Amoureax by Eve Arnold

3 Mimesis and the Messiah

The missionary capabilities of groups which are habitually small and obscure might be doubted. Perhaps, however, a Messiah-shaped missional mode is the reason for these 'problems' of size and public profile. Troeltsch writes of the sect-type that:

“The sects take the Sermon on the Mount as their ideal; they lay stress on the simple but radical opposition of the Kingdom of God to all secular interests and institutions.” - Ernst Troeltsch

While Troeltsh’s comments obviously do not apply to all groups bearing the name 'sect' they do, however, describe the capacity for 'sects' to take seriously the teaching of Jesus, even when they are incommensurable with the dominant society. To be missional like Jesus may not be popular. To be missional like Jesus takes a cruciform shape; it includes a baptismal willingness for a non-conformist posture to the dominant society.

It is precisely the vulnerability entailed in the rejection of dominance and acceptance of Jesus' teachings as normative for Christians which, I believe, constitutes a precondition for mission and it is this which I think 'sects' have the potential to embody and exemplify. It is out of this shape that the kind of creativity which Jesus embodied arises and it is this creativity which makes for the formation of compelling contrast societies, ie. missional communities. These communities do not attempt to be creative but are so by virtue of their mimesis of the Messiah. It is a mimetic relationship with the Messiah which makes a group compelling. It is often the same trait that makes them minorities. They are not less effective or relevant for this, however. It is this shape which births their creativity.

3.1 Mimesis of the Messiah as a Non-Coercive and Catholic Relation

For Toynbee, the sign of a creative minority’s decline is its adoption of coercive power. (A Study of History, vol. VI, p176). If this is true, it suggests that creativity is itself intensely linked to the unwillingness to use coercive power. To be missional is to be potently vulnerable. To be potently vulnerable is to cultivate creativity. The active rejection of force breeds creativity7. Jesus' creativity resulted in the Sermon on the Mount. We must take up the burden of embodying the same creativity in the present, not through slavish devotion to the Sermon on the Mount as principles for action (pace Tolstoy and Gandhi) but through a relationship to the Spirit which moved the Messiah in first century Palestine.

Each particular embodiment of the creative Spirit of the Messiah is not somehow becoming more parochial in being concrete but is taking the local shape of something universal, or ’cosmic’, as my fellow communard Jarrod McKenna would say.

John Howard Yoder writes of the parochial nature of the state’s claims:

“The universality of Christ’s reign is replaced by the particularism of a specific state’s intentions.” - John Howard Yoder8

It is not the ’sect’ - ongoingly seeking to embody the Messiah’s universal reign of love - which is parochial, but rather any organisation which has no such universal to embody but seeks, from its own power, to make itself universal. 'Universality' is a quality which is given, not taken. The Church-type of Troeltsch falls into this later category. Unless there is someone truly universal to call us it to ’be’ from without, no matter how large we are, we are parochial. 'Relevance' is not mitigated through a group being a minority. In fact, the willingness to adopt coercive modes of relating in order to become either more numerous or to enforce an ethic on others is an admission that the 'good news' is not potent of itself. The gospel is betrayed through the use of coercive power; its power to bring people into it's life by its sheer goodness is denied. Non-coerciveness itself is essential to that goodness.

3.2 Mimesis of the Messiah as Non-Rivalrous

"... we are being given the sort of desire that will enable us not to be moved by the social other but instead empower us as creators of a quite different social other."- James Alison9
Mimesis of the Messiah, because it is an imitative relationship with someone outside of mimetic rivalry, begins to distort the relation into something more than the creation of mere formal likeness. It becomes what Toynbee calls Transfiguration (see section 4 below). A mimetic relationship with the Messiah begins to transform us totally in the way that imitation of social forms cannot. James Alison calls this of the utter gratuity of the resurrection. Jesus is resurrected as someone who is totally beyond the systems of rivalry which ordinarily constitute us. He returns to his disciples without resentment, without a victimhood with which he may berate them. This being-beyond-rivalry is the kind of being we are being given when we imitate the Messiah. The relationship is turned around from one in which we are somehow in control of what we imitate to one in which we are transformed by one who is beyond ordinary mimetic relationships. This begins to suggest the impoverished nature of the mimetic relationship and that the only desirable kind of mimesis is that of the Messiah, which distorts the relation's ordinary dynamics. It is this which the Quakers quoted in the first section understood well:

“We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam, which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation.” - First generation Quakers a Balby, York, late 17th Century1
It is only through an immediate and personal relationship with the Messiah that any group can become anything worth imitating. In as much as they are worth imitating, they will continually point to their relationship with the Messiah as the source of that imitability and the only possibility of its proliferation. Because they are caught up in imitation of one who is beyond rivalry and so are being given a non-rivalrous identity which appears as something potent amongst relations which necessarily descend into rivalry and violence. This same non-rivalry means that a group may be something different to the dominant society without gaining its identity through being against it. There is a nonchalance in their posture. This nonchalance does not suggest a lack of care, a lack of concern that the powers in rebellion be brought into justice, peace and joy. This nonchalance is that of the servant Messiah in John chapter 13, who took up the towel, the mark of a slave, to wash his disciple's feet because he knew 'he had come from God and was going to God'. Peter protests:
‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
Jesus was able to be a scandalous other because he knew 'he had come from God and was going to God'. Through his non-rivalrous practice, Jesus brings his disciples into that same relation: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Unless you are not scandalised by the fact that I am driven by a Spirit which not that of any which drives this world, you cannot yourself enter into the Spirit which will move you into non-rivalrous self-giving love.

'Sects', while all too often driven by a spirit which is against the dominant society, have often displayed a practice which is unconcerned by what is happening around them. The Amish, for example, are now becoming the paradigmatic of the life of care which we must all begin to move in (Casaubon's Book: Production, Consumption and Amish Economics). They have become so not be desiring it but by simply getting along in a life driven by a care for Creation which they have learned from the Creator and from the Messiah who said "Love your neighbour as yourself". As Wendell Berry says:
"I do not think that we can make sense of Amish farming until we see it, until we become willing to see it, as belonging essentially to the Amish practice of Christianity, which instructs that one's neighbours are to be loved as oneself. To farmers who give priority to the maintenance of their community, the economy of scale (that is, the economy of large scale, of "growth") can make no sense, for it requires the ruination and displacement of neighbours." - Wendell Berry10

The mimesis of a Messiah who is beyond rivalry frees us from being against and allows us to embody a reality which is quite different and yet gratuitously rather than resentfully so.


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