Saturday, February 18, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (4) - Shame as Occasion for Grace and Renewal

This is the 4th and final post in this series of reflections on the satirical novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.  A strange and comical title for sure, but a great read.  And a quick one at that.  I highly recommend it.

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?

As I said in the last post, the Eucharist confronts our shame.  Specifically it reveals the violence and scapegoating that arise inexorably from the principalities that manifest our selves and our ways as Michael Hardin writes so clearly in his essay.
"In the Eucharist we come as a killing mob, breaking our victims in order to consume them, to suck the life-force out of them to become them. This is why victims were eventually divinized or made into gods: we sought divine life, eternal life in our victims, life beyond death. In our victims we thought we found the answer to our questions, the solution to our problems. In their death we sought life, in the darkness we brought upon them we sought light. Little did we know that the light within us was a great darkness and that the violence we used against our victims could and would one day turn against us."
It is a hard word to hear, but we need to hear it.  Most importantly, however, we have to proceed through it.  The gospel has a better word to speak.

On this point, there are too many quality citations from Hardin's essay to include them all.  Here are a few:
"Jesus’ death is God’s way of delivering us from death and from the fear of death. The violence done to Jesus is the same violence we see every day in our newspapers. The difference is that in our newspapers, and in our lives, violence evokes more violence, a counter-violence we call justice. We seek an eye for an eye and a life for a life in our way of trying to stop the virus of human vengeance and violence. God chose the opposite; God allows God’s self to be the singular place where all human violence is brought to a pinnacle. God bears in God’s self our violence."
"God steps into our world, the nonviolent Logos, the principle of Love, steps into our world which needs the blood of scapegoats and innocent lambs to survive, and brings an end to all this wickedness by taking upon God’s self all the anger, hatred, anxiety and fear we could muster. God takes upon God’s self death itself. God brings into God’s very heart that which we most fear: death and its consequences. God takes into God’s innermost being our vilest hatred, our ugliest lies, our distorted imaginations, our insatiable thirst for justice and vengeance and absorbs it. God hangs dead for us."
"This rescue, this “exodus“ doesn’t look like much. In fact it looks rather ordinary, just another dead body, a crucified criminal. Yet this exodus, this deliverance was extraordinary for two reasons. First is that it completely demolishes the notion of the wrathful God, the punishing God. This God bears punishment, this God does not mete it out. This God, the God of Life, bears death, and bears it with us and thus for us so that we might see that our violence will only produce one thing: forgiveness. God in Christ forgives us from the cross. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting against us the false accusations, or the torture or the mocking or the hatred or the pain or the anguish or any other vile thing we did that day. God does not even count our rejection against us. This God absorbs all of our violence and thus, and this is my second point, does away with violence as the mechanism by which we solve our problems. God does away with our scapegoating, our finger pointing, our endless accusations against one another. All that we do here in our lifetimes, the blaming, accusing, and justifying of our anger and systems of punishment are forever rendered powerless and pointless in Jesus’ death. They just don’t count in God’s book.  Instead we are given a meal, a meal where we come together to acknowledge our tendency to persecute and hate and destroy. We are given bread which we break, a body which we crucify. In the breaking of bread we are owning up to our scapegoating tendencies. We are also given a cup, a cup which says that in the old world, under the power of the old where eye-for-eye was the measure, now a new measure for injustice will be given, a measure that makes no sense to a world grounded in violence and scapegoats. That is the measure of forgiveness. God has forgiven the whole world in Jesus."
The Eucharist exposes, subverts, and then renews.  Shame becomes an occasion for salvation.  God reveals Godself to us at our worst, and through our worst.  The "blaming, accusing, and justifying of our anger and systems of punishment....just don't count in God's book."  The time and place of our fiercest rejection of God becomes the occasion for God to reveal his rejection of our rejection and that "His ways are not our ways".
"The Eucharist therefore, is the most anti-cultural institution in the world and breaks down our sacrificial religion and turns us to a non-sacrificial spirituality where God is love and where we learn to love one another."
I hope it's obvious that I'm not making a pure parallel between the storyline of The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil and the Gospel narrative that the Eucharist proclaims and celebrates.

What I am saying is that, however grotesque that statue of Phil might have appeared, however "creepy", behind the shame of it lies the story of the creator making one man out of the two and making things new.  The reason for the statue's existence is inseparable from the breaking down of the wall of separation, the creation of New Horner, and the hands and words of the Creator.  That story comes through the story of their violence.  Thus, in it's very grotesqueness, the statue may become a means to life, it's shame becoming an occasion for grace and renewal.

The story of The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil ends on a somber note.  But even though it's covered in a thicket of weeds, the memorial to Phil is not gone.  It's there at the heart of New Horner waiting to be revealed once more.

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