Eucharist, Private Prayer, and Positive Mimesis in the Thought of James Alison

Bryce E. Rich
AAR 2009 Annual Meeting
8 November 2009

Over the past couple of decades the Church has been increasingly pulled into the conflict over homosexuality. As Christians rush to take up sides in arguments over scriptural authority, cultural norms, scientific data, and theories of social justice, debates have become increasingly polarized, with both sides engaging in polemic that dehumanizes their opponents and incites some to physical violence. Indeed, not a month goes by without reports of intimidation, assault, and murder of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people caught in the crossfire.[1] Many LGBT Christians have found themselves separated from family, friends and communities of faith.

Some of us join affirming congregations, only to find ourselves swept up once more into the maelstrom, while others, burned by our experiences and distrustful of Christianity as a whole, find ourselves trapped in antagonistic relationships with our persecutors, unwittingly deriving our identity in reaction to past hurts. Occupying the space of the victim, we may cry out loudly against our oppression. But without insight from beyond the immediate social matrix, we are left to shadow-box against the privileged who are, for all intents and purposes, merely doubles of us, occupying the other side of the dynamic, yet no different from us in any fundamental way.

What I've been describing is nothing new to most of us, though it may be the first time some of us have thought about it in terms of Girard's mimetic theory. But while the dynamics of acquisitive mimesis and retributive violence may help us see this phenomenon in a new light, Girard's original work has been criticized for stopping just short of offering a solution to the zero-sum dilemma and the human tendency towards scapegoating.[2] Indeed, we do not stop blaming the innocent simply because our behavior has been pointed out to us. Instead, we find ourselves teetering on the brink, unable to blindly cast aspersions on an outsider – a condition brought on by increasing consciousness of our victims. It is in resolving this mimetic crisis that James Alison makes some of his most meaningful contributions to both easing the current deadlock over homosexuality within the Church and, on a grander scale, helping those who submit themselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit to drop out of a broad range of mimetic conflicts. Moving beyond Girard's original theory, Alison presents the possibility for peaceful, non-acquisitive mimesis through the practices of Eucharist and private prayer.

In his book, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay,[3] Alison suggests that the Eucharist functions as a transformative agent in the process of disengaging from the world of scapegoating and retributive violence. Within the sacrament he sees a fraternal relocation of God that deconstructs our typical understandings of authority, disarming us and preparing us for an encounter with the Divine.

Many of us have unresolved issues with authority to say the least. Beginning in childhood, parents and teachers, religious and civil authorities have taught us that "being good" means conforming to our social matrix. Break a rule and face the divinely sanctioned wrath of God's representatives. Physical violence, isolation, ostracism, and, ultimately, the threat of death are all used to ensure obedience to the system. Our misgivings are further exacerbated when brothers and sisters in Christ, donning the drag of ecclesial authority, pass themselves off as paternal agents synonymous with the authority of God. From lofty yet illusory heights, many a pronouncement is made in which homosexuals are publicly shamed and ostracized within the Church. The threat of expulsion has kept many in the closet, while others who have come out have been driven from the faithful as scapegoats, responsible for all the ills that plague the family, the Church and society as a whole. Many of us have experienced the agony that ensues when we realize that being true to ourselves means facing the threat of exile from all that we have held as godly and good. But it is at this moment that many of us begin the long and often painful process of separating God from the culturally-based projections of a wrathful deity.

Following Girard, Alison asserts that God is completely outside of the culture of violence and tit-for-tat retribution. Yet even though God wants only the best for us, our past experiences with authority figures have taught us that God is to be feared. With threats of punishment and violence projected upon God, it is highly likely that any divine attempt at direct communication would be interpreted through a lens of suspicion and distrust.

For this reason, Alison posits, Christ chose the incarnate life among us as a fraternal relocation of Deity, approaching us as a brother rather than as the one Jesus referred to as Father. And as a brother, Jesus entered relationships with the scapegoats of his world: the indigent, the sick, the ritually unclean, sexual outcasts, turncoat tax collectors, half-breed Samaritans, women, gentiles, and occupying Romans. Modeling God's love for all of humanity, he kept company with all manner of "sinners" with no regard for cultural prohibitions or labels of "us" and "them." Through his actions, Jesus paradoxically became the greatest boundary transgressor of all, revealing the presence of God outside of the status quo.

Embodying this alternative way of being was not without its costs. But Jesus willingly took on the role of scapegoat, rejected by religious authorities, abandoned by his followers, and crucified by imperial powers. Mocked and scorned, he suffered a shameful and hideous death. But in a surprise maneuver, he returned from the dead, greeting those who had abandoned him with a word of peace. It is only in light of the Resurrection and the subsequent lack of divine vengeance that it became possible to understand, as Alison puts it, that "God is not out to get us."

Each time we gather around the Eucharistic table, the reality of a nonviolent God is revealed once more. And through the gradual working of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed into the image of the self-giving Christ. As an example of the transformative power of the Eucharist, I ask that your indulgence as I share a little from my own experience. Though certainly not universal, it is characteristic of the dynamic Alison describes.

As a Southern Baptist, I was raised with a typically Zwinglian outlook on the Lord's Supper as a meal of remembrance. And then, over time, in the Metropolitan Community Churches and subsequently in the Episcopal Church I began to sense something invisibly unfolding within the Eucharist. At the time I had no words for what I was experiencing. I only knew that on receiving the host and wine and returning to my seat I was often overcome by an incredible sense of love and warmth, inviting me into something larger than myself. For months a common response to the Eucharist for me was silent tears, expressing what I had no words for. On further reflection, I believe a transformation was taking place.

Participation in the Eucharist as an openly gay man provided a new sense of inclusion and acceptance. In my earlier life, communion was closed, acting as a boundary marker between the saved and the damned. But in both of the congregations I have mentioned, the Table is open to all, eliminating the boundary marker of "us" vs. "them." Instead, "we" approach as one, united in response to Christ's invitation.

Over time, I began to notice another shift. Letting go of my own "goodness," I came face to face with my complicity in the system of violence that had led to Jesus' death. But rather than condemnation, I recognized something new in the invitation of the self-giving Christ: "This is my body, which is broken for you. This is my blood, which is shed for you and for many." Day after day, week after week… Through the Eucharist, the incarnate presence of God (Christ) is offered up to us as a model of desire which we may freely imitate with no possibility of mimetic conflict. There is nothing to be grasped or fought over. We cannot wrest anything away from Christ in a violent struggle, for through Christ, God has already freely given absolutely everything to us. And gradually we come to realize the super-abundant, life-giving nature of God as it takes hold within and slowly transforms us.

In a more recent essay, Alison explores private prayer as another avenue for breaking the cycle of culturally mediated desires and conflicts arising from acquisitive mimesis.[4] Like his earlier works, this essay is heavily influenced by Jean-Michel Oughourlian's model of interdividual psychology and the formation of the self.[5] Oughourlian suggest that as human beings we are highly mimetic, imitating those around us that constitute our social other. In this model, the self arises as a result of the intersection of many desires mediated by those around us. Far from autonomous, the self is conceived of as a symptom brought forth by the cultural matrix in which it participates – a malleable entity which is both constituted and constantly reshaped by desires that precede its own existence.

The idea that our desires are mediated by a model is easily grasped when we consider how marketing shapes what is popular in a given culture. Advertisements on the web, on television and in magazines show us what to drive, what phone to carry, and what to wear. Most of us are aware on some level of the mimetic influence of our popular culture. But Girard and Oughourlian suggest that all desire is mimetic. It is only the self's ability to "forget" that it receives its desire from another that allows it to exist in the illusion of autonomy. With this framework in mind, Alison explores the rationale in Jesus' teachings on prayer.

In the limited instruction concerning prayer recorded in the gospels we find a prescription for avoiding flowery phrases and public acts of piety in favor of withdrawal and private prayer.[6] Those who pray, standing in the synagogue or on the street corner, receive their reward (τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν) in the form of public recognition. Jesus instructs his followers instead to go into the inner room of the house, where there are no windows and no possibility of being seen by others. In this secret place, God will hear their prayers and give back to them (ἀποδώσει).

In light of the claim that all desires are mediated by an other, new meaning arises from this passage. As a malleable self, the one who prays in public is tempted to pray in such a way as to gain approval from the social other. And, to quote Alison, "the danger of seeking approval from the social other is that you will get it, and thereafter you will be hooked on that approval."[7] Because the self is constituted by the mediated desire of the other, such approval literally gives us the pattern of our desire, bringing into being who we are. Being constituted by an other is neither good nor bad of itself; it simply is. However, the risk involved in this scenario is that the self formed through such interaction is more likely than not a mere shadow of the potential self which could be called into being by the Creator. And because the self is a function of the group's desire, it subsequently becomes more and more unlikely that one will risk being self-critical. To do so would violate group unanimity and destabilize both the system and, by extension, the self. In this way, "self"-preservation inhibits any attempt at realizing the greater potential offered by the Creator. Indeed, taken to the theory's logical conclusion, self-critical reflection would not only be unlikely, but impossible were there no other desire which might serve as an alternative model for mimesis.

With this in mind, Jesus encourages solitude for private prayer as a way of removing the suppliant from the ordinary patterns of mediated desire and mimetic conflict, making room for "Another other" to act as a model. At a remove from the social other with its culture of conflict and death, we are able to hear the whisper of a different desire within our hearts – a desire spoken by God, who has absolutely no part in the world of retributive violence. Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who offers up prayers of intercession through us and on our behalf when we don't know what to say,[8] we are introduced to a new way of being. This movement is slow and gentle, careful to avoid displacing the fragile self, but rather exposing us to a new reality in which our mediated desires are reshaped by the peaceful, noncompetitive desires of God. A regular pattern of withdrawal for prayer and communion with God creates a space in which the self is nurtured and reinforced, giving rise to a transformed being that shares in the desires and sensibilities of a different order, commonly referred to as the Kingdom of God.

As described, prayer becomes an act through which God grants a special grace – a word, a thought, a desire – that, rather than overpowering the fragile self, models new possibilities. Given freely, this new vision is not a thing to be grasped or acquired, but simply received in trust of the ineffable generosity of God. In this way prayer becomes sacrament – another act through which heaven and earth touch and we catch a glimpse of the limitless One who calls us into being. Through the ongoing practice of private prayer, we continue to receive from the immeasurable abundance of God. And gradually we are freed to participate in audacious plans that we may very well not live long enough to see come to completion.

Participation in both the Eucharist and private prayer carries far-reaching implications for gay Christians. First, we are called to recognize and confess our own role as persecutors within the cycle of mimetic rivalry and retributive violence. As we encounter the presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist, our eyes are opened to the fact that we, too, are prone to demonizing our opponents and seeking peace through the expulsion of a victim.

The road to our recovery brings us to a place of acknowledging our role within the system and recognizing that we are powerless of ourselves to resist the tendency toward scapegoating. Only when we recognize our complicity and our helplessness to do otherwise are we able to open ourselves to the further influence of the Holy Spirit as a first step in our transformation – a recognition that in itself would be impossible without the alternative desires mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.

On a practical level such an acknowledgement would include a preservation of the anamnesis in the Eucharist, complete with references to body and blood, as these elements are essential to the remembering of Christ's abandonment and sacrificial lynching. In many denominations, including my own, we have seen a trend towards mythologizing the words of institution. Euphemistic substitutions such as "the bread of life" and "the cup of blessing" which remove references to the victim of the Crucifixion lead us along the path of other myths before and since that hide the actual violence and suffering attendant in the persecution of the scapegoat. Some congregations have claimed that they are simply removing the stumbling blocks from archaic traditions that glory in gore. However, the Eucharist is, by its very nature, a scandal to those who refuse to see their own complicity in the scapegoating mechanism.

Our participation in Eucharist and private prayer further calls us to relinquish our cherished role as scapegoats in favor of modeling the behavior of the non-retaliatory and forgiving victim, disrupting the cycle of violence, and offering incarnate examples of pacific mimesis that produces life rather than death. As long as we self-righteously occupy the position of the victim, demanding recompense for the abuses we have suffered, we are unable to move into the area of identifying with the our oppressors as brothers and sisters, trapped in the same systems that we occupy. This is the "resentment" of which Alison speaks in the title of his book. As long as we remain in our resentment, we will be unable to fully imitate the model presented by our brother, Christ Jesus, and enter into full relationship with God.

While on this topic, it is worth exploring a specific implication for those who both practice Christianity and participate in one or more of the LGBT subcultures within our society. Like all other desires that constitute the self, the desires of our particular subculture(s) are also mediated. Whether through praise or opprobrium, the social other tells us who we are, imparting to us a legion of desires. Some may be viewed as positive, such as the desire for love, companionship, or a sense of well-being. Others may be less than healthy, as they drive us to a range of self-destructive behaviors, including various addictions, unsafe sex, chemical abuse, or body modification that becomes destructive, such as carving and branding.

Alison has suggested that the gay identity is like a platform, floating in the middle of a lake where a tired swimmer may choose to climb up and rest.[9] In a moment of need, such a floating platform may save one's life. However, it is not in the swimmer's best interests to live on the platform forever. As the Holy Spirit works within us, new models of desire may replace parts of our cultural identity. This is not to suggest that basic biological drives will disappear, but rather that planks in the platform of our gay identity may begin to fade away as the Spirit calls us once again to swim, this time as a new self that God calls into being.

If Alison is correct in his insights regarding the nature of mediated desire and its effects, serious consideration must be given to his proposal of private prayer as a catalyst for being shaped by the Holy Spirit. Through withdrawal from the system that runs us and tells us who we are, we create the opportunity for the still, small voice to speak within us, presenting us with a new identity. Rather than selling ourselves short as puppets of the social matrix, we are presented with a new self, far greater than anything we are called to be by the social other.

If this is true, then perhaps the greatest challenge we face is this: are we willing to let go of a self shaped by models, gay and straight, in exchange for the freedom offered through the imitation of the forgiving victim?


[1] FBI statistics for 2007 indicate 1,485 reported victims of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. See "Table 7 – Hate Crimes Statistics 2007," Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2007/table_07.htm (accessed October 26, 2009). The FBI does not keep statistics on hate crimes specifically tied to bias against transgendered people.

[2] Girard's mimetic theory is first explored in depth in anthropological terms in Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977) and then later explored from a theological perspective in Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

[3] (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001)

[4] See James Alison, "Prayer: A Case Study in Mimetic Anthropology," James Alison – Theology, http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/pdf/eng54.pdf (accessed February 22, 2009).

[5] Oughourlian worked together with Girard and Guy LeFort to develop the first stages of the interdividual psychology in Things Hidden. The themes presented here are developed in chapter 1 of Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Puppet of Desire: the Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) and summarized in chapter 2 of James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes(New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998).

[6] See Matthew 6:5-6.

[7] "Prayer," 7.

[8] Romans 8:26-27

[9] From a personal conversation, September 15, 2009.

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.