we'll be pushed too far, pushed over the edge.

And these worries, if you ponder it, are expressions of death anxiety. We are worried that we don't have the resources to carry on or forward. And that fear− a depletion of vital resources like time and energy− is rooted in survival concerns.

And these fears, I contend, undermine our ability to love. We don't love freely or fully because we feel we'll be used up and depleted.

I bet you've experienced this fear. For example, if you've ever felt called to share your possessions with those in need you quickly encounter the basic anxieties associated with self-preservation and survival.

Dig a little, and these turn out to be the same anxieties that we meet when it looks like someone who is wrong is about to get their way in the running of the church. Beck concludes

… you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do.  [26]

And that, I think, is why I must have my way at Synod. My threatened diminishment reminds me too much of my dying, even though I may succeed in keeping that fear of dying hidden from the part of me that's busy winning at Synod. It is just too hard to love deeply.

This is a good starting point for introspection and beginning to dig deeper into the box. When I wonder if I am over thinking or overstating the place of death in all this, I ask myself again, "Why is it so hard to love?  Why is it so hard to visit some people in hospital? Why is it so hard to be gentle to a poor person in the street? If I am not afraid of dying, what does it matter if I give them a costly amount of my money, or my time? What does it matter if I get sick from the stress of seeing someone through the hostility of the Emergency Department, and from standing up for them? Why am I so afraid?"

The Slavery of Death

The fear of death as a driving force is not a new idea. Early in The Slavery of Death, Beck quotes John Chrysostom:

The one who fears death is a slave and subjects themself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed ‘a person would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if someone should decide to disregard this, whose slave is that person then? They fear no one, are in terror of no one, are higher than everyone, and are freer than everyone. For the one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honour? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to the one 'who counts not even their life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. (The Slavery of Death pp 7. I have removed the masculine gender bias in this rendition)[27]

The Canadian theologian Arthur McGill asked

What propels people to possess? Their fear of death, their fear that their identity will be taken from them.... [When we define our identity] in terms of a reality which we can have and which we can securely label with our own name, we live under the dominion of death; we live under the dominion of dispossessionWe live in terror of death, of having this bit of reality which we call ourselves, taken from us. Our whole existence is controlled by that terror.[28]

And if we live by winning at Synod, by ensuring that our theology rules, this is tantamount to saying that we can have, control, and guarantee, grace. So we live, then, under the dominion and terror of dispossession which always brings us face to face with our death.

Eccentric Identity

This is why we cannot bear to have that thing which is us… touched or criticised. It dispossesses us. By contrast to us, Beck suggests

Jesus had an "ecstatic" or "eccentric" identity, an identity found outside of himself in the Father. Consequently, Jesus feared no one. Was competitive with no one. Was aggressive toward no one. Why? He didn't own himself. And, thus, could not be dispossessed of himself. [29] (I have added the emphasis)

He goes back to quote McGill, who is in many ways rephrasing Chrysostom's description of freedom:

[B]ecause I no longer live by virtue of the reality which I possess, which I hold, which I master and keep at my disposal, I am free to share myself and all my possessions with others. Above all...I can be honest with others. I can be open before them. I do not have to draw a line to mark the boundaries of my reality where I place a sign which says "Keep Out." I do not have to conceal my being behind a wall in order to keep it mine and to prevent others from taking it from me. Since I never have myself, I can never be dispossessed of myself. In short, in all my relations with other people I am freed from the anxiety of having always to keep possession of my own reality in order to be. And I do not have to win at Synod—well, this last sentence is mine. (Originally quoted here. You may be able to access this post by using the Wayback Machine.)[30]

Taking a moment to see where we are

I am finding that we can cultivate a life which begins to embrace this sort of freedom. To be clear, this freedom is something which is given to us, rather than achieved by us; it is a gift. But it seems we can live in ways which open us to this gift rather than blind us to it, or lead us to fear it. Our freedom will always be limited, always challenged by the flight or fight instincts hardwired into our biology, but the gift can be grasped. Indeed, one measure of our humanity[31] might be the extent to which we are not controlled by our basic instincts of violence and fear… and death. How much do we find we are able to live in contradiction to these basic instincts?[32]

My initial discoveries in all this were accidental. It had seemed to me that Jesus, above all else, calls us to be compassionate; that is, merciful. Compassion is not charity. Charity throws a few costless coins to the beggar in Grenfell Street as it hurries by. Charity is spared the cost of getting an old fridge taken away, by giving it to the Refugee Association; a worthy donation, but a convenience rather than a cost. Compassion is to feel with, [33] from the Latin com (with, or together) and pati (to suffer.) If we are compassionate, we feel with, sit with, suffer the fate of, and allow ourselves to be touched by, the plight of those who suffer.  Compassion is costly, and very frightening.

Compassion is Practise for Dying

The little deaths of compassion seem to take the edge off the big Death which circles around us, and which we work so hard to hide from our consciousness. It turns out that to be compassionate is to practise for dying! Something opens us, enables a little more compassion in us, and if we act on that—it is a grace-full invitation—we begin to wonder if death is quite the power that we thought.


I began to see that to be compassionate also means to sit with those who are the losers. Compassion is to walk away from winning and to be seen with, and numbered among, the losers. Compassion gives Babylon's winners the opportunity to label we who were numbered among them, as different.

How hard compassion is! A woman was sitting in the heat in Grenfell Street, skinny with malnutrition, and lined with the anxiety which is the insignia and scar of deep abuse. I stepped into an alcove, found ten dollars in my wallet, and came back and handed it to her. "Here you go, mate." But I could not look her in the face. At the last second, as I bent down to her, despite speaking gently, treating her as a person, I averted my eyes. I could not open myself to the pain of being truly compassionate. Something has allowed me to agonise less over such failings of my humanity, but the power of such unconscious moments of aversion and fear has convinced me that compassion is no simple decision of the will. Our compassion is often more aspirational than actual, and comes only as a change is being wrought within us.  The fear of death is a confrontation with a real power. This explains why true compassion is so hard for us.

Seeing the fear of death as a power also allows us to reconsider our disagreements. You are not my enemy. As Ephesians 6:12 puts it

our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

When we struggle to win over each other, we are mis-identifying our enemy, and taking up the wrong struggle. You and I are blood and flesh together facing the same enemy. Our disagreements are rather like the factional infighting which undermines rebel groups seeking to over throw a dictatorship! Grace is the loss of enmity between us.

Compassion forces us to face the reality Beck identified: we might think that we don't fear death, but once we start loving others we quickly find out that we do.[34]

If we pretend that death is not driving us, and until we begin to understand this and confront it at some level, we will always struggle to be compassionate— I see now that my compassion was always safe, and more charity than compassion. We will, in fact, tend to reject the grace God which gives us: which is learning to live as compassionate people, and therefore learning to die. It will be clear to us that the woman on Grenfell Street deserves it, or caused her own problems, or should take some responsibility. All of these are earlier responses of mine, and as I was inexorably forced to realise that they were untrue, I began such rationalisations as, "What can I do? She'll only buy drugs." And so on. Whereas the Christian response is well summed by Carrie Newcomer:

I can't change the whole world
But I can change the world I know
What's within three feet or so... [35]


Who is this person called "I"?

Earlier in this essay, I said that society precedes us and forms us, and the "desire of another makes available to us what is to be seen." I was quoting the theologian James Alison[36] at that point, but something similar was said by Earnest Becker:

all our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others. This is what gives us a "self"... Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us... [37]

This is terrifying stuff which our minds rebel against. It suggests that the "us" of us is a very contingent being. Psychologists constantly frighten us with insights into how susceptible we are. It is easy to wonder, given that we are so malleable, if "I" might disappear in all this. But even that is implicit in our Christian theology! The Australian poet Kevin Hart says

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.     Kevin Hart--From The Flame Tree [38]

We are created by God, and formed in Christ. We do not own ourselves. This is the Faith. Unless we understand how, and how much, death drives us and forms us, we remain much at its mercy. Not owning ourselves is itself frightening.

I am not quite able to put into words what has been happening to me, but I find that to stand "naked and trembling before what is," seems not to be standing before death, after all. Not in the way I expected.

I find instead, that I stand naked and trembling before life. I am finding that what frightens me most of all in my journey is not the dying, but the lack of dying. I want oblivion, but I can no longer imagine death as oblivion. Oblivion would be at least be a relief from the burden of living, and the cost of love, but it seems to have been taken off the table.[39] One Man's Web

The question "Why should I fear death when it will just be oblivion?" always seems to me to be a peculiarly convenient denial of death. 2 Maccabees 6:26  (whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty) would call it the denial of being owned, or the pretence that we possess ourselves rather than the acceptance that we are largely formed.

As leaders, it seems to me we are called to dive deep into this, for we are called to embody Christ to our congregations. And so I return us to death by asking what it is that makes us human.

What makes us human?

Chip was our sheep dog in name only because he never progressed beyond being an enthusiastic nuisance if Dad and Uncle Des actually wanted to achieve something with the sheep. They solved this problem by shutting the yard gate as they left, and Des' much more helpful dog, Trigger, would jump the fence and go with them. One day, hang dog as usual as he was left behind, Chip had a moment of inspiration and tried a jump over the fence. It took five years of watching Trigger, but from then on Dad had to tie Chip up whenever they left. By contrast, if a popular girl at school cuts her jeans "just so," or speaks in that certain way, half the girls in the school, and more than a few boys, will soon be doing the same! "Adidas will send their scouts to particular high schools in the United States to detect who are the cool kids. And they will then give the cool kids, whatever it is, the latest multi-jewel, fire-breathing, smoke-producing, sneakers. And within weeks they will have sold hundreds just within that neighbourhood."[40]

Imitation  (Mimesis)

This is the distinguishing feature between Homo sapiens and the other animals, and it is how we became human. Yes, unlike the animals, we know we are going to die, and that fear pushes us all over the place. But deeper down in the box than that, we are superb, rapid, and compulsive imitators. (And we imitate each other in our response to death.) Animals do imitate, but as Chip shows us, their imitation is much slower, much more limited.


We are about to enter a very condensed course in Rene Girard's[41] hypotheses of human origins through imitation. (Mimetic Theory.) For me, this hypothesis has been like meeting "a man who told me everything I have ever done!" (John 4:29) Girard hypothesised that early hominids who began to make progress in imitating each other, and admiring each other, then also became rivals, each wanting to be "top dog." Rivalry eventually lead to all out violence which then threatened to destroy the group. We seem to lack the various limitations upon intra-species violence found in other animals; think of the violence of a riot, where all sense seems to depart a crowd which destroys that which moments ago they valued. Or our inability to stop killing each other; Syria is but the latest example of destruction which will only be halted by exhaustion.

The Scapegoat

But somewhere, one day, a crowd accidentally settled upon one individual, a bit different from the rest, unable to fight back, and blamed them, and killed them. This victim of the violence became the first scapegoat.

Girard hypothesised that the crowd discovered the shock we still experience: There was a sudden peace, everyone was friends, the point of contention seemed almost irrelevant— gone even. Clearly the individual who was killed was evil, because with their death, all the danger and violence was cleansed and removed. But with the repetition of this accidental death, it appeared that whilst evil, this scapegoat was also somehow what we now call sacred. For it was the scapegoat who brought the miraculous peace. This observation marks the beginning of religion, as well as the beginning of humanity. James Alison has an article in Concilium, which is also available on the web, which sums it up: We didn't invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: Unpacking Girard's insight. [42]


(Note in passing the role of crowds[43] in our being human. We are not individuals; we are corporate, part of a crowd. Girard's insight gives a whole new meaning to the crowds around Jesus in the New Testament stories.)

This is how we operate

However accurate Girard's hypothesis about our origins, he certainly describes the way society works now! The nexus of crowds, violence, and the scapegoat, operates at the most basic levels of our society. I modelled the example below on someone else's anecdote, and will later relate a similar yet contrasting incident which I once observed.

Mary is playing with a stick that looks a bit like a person and makes it her "Dolly." She's six. Tommy doesn't care about sticks and dolls. He's never thought about playing with a stick and pretending it's a person before. But she's got it, so he wants it. And they fight for it.

This is the rivalry exploited by advertising.[44] Tommy doesn't care about sticks and dolls. Not quite six, he wants to be like Mary, and better... This is imitation at work.

It gets so serious that they forget all about the stick, but just as it's getting really bad, the plump little kid from next door, the one with the red hair, walks around the corner.

Have you seen how children's rivalry suddenly goes to all out violence which frightens them and us?  How different is this to the destructive rivalry of a Synod, or within a nation? Why are we so powerless in the face of this?

"Look," says Mary, "It's fat furry Freddy Reddy."
"Let's get him," says Tommy, and they go for him.

Suddenly, innocent little Freddie is the victim that lets Mary and Tommy make peace, forget their fight, and be friends again.

Freddy becomes— here is a loaded word from our tradition— Freddy becomes the scapegoat.[45] (One Man's Web)

We see the scapegoat everywhere. When things begin to fall apart in the Parliament, the Prime Minister seeks someone else to blame. Blame is the beginning of scapegoating. In fact, well before the fears of society can ruffle the waters too much in Canberra, we have already pinned the blame upon those who are troubling the country; currently we are being told it is African youth gangs, although, if it helps, you can choose Muslims, or even the Chinese owners of Cubby Station, or the cotton farmers. If the sacrifice and dehumanising of these relatively few, somehow different, and somewhat vulnerable folk, does not calm our fears sufficiently, the PM may need to sacrifice a cabinet minister or two. If that fails, the ruling party may sacrifice the PM. And sometimes even that is not enough, so we have an election, symbolically killing the party in power, after which there is a time of peace... for a while, and then the process begins again. Have you noticed the religious and ritualistic pattern of the Tally Room broadcasts?

There is something quite predictable about this process in Canberra, or in any group, which is just the point Girard made. The scapegoating process is the way we manage and limit our violence and fear. It provides the safety of a crowd where we can be invisible from those who frighten us, yet feel like we have agency and sense of partnership.[46] It overcomes the barriers of rivalry which have separated us.[47]

Things fall apart: The entropy of humanity, which is Original Sin

And you will notice that I said, "When things begin to fall apart…" This is another predictable thing about us. All things human fall apart. One of my friends calls this inevitability "human entropy," but James Alison, one of Girard's key interpreters, says this is the outworking of Original Sin. No matter how high our aspirations, or how careful our planning, we always end up in rivalry, violence, and exclusion. The latter is another name for scapegoating. It seeks to restore the peace by removing the ones designated as the problems; that is, the losers. Alison says

All human sociality is born thanks to the victim, and particular, to ignorance of the victim(s) that gave it birth. Human language and thought are already utterly infected by this ur-violence from their conception.[48]

All our living is complicit in this violence. It formed us. Even being right is a violence, for it is formed by the Babylonian need to win. Girard had begun to see the rivalry-scapegoat pattern in literature from multiple cultures and eventually returned to the bible expecting to find a similar pattern, which he did. But he discovered a difference.

The temporary peace we gain from a scapegoat

only works if we think the victim or scapegoat deserves it. As soon as we see that the scapegoat is innocent, the system doesn't work properly and begins to fail. If we understand that the scapegoat is innocent, then we realise that person is just like us, and they didn't do anything, and then we won't buy into the system.

That's why dictators don't like people who cry out for Justice. It's why they persecute Christians, because in the gospel the truth of what's going on is being shown. It's why politicians hate whistleblowers. Whistleblowers expose the truth. I AM the Truth said Jesus. He is The Great Whistleblower.

The difference Girard discovered is that

All through the history of the Bible people are oppressed, and victimised, and killed. The Bible is an incredibly violent book. It's because it doesn't try to hide the violence of humanity. It tells us the evil that is going on. And at the same time, all the way through, it shows us that God loves us, and is on the side of the victims. Prophet after prophet comes, but the people don't listen, and killed them…. Ah Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! (Luke 13, Matt 23) [49]

The bible tells the truth about the scapegoat, instead of hiding it like so many of the other stories of humanity, which assume the guilt of the scapegoat and work to hide the scapegoat's innocence. In the very first murder in Genesis 4, God takes Abel's side. God speaks for the victim.

Finally, God sends Jesus, the last prophet, the great prophet; a good Shepherd who loves, who heals, who includes, and gathers in all the victims and scapegoats. And they— we— kill him.

That should have been the end of it.

But there are two things that were different this time.

First: he comes back.
Second: he still loves us.

You remember how when he appears to the disciples and says, "Do not be afraid?" That's because when you kill the Son of God and he comes back you expect real trouble. You expect revenge, violence, murder, blame, scapegoating.

But he forgives. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you.

Jesus the Good Shepherd has blown the whistle on the whole sorry system of blame and murder upon which our world is built. He has shown we don't have to live like that. We can forgive. And when we forgive, murder and blame cannot not destroy us. Listen to his voice… His sheep hear his voice and follow him.[50]

In Luke, the criminal who knows his guilt announces what God intends us to see: the scapegoat is innocent. "We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." And the centurion, who is the designated executioner of the scapegoat makes this explicit: "When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’" (Luke 23:41, 47)

Suddenly, finally, the whole façade and pretence of the guilty scapegoat that we must get rid of to make the world safe, whole, and righteous, disappears. The scapegoat is innocent. The designated victims of society can be seen as somewhat different folk who are chosen to be victims by the winners, and are defined as guilty.[51] When, in fact, they are simply a convenient way of shifting blame from our own complicity in whatever part of our community and culture is going wrong at the moment, so that the rest of us don't have to deal with it. The innocent victims are our convenient way of avoiding looking more closely at what's in the box, where we might find that really, the problem is us. And even find that we are the problem because we are desperately seeking to avoid dying; that we are the problem because the fear of death or loss is pushing all our buttons; even that we are deeply afraid because we do not possess ourselves, but are possessed by God who can take that self from us, as Hart understands in "When the last day comes..."

What have we discovered?

Babylon is the metaphor for human culture which operates using the fear of death as a violent tool to limit and control violence in order to create a sort of peace. This the myth of redemptive violence. We can see the futility of this. How can Satan drive out Satan, Jesus once asked. (Mark 3:23)[52] How can violence drive out violence and bring peace? But we persist in living this contradiction and lie... because we can see no other way. Not only is our entire imagination "grafted into us,"[53] not only are we formed by society, but even if we should have the clarity of mind to see all this, what is the alternative? How else can we live? It's not only that there is no one to teach us a new way of living—originality is rare and fiendishly difficult, but that the alternative is terrifying.

The alternative to living by violence is to sit with the losers. No matter how we unpack the way we will live, nonviolence comes down to that. It is to signal that we will not fight back. And that signal, that difference about us, marks us to be chosen as the scapegoat. And that devolves into… our death. But we are terrified to die, so, inevitably, we place limits upon our love and compassion in order to stay alive, in order not to have "pick me" written upon our backs. Which means we step away from the naked, bleeding, imprisoned, and starving Christ, (Matthew 25:31-46) and back towards the apparent safety in numbers of Babylon where, for a while at least, we are shielded from the reminder of our death.

I see no way around this. The word nonviolent contains the word violence. If we think first of ourselves as nonviolent, then our self-understanding is defined by violence. To be other than violent we have to walk away from winning and sit with the losers, first of all. But perhaps we have to sit outside the whole notion of winning and losing and find ourselves in another place, another way of being.

The breakout move in all this, for us, is to return to the roots of our Christian faith, which is to ask, "What just happened!?" This is the question at the Cross. This is the question after the experience of Resurrection. We are, at our roots, a religion which asks "What just happened to me?" and then responds to the love which touched us and irrupted into our lives, and moved us in a different direction to our normal self and our normal behaviour.

Everything about my life says to me that where I have had substantial healing, where I have had experiences like the one which I relate at the beginning of this paper, they do not come from my understanding and then doing something. They come from "being done to," from having something "intrude into me,"[54] as I have sought to be obedient to Jesus' example. Something happens which leaves me asking, "What just happened!? How did that happen!?"

This comes back to the key Pauline insight present in Ephesians,

8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

I have had a particular unlearning to do here. We are a religion of orthodoxy, which means "right thinking." Especially if we have a science background—I do— we tend to over rate the importance of fitting in with a received interpretation of doctrine. James Alison says one of his friends describes this as "physics envy ... the need to get the formula right before we put it into practice, which is quite important when it comes to major engineering works, but less useful when it comes to riding bicycles."[55] As an obsessive endurance cyclist, I can't help but notice that I still don't really understand the physics of how bicycles stay upright, or how head tube angle affects handling!

The role of doctrine is rather like the role of the safety rails and signs in a National Park. Follow these signs, stay on these paths, and you will be on the right track. Wendy and I could not help notice the proliferation of signs, bridges and even stairs in one wilderness area of central Australia when we returned after 20 years. But people still die in these parks; doctrine does not give life! We need to learn how to live and travel in the heat and the distance of the outback, even with paths and maps and GPS. We need to learn to ask, "What just happened? How do I respond to this?" And, dare I say it, "What would Jesus do?" If we do not learn, if we do not follow the examples of those who have been on the path before us, we can die even whilst knowing exactly where we are. In the context of everything I have said so far, this is another way of saying that right belief, without correct practice, without discipleship upon Jesus, devolves into the violence of Babylon: witness the massacres and book burnings and scapegoatings and antisemitism of the church across the centuries and still today.

Jesus the Pioneer of our Faith; the One to Imitate

I think Jesus pioneers (Hebrews 12:1-2) our way of living. He shows us a way to live that opens us to God's irruption into our lives. He shows us a way to walk towards the bogey of death, and thus towards all the other things we get defensive about in case they kill us, so that when the Spirit speaks to us, offers to enter our way of being, we do not defend ourselves against God as well. We do not need to get somehow properly right with God.  God is always present to us, (Ps 139) and has been present to us since the moment of our creation. It is a matter of being open to seeing, and being able to see and receive, what is already there. It is a matter of being able to see that the God who hovers around us is safe and loving and not a danger to us.

When we follow Jesus, imitate Jesus, we simply learn a new way of being. He is the one who teaches us a new way of living which becomes more visible, more coherent, more convincing, as we are inducted into it. And more at odds with the "common sense" of Babylon around us. We find a new sense or logic. We are undone and remade by Jesus' way of living as we follow it.

But trusting Jesus that God likes me, and is not out to get me; trusting Jesus enough to live with compassion, standing alongside others, somehow breaks the cycle of hatred. I find, here and there, that I have simply stopped hating and fearing. And that, in some places, I stop hurting. With no effort on my part.[56]


Another story

Jonathan and Debbie used to rattle around in a shared backyard. "Three and a bit" Debbie was six months older, slightly taller, and precocious. Jonathan was the apple of his father's eye. His Dad constantly said, "Jonathan, you are amazing," even when the rest of us thought Jonathan was just being an ordinary little kid.

One day the two children were sitting a few feet apart, immersed in their own worlds, when Debbie observed Jonathan happily building something out of Duplo. Having begun to recognise her name written down, and being able to recognise some of its letters in her story books, she wandered over to Jonathan in that casual but-not-really-casual way which we all recognise spells trouble.

We see a pattern similar to the first story of the children which I told.

"Jonathan, I can read."
Jonathan ignored her.

"JonathanI... can read."
I'm not sure Jonathan quite knew what I can read was supposed to mean! But he knew she wasn't going away. He shrunk down a little, still not looking at her, and she knew she had him.

"Jonathan! I. Can. Read."
Little Jonathan looked miserable. He knew that she was too big for him to fight off, and that he was about to lose the Duplo.

But suddenly, he stood up to his full height, (not very high, really) and said, "Well, I'm amazing. My Father said so."
Debbie stopped. After a moment of confusion, as she realised she had somehow lost the battle, she wandered off to the other side of the room. Jonathan sat and continued happily with his Duplo.

What we see here is Jonathan's eccentric identity. He did not possess himself, but had "an identity found outside of himself in [his] Father. Consequently, [Jonathan] feared no one."[57] In the face of human rivalry and fear, Jonathan found he had a safe anchor.

I think that the way Jesus "saves us" is to model for us a way of finding our identity in God, in the "Father" whose eye-apple we are. Jesus' life on earth is a model of being opened to irenic trust in God, rather than having to prove ourselves, possess ourselves, and keep ourselves safe. Jesus walked into his death trusting that in God's reality death simply is not.

There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death... Let's put this another way: for us "being alive" means "not being dead"; it's a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death and cannot even be contrasted with death. ... Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision [I think Alison means here his whole way of understanding reality!] was colored by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death.[58]

In such a place, he is able to walk around, walk through, the death anxiety which our biological origins hardwire into us. When he faces the fear of death in the garden, he can say not my will, but yours.  He does not have to pretend death is not coming and take steps to stay safe.

What this means is that we have a new life. We are not seeking to live our old life with a non-violence "circumscribed by its opposite" and "defined by its enemy." We are being inducted into a reality where violence is simply God has nothing to do with violence. Violence is what we do, but attribute to God.

Therefore Jesus shows us how to live outside Babylon, which, really, is to live for the first time. He shows us that when we live safe in the opinion of our Father, rather than in the opinion of ourselves, which is really the opinion of others, and which is to be formed and driven by the fears of Babylon, death is no longer in control of us. Paul says in one place

21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. (Philippians 1)

It sounds like pious over-reach, and whistling in the dark. Or a deep denial of death. Or perhaps it is his experience, and he is saying, "This is what just happened to me!!"

Andrew Prior (2019)


Mark Heim SAVED FROM SACRIFICE, A Theology of the Cross Girard and Substitutionary Atonement.

Nahum Sarna,  Understanding Genesis, esp Chapters 1 and 2 for the contrast between the Israeli and Babylonian creation stories

Michael Kirwan Discovering Girard

Carly Osborn The Theory of Rene Girard [A Brilliant Summary]

James Alison Undergoing God, On Being Liked, Raising Abel

Richard Beck The Authenticity of FaithThe Slavery of Death,

Paul Nuechterlein The Girardian Lectionary

Ernest Becker The Denial of Death


[1] And I am at present not at all sure how to relate to some of the folk concerned.

[2] I explore some of this understanding, which the Exiles developed to contradict the cosmology of Babylon, in the first four posts of Readings in Genesis at One Man's Web. (https://www.onemansweb.org/readings-in-genesis.html)

[3] "Each child grounds himself in some power that transcends him. Usually it is a combination of his parents, his social group, and the symbols of his society and nation. This is the unthinking web of support which allows him to believe in himself, as he functions on the automatic security of delegated powers. He doesn't of course admit to himself that he lives on borrowed powers, as that would lead him to question his own secure action, the very conference that he needs." Ernest Becker The Denial of Death pp 89

[4] Ernest  Becker The Denial of Death, pp17

[5] James Alison Undergoing God pp164

[6] James Alison On Being Liked  pp1

[7] A friend suggested that fear of death evidences itself as our fear of losing control.  I responded that for the purpose of this essay I had used the metaphor of possessing ourselves because of the pun this plays off the idea of being self possessed.  Our conversation led me to see that the perpetration of violence, and domestic violence, is really an attempt to possess or control another, which is another way of the perpetrator reassuring themselves that they are in control of their life and surroundings. 

[8] "When we read scripture, we can be seeking to have our world view expanded, to be led into greater understanding, or we can use our world view, primarily, as a defence mechanism; that is, as a protection from what is new,   and from what is different. We are all a mixture of these two urges. We all need to construct a world view, and do so, even if unconsciously by simply be adopting the ruling world view of our environment. But transcendent humanity lies in becoming conscious of how we see and perceive, and of the pressures and assumptions that clarify or blind us to what is around us, and to what it might mean. Otherwise we are making very limited choices in life, and are, instead, likely having many choices made for us!" One Man's Web "Where lies the miracle?" https://www.onemansweb.org/where-lies-the-miracle-.html

[9] "In summary: Genesis 1 does not read like Myth. It is too tidy, too honed and considered.

Gerhard von Rad suggests plausibly that Genesis 1 is directly prompted by the revelation God gave Ezekiel, [he was a priest of the Exile to Babylon] and is the first elaboration of it. Scholars have long noted that Genesis 1 is too rational and abstract to really be a myth. It was a polemic made possible by the unprecedented breakthrough of Ezekiel’s vision. (pp105) Walter Wink Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, quoted on One Man's Web https://www.onemansweb.org/and-it-was-good...-14-23.html

[10] One Man's Web "Genesis 1:1-5 - Overcoming chaos and darkness" https://www.onemansweb.org/genesis-11-5-overcoming-chaos-and-darkness.html

[11] One Man's Web "The Enuma Elish" https://www.onemansweb.org/the-enuma-elish.html

[12] A myth is a-story-to-live-by. So contra to what he may think, Richard Dawkins' "new atheism" is a mythology; it is a detailed story to live by. We all live by a mythology, but some of us have not yet realised this. Ernest Becker says "society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is living a myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society does is thus a "religion" whether it thinks so or not: Soviet "religion" and Maoist "religion" are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer "religion," no matter how much they might try to disguise themselves by omitting religious and spiritual ideas from their lives." The Denial of Death pp7.

[13] One Man's Web "Before Reading the Flood" https://www.onemansweb.org/readings-in-genesis-before-reading-the-flood.html

[14] Although this fact remains in my head, I have not been able to retrieve the reference. I do know that Sarna says, "The rainbow motif is completely absent from the Mesopotamian versions for the obvious reason that they have no universalistic setting and that the notion of an unconditionally binding convenant between the gods and mankind would have been inconsistent with the inherently capricious nature of pagan gods. Some would draw a parallel between the rainbow and the passage in the Gilgamesh epic which relates how, when the gods partook of Utnapishtim's sacrifice, Ishtar lifted up her jewelled necklace and swore that she would ever be mindful of the days of the flood and never forget them.  However, not only is this act not accompanied by any promise or assurance about mankind's future, but worse still, the oath came from the lips of just that member of the Mesopotamian pantheon most notorious for faithlessness." Understanding Genesis p59-60

[15] Walter Wink "Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence" http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml

[16] 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. 1 Cor 8

[17] Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’ Matthew 26

[18] "9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies." Luke 23. We see here, by the way, the peace that comes from the choosing of the scapegoat as Herod and Pilate become friends.

[19] One Man's Web "Home by Another Way," a reflection on Matthew 2:1-12, 13-18

[20] Becker, Denial of Death, 11. Quoted in Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death (Chapter 3). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[21] Becker, Escape from Evil, 125. Quoted in Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death (Chapter 3). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[22] The very word no – body is evocative!

[23] Becker, Denial of Death, 27. Quoted in Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death (Chapter 3). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[24] It is clear that for an organism to stay alive, and for a species to survive, it must in some way "fear" death; that is, live in a way that for as long as possible keeps it from dying. This is the double bind in which we live. We must fear death to evolve as humanity, but the fear of death is a torture. Quoting Becker, The Denial of Death pp16-17: This fear is actually an expression of the instinct of self-preservation which functions as a constant drive to maintain life and to master the dangers that threaten life:

Such constant expenditure of psychological energy on the business of preserving life would be impossible if the fear of death were not as constant. The very term "self-preservation" implies an effort against some force of disintegration semicolon the effective aspect of this is fear, fear of death.

In other words, the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed towards self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function. Zilboorg continues:

If this fear were as constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. We know very well that to repress means more than to put away and to forget that which was put away and the place where we put it. It also means to maintain a constant psychologically effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness.

And so we can understand what seems like an impossible paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our other obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life:

Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death ... A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die someday, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it— but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The fear of death is repressed.

[25] T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

[26] Richard Beck "Schindler's Lament: Love, Sacrifice and Death." https://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/01/schindlers-lament-love-sacrifice-and.html

[27] Richard Beck The Slavery of Death, pp7 Beck too the quotation from the Orthodox theologian John Romanides, Ancestral Sin, p35, who is quoting Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews.

[28] (Originally quoted here. You may be able to access this post at the Wayback Machine.) http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2011/11/slavery-of-death-part-14-eccentric.html

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid. Beck also quotes for David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: [T]he question "Who are we as creatures?" makes it clear that while I have my personal identity only in and through relations with other creatures of giving and receiving, my personal identity is not given to me by them in their assessment of me and does not depend on their judgments of me. My personal identity is free of them, grounded elsewhere. I am radically given to directly only by the triune God. Faith as trust responsive to God's giving is the attitude that my right to be and act, and the justification of the time and space I take up being and acting, is not contingent on my meeting the needs or acquiring the approval of any of those finite others to whom I give and from whom I receive in the society of creatures. Faith is the attitude of trust in God's radical giving of reality as alone definitive of my personal identity: a finite creature called and empowered to be, to act, and to give in my own place and time. Your personal identity is defined by God alone and not by any creature. It is eccentrically grounded and defined. (p. 339-340)
An "eccentric" identity is an identity grounded outside the boundary of the self.

[31] I am definitively Homo sapiens, just as the dog in my house is Canis familiaris. Am I definitively human, or is that something I may become because I am created in the image of the human one; because I, too, am a son/child of the human one? Will I seek to become truly so, or choose to remain in the thrall of the Myth of Redemptive Violence and be, instead, a citizen of Babylon? The authors of Genesis 1, writing in Babylon, are saying: This is not our city; this is not our God, nor are is their story or story. One Man's Web https://www.onemansweb.org/and-it-was-good...-14-23.html

[32] Becker wonders if the fear of death was "heightened as some of the early Darwinians thought: Early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about the situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism, that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety, even when there are numb. Pp 17.

[33] https://www.etymonline.com/word/compassion

[34] Beck "Schindler's Lament: Love, Sacrifice and Death." https://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/01/schindlers-lament-love-sacrifice-and.html

[35] Carrie Newcomer, "Three Feet or So," from the album The Beautiful Not Yet

[36] James Alison  Undergoing God pp164, On Being Liked  pp1

[37] Earnest Becker The Denial of Death (The Free Press 1973) pp 48

[38] Quoted on One Man's Web in "There is always fire," a reflection on Matthew 3:(1-12,) 13-17

[39] One Man's Web: https://www.onemansweb.org/love-and-death-consumed-burned-or-possessed-john-151-8.html

[40] James Alison "Scapegoat - How Civilisation Harms and How the Cross Heals"

[41] For a brilliant condensed introduction to this, read Carly Osborn's The Theory of Rene Girard, which costs only twenty dollars. For an introduction to its application to how Jesus saves us, Mark S. Heim's SAVED FROM SACRIFICE, A Theology of the Cross is wonderful.

[42] Alison herehttp://jamesalison.com/we-didnt-invent-sacrifice/, and also Concilium  2013(4):

[43] cf Elias Canetti Crowds and Power pp 15-16 "As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count. not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other."  And to be the odd one out near a crowd is to be the scapegoat, and in mortal danger.

[44] cf "Advertising and academia are controlling our thoughts. Didn’t you know?" George Monbiot https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/31/advertising-academia-controlling-thoughts-universities

[45] One Man's Web: "Whistleblowing at the Sheep Gate." A reflection on John 10:1-21

[46] Ibid Elias Canetti Crowds and Power pp 15-16 See the note above.

[47] One Man's Web: Christ the King Comes to Synod This article relates an incident of scapegoating which was partially overcome.  My observation was that he fervency of the closing worship, especially give the contentious nature of the meeting, reflected the temporary peace and conciliation the scapegoat brings. "And close to the end of that last day, in the discussion over the adoption of a Day of Mourning to be held each Sunday before Australia Day, a view was expressed which seemed to have been formed decades earlier, and never changed. I was appalled. I was outraged... There was a growing rumble across the whole gathering, and shouted points of order. We raged. We had finally found our scapegoat: one individual, a bit different from us all, weak and unable to fight back— expendable. And finally, both sides who had been struggling with each other the whole three days found a perverse unity as their outage exploded. There is no one righteous. Not even one." https://www.onemansweb.org/christ-the-king-comes-to-synod-john-1831-40.html

[48] James Alison The Joy of Being Wrong, pp16

[49] One Man's Web: "Whistleblowing at the Sheep Gate." A reflection on John 10:1-21

[50] Ibid

[51] It may indeed be that the one chosen is not entirely without blemish, but the mechanism works far beyond this blemish so that 'the guilty one' pays for much more than their own failing, and so allows the rest of  us to avoid looking at our failings.

[52] "22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come." Mark 3.

[53] Earnest Becker The Denial of Death (The Free Press 1973) pp 48

[54] James Alison titled one of his books Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break in.

[55] James Alison On Being Liked (DLT 2003) pp20

[56] One Man's Web https://www.onemansweb.org/i-hate-myself-most-of-all-john-314-22.html and https://www.onemansweb.org/forgiveness-and-death.html

[57] Richard Beck. (Originally quoted here. You may be able to access this post at the Wayback Machine.)

[58] James Alison Raising Abel (Crossroad Publishing 1996) pp38


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