Archive for December 5th, 2019

The first case of real forgiveness ever? Maybe so. My talk on René Girard at Notre Dame.

Thursday, December 5th, 2019
Share

Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Joseph Sold by His Brothers,” circa 1636-42

On September 23, I was honored to be invited to Notre Dame to deliver the inaugural Church Life Journal lecture on “René Girard and the Present Moment.” The talk is now up here

An excerpt:

Roughly 200 billion tweets appear every year. And 100 million hours of videos are watched on Facebook daily, and more than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook. Reaction time gets faster and faster, and we are free to vent our worst side, our unconsidered selves, on more and more platforms. We excuse our daily defamation as harmless, but it is not. It changes us.

In this environment, how difficult to hold to Girard’s injunction of total non-retaliation! …

We have some good precedents: Girard often described the story of the Old Testament Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his mob of ten envious and resentful half-brothers. He called it a counter-mythical story, because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching. But here, the story takes a different twist. Initially, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, but one of them, Judah, has the idea to sell him into slavery instead. However, Joseph reestablishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a dramatic reconciliation. Its full description of forgiveness is, Girard claimed, the first in all of history, in its sophistication and nuance. I haven’t been able to disprove him yet.

I recommend Robert Alter‘s magnificent retelling, with annotation, of the story in his Genesis. The read is absolutely gripping, a page-turner, with very careful breakdown of the dialogue. Before his self-revelation, Joseph tries his half-brothers with several ordeals, and demands that they bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. He is cautiously testing his half-brothers with Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, born of the rivalry that poisoned the family. After all, he does not know whether they have killed Benjamin, too. Why would they not?

But the figure who is at least as riveting, to me, is Judah—the very brother who had the idea to monetize the elimination of his brother. During the dialogue, he is transformed. He says his father’s heart would break with the loss of Benjamin—he who had maliciously, recklessly shredded his father’s heart before, accepts the bitter pill of his father’s outrageous favoritism, and begs to offer himself as a slave instead.

The wailing of Joseph in the recognition scene is so loud and unrestrained that, as it is written, “the Egyptians heard and the house of Pharoah heard.” We all admire Joseph, we imagine we would like to be like him – but who wants to be Judah in his culpability, in his callousness, in his repentance, and his anguish? Yet the Jewish people are named for him.

 

Read the rest here.