Sunday, May 20, 2012

James Alison: "But I say unto you: love your enemies...."

From James Alison's Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self:
Mirror Neurons were discovered by a group of Italian scientists working at the University of Parma in 1996. They noticed that when a monkey whose brain had been wired to a neural electrode picked up a raisin, certain of the neurons in its brain fired. What astounded them was that when by chance one of the scientists himself picked up a raisin while the monkey was watching, the same brain neurons fired in the monkey as had fired when the monkey itself was performing the activity. These results were replicated across many other experiments, and so it was that the neurons which enable mimicry were identified. These neurons literally mirror the activity of another in the brain of the one watching. Thus they allow actors other than the monkey to be reproduced by and in the monkey and enable its socialization.

When it comes to humans, who are vastly more accomplished imitators than monkeys, scanners are discovering more and more areas of the brain which demonstrate this mirroring activity, suggesting that we have many more, and more widely distributed, mirror neurons than monkeys and that these are fired off from birth onwards by the activity of adults towards infants. So, for instance, within half an hour of birth a baby will stick its tongue out at an adult who sticks its tongue out at it. Within a very short time indeed a baby will be able to defer its imitation of an adult. When an adult makes a face at a baby who has a dummy, or pacifier, in its mouth, and then resumes a neutral face, the baby who is temporarily restrained from responding by the dummy will imitate the facial gesture later, when the dummy is removed.

Even more significant, from much earlier than had been thought, a baby is able to distinguish between an adult doing something (for instance, putting a rubber ring on a stick) and an adult failing to get the rubber ring on the stick, so that the baby is able to get right what the adult got “wrong”. This means that it is not merely adult activity which is being imitated, but adult intention. And so it is that we learn to desire according to the desire of the other in the phrase which is at the root of everything which my own principal teacher, René Girard has taught. And thus it is that we as humans no longer have simple instincts, for food, for sex, for safety. Rather, our very way of being in contact with our instincts is received by us through a pattern of desire which is interiorised within us through our imitation of what is prior to, and other than, the self of each one of us.

A simple related example might be that if an infant is perceived as a gift by its principal carer, then it will receive itself as a gift. If it is perceived as something frightening by its principal carer, then it will mirror the fear in the attitude towards it, and learn to hold itself in fear: it is always the eyes of the other who let me know who I am, and as I detect them perceiving me, so will I find myself to be. And of course, all of us are used to any number of variations of the mixture of love and fear in the eyes of those before whom we are vulnerable.

Further on, he discusses what the Scriptures say about all this:

Let us take a look at the passage of Matthew’s Gospel which our hosts at St Martin-in-the-Fields have suggested to us by their title for this lecture series. You are all familiar with the phrase:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
and yet comparatively rarely do we give it its full context, as I will do shortly. The result is that it is presented to us as a kind of heroic moral demand, the sort of thing that would make one somehow especially noble, if unworldly. That is, when it is not presented in a more sinister light, as if it could be paraphrased “Jesus wants you as a doormat”. This is what happens when the phrase is used to urge meekness upon a battered spouse, or passivity upon someone who is genuinely being victimized by someone else. And this of course is the danger of reading a phrase which is illustrative of who we are and how we function, and thus is directive, something which sets us free as it gets along side us and enables our perspective on things to be broadened, as if it were a moral commandment spoken straight to our conscious mind which we must therefore struggle to fulfil irrespective of circumstance.

In fact, however, the context of that phrase, as supplied by St Matthew, is rather different. Here are the verses in question (Mt 5, 43-48):
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now of course the phrase “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy” appears nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet all Scriptures, whatever they actually say, are capable of an interpretation such that those who give voice to them turn them into bulwarks for the cultural creation of identity. Give people a common enemy, and you’ll give them a common identity. Deprive them of an enemy and you’ll deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are. It doesn’t take much acquaintance with popular preaching, whether of a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic sort, to see how easily a commandment like “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19, 18) can become mitigated by the presence of phrases like:
Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies. (Psalm 139, 20-22)
In fact, it is perfectly normal for the culture in which we live, and not just modern culture, but human culture altogether, to speak through our minds and our texts such that they, minds and texts, wedded together, become guarantors of reciprocity, and we are confirmed in our assumptions that we should do good to those who do good to us, and take revenge on those who do evil to us. It is this normal human cultural way of living out reciprocity which Jesus is pointing to. He knows that we are reciprocally-formed animals; he seems to understand that we are ourselves radically imitative creatures who are very seriously dependent on what others do to us, for what we do.

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

Far from it! The sort of “indifference” about which Jesus is talking could not be more removed from that sort of apathetic detachment. Jesus is making a point about a pattern of desire which is not in any way at all run by what the other is doing to it, is not in reaction in any way at all, but is purely creative, dynamic, outward going, and able to bring things into being and flourishing. If the “social other” tends to teach us a pattern of desire such that what is normal is reciprocity, which of course includes retaliation, then Jesus presents God as what I call “the other Other”, one who is entirely outside any being moved, pushed, offended, any retaliation of any sort at all. On the contrary, God is able to be towards each one of us without ever being over-against any one of us. God is in no sort of rivalry at all with any one of us, is not part of the same order of being as us, which is how God can create and move us without displacing us. Whereas we who are on the same level as each other can only move each other by displacing each other.

I hope that you now see that the instruction “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” comes as the mid-point, the point of passage, between these two different patterns of desire: the first pattern in which our identity is given to us and grasped onto by us imitative creatures as we mirror each other in our reciprocity; and the second pattern of desire in which our identity is given to us by someone moving us entirely independently of being moved by us. The instruction is not one about being a doormat, it is one about how to be free.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” means “do not be towards them as they are towards you, for then you will be run by them, and you and they will become ever more functions of each other, grinding each other down towards destruction. Don’t pay them the tribute of giving them that sort of free rental space in your soul. Instead of that, allow your identity to be given to you by your Father who is in heaven, who is not in any sort of reciprocity with them, and is able to be towards them as one holding them in being and loving them, without reacting against them. Given that you can’t do this by a simple act of decision, you will require that your whole pattern of desire, formed in reciprocity be turned around, and the only way to do that is to pray for them. For in praying for them you are beginning to allow the pattern of desire which is God to enter into your life, so allowing you to recognise your similarity with your enemies, rather than your exaggerated differences. This enables you to relativise the way you are towards your enemy, and will eventually empower you to be towards your enemy as God is. Thus you will be free of any contagion from their violence towards you”.

Jesus then goes on to show that it is not only the contagion of hostile reciprocity from which we need to be freed, but also that of friendly reciprocity:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Whether it is a matter of love or hate, reciprocity is the same in both cases: you are run by the social other, and you become a function of that social other. So, you love those who love you, and become more and more dependent on their approval, which means that you allow your behaviour to be shaped by their expectation, and find yourself automatically tied into having shared attitudes of contempt for those who they despise. But, says Jesus, there is nothing especially good about that: tax collectors do just the same, making good bonds of friendship with the occupying authorities over-against the despised “native population”. Nowadays we might say: arms dealers, or cocaine smugglers are perfectly capable of building up just such bonds of affection among an in-group by contrast with the law enforcement agencies which try to make their lives difficult. Mafiosi of all backgrounds and nationalities have “strong family values”. There is nothing especially good about this sort of thing, which happens throughout human culture, and is simply the result of the sort of imitative animal which we are.

The same applies when we exchange marks of recognition. Giving recognition to those who recognise you: what is that but a sign that you and they are dependent on each other for a fragile sense of respect? But of course, that sort of giving of recognition, and seeking of recognition, being greeted, having “face” always also means by contrast that there are people at whose face you do not look, people you do not recognise because they are of no value to you, people you neither see, nor want to see, yourself reflected in them, so you look away. They become a blind spot for you. There is nothing particularly good about that: there isn’t a tribe, a club, a religion, a culture, anywhere on the face of the planet that doesn’t work in just the same way. The fact is that friendly reciprocity and hostile reciprocity are part of the same thing, variations on a theme of us being run by what is other than us.

But, Jesus says, this being run by the adulatory other, or the excoriating other, which is the same thing, has nothing to do with God. What God’s love looks like is being creatively for the other without being defined over against the other in any way at all. That is what is meant by grace and freedom. It is going to involve breaking through the strong-seeming but ultimately fragile dichotomies of “in group” and “out group”, “pure” and “impure”, “good guys” and “bad guys” which are quite simply the ambivalent functions of our cultural identity, and coming to love other people without any over against at all. Living this out is going to look remarkably like a loss of identity, a certain form of death. And living it out as a human is what it is to be a child of God, and to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

Interesting that one of the early lessons you learn about "resentment" (described as an especially thorny problem for alcoholics) from the Zen Masters in A.A. is precisely this!  The A.A. aphorism has it that   "Holding a resentment is like giving someone rent-free space in your head."  A.A. has never said, though, that the difference between God (the Power Greater than Ourselves) and human beings is precisely that God is completely outside the human Mirroring system! 

See?  Theology is important.  And perhaps this is exactly why A.A. encourages its members to return to church (or to the synagogue or mosque or temple);  it simply isn't within A.A.'s scope to talk about things like this.   A.A. has many things going for it - I may return to it exclusively at this point, because the church is so confused right now and I'm not getting any help there - but it remains focused on the One Thing, the Pearl of Great Price for the alcoholic:  sobriety alone.  And actually, that's exactly what I'm worried about now, so it may be a good move.

And again:  to me, all of this is a great detoxifier of what may at first seem like toxic ideas in the Bible; they may have indeed been taught in a toxic way. 

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