Thursday, February 16, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (3) - Violent Ways

This is the 3rd post in this series of reflections on the satirical novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

The 1st post reflected on the final pages of the story, the intervention of the creator, the creation of a new people, the placement of the statue of Phil, and that statue's subsequent disappearance from the collective memory of the New Hornerites.

The 2nd post reflected on memorials and how, seemingly by definition, they don't address the shameful parts of a collective's history.  Is that a good thing?

In this 3rd post, I'd like to make some connections to the Eucharist in light of the 1st two posts.

To do this, I'm going to pull some thoughts from a series of meditations on the Eucharist written by Michael Hardin.  I encourage you to read this before going any further.


It's impossible to proceed through Hardin's meditations about the Eucharist and the events of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil without, in clear-eyed clarity, saying what it is that happened at the end of the story.

In short, through clever rhetoric, demagoguery, twisted "truth", and a fundamental malice, Phil was able to scapegoat a neighboring group of people - a people not very unlike themselves - as the reasons for their problems.  The Inner Hornerites were rounded up, stripped naked and humiliated, taxed until they had nothing, imprisoned, and then killed because their death was thought to be the means by which prosperity and fundamental order could be restored to the land.  Ultimately, Phil accomplished this at the intersection of the power of the state, the approval of it's people, and with the supposed blessing of Almighty God.

So let me just say again, this remembrance that the memorial might activate within the collective consciousness isn't something that any of them would likely feel good about remembering.

For Hardin, the same thing is true about the Eucharist.  Even as we recognize that it's not the end, we should not bypass the darkness of the thing:
"In breaking the bread we confess we are all persecutors, that had we been there, we would have crucified Jesus. We do not come to this meal with clean hands and pure hearts. We come to it frothing at the mouth, demanding a sacrifice that will take away our personal and social angst, violence and fear. We break bread, we confess we are murderers. This is the point. We are the mob, or in religious language, we are all sinners."
"We are God’s persecutors. None of us can escape this. We must acknowledge that had we been there we would have joined the angry mob, or we would have sought to force Jesus to act with violence (Judas) or we would have denied having ever known Jesus for fear of reprisal (Peter). We would have been the ones to stand in judgment, righteous judgment against Jesus, the law breaker."
"This meal breaks down all illusions of good and bad, sin and holiness. In this meal we are all going to get our hands bloody. We are those who would scapegoat the “other“ who is different, we seek our differentiation in the “other.“ The process of “removing“ sin is antithetical to this meal for this meal is all about sin, in fact one might be so bold to say that it is the ultimate act of sin in which we shall ever participate for in this meal we are standing there as the mob that rejects Jesus, that falsely accuses him, that blasphemes against him and we are the ones who drive the nails into his hands and feet. The old spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” must be answered in the positive when we come forward to share in this meal for that is exactly what we are doing by participating in it. The Eucharist is Good Friday over and over again, a ritual repetition intended to drive something home, to drive something so deep into our the fabric of our being that we cannot remain unchanged. That something is all the blood on our hands from those relationships we have destroyed with our thoughts, our actions and our words. The Eucharist is not just about breaking bread, it is the complete and total recognition that in harming the “other,“ we are breaking bad."
First is a revealing.  As we reflect on the narrative behind it, the Eucharist exposes what we have done.  It recounts how the principalities and powers, the combination of church and state, conspired to kill Jesus as the crowds looked on.  It is a revealing of the violence that is at the heart of our culture.  It is we who imagined the cross, and we demand it's violence.

So this isn't just a sort of pious and reluctant "I'm a sinner, having broken the rules."  Rather:
"It meets us in the darkest places in our souls, the place where we would consign “the other“ to an eternal hellfire or a life of hell."
We need to dwell here for a moment, but not for too long because it is not the end.  We move through it to a message that speaks a better word.


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