Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 18:16-40) transports me to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak where I visited in 2003, another one of those instances of learning how small and isolated and in some sense sanitized the little space of the world I occupy is. Seeing and learning how other cultures have dealt and continue to deal with issues of conflict and power and ritual and suffering is always a good antidote to the myopic shrinking of our world into what’s before our eyes on any given day. We were all fascinated there on that trip to learn about the Mayan kings’ ritual blood letting, where they would absorb some hallucinogens of some type and then engage in ritual cutting, using a stingray spine to pierce the tongue and penis. The blood would be caught on a piece of paper, which would then be burned as a sacrifice to the gods. I don’t know if there was a lot of ambition or aspiration among the people to being a king, with this particular ritual in place. I came back from this trip to have my world expanded again, this time on the college campus where I worked. A new student group had formed, Healthy Minds, to promote mental health on campus. At the first meeting I attended to learn about the group, I discovered that our campus had its own ritual cutting going on. Research had come out showing that 20% of women and 14% on men of college campuses engage in self-injury behavior, most often cutting. It was happening there on our little Baptist campus out in the country. This was news to me; I had never heard of the behavior. Someone suggested various resources to learn more about this part of our culture, including the James Spader movie Secretary. It’s not a movie I’d suggest you watch with your in-laws, unless you want a surefire awkward movie experience. The movie begins with the secretary in question emerging from a psychiatric hospital where she had been treated for her addiction to ritual cutting. Suffice it to say her mental health status doesn’t improve in the outside world, as she finds “love” in a relationship marked by sadism and control. This revealed to me, once again, that there is a lot going on outside the purview of the small part of the world I inhabit on a daily basis. Ritual cutting, from the Mayans to the college dorms to the s&m sub-culture, remains strange to me.
Ritual cutting and blood letting was not strange to the ancient people of the Promised Land. Here in this famous story of the prophet Elijah challenging 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, we see some of this self-injurious behavior demonstrated among the Baal worshipers. The two sides are in a contest to see whose god can bring down fire from heaven and consume a sacrificed animal. Before Elijah takes his turn and proves God’s power, the prophets of Baal give it a try, shouting and dancing around the altar, to no avail. Elijah taunts them, telling them to shout louder, maybe their god is asleep. They kick their prayers into high gear, shouting louder and cutting themselves with swords and spears until the blood flowed. While James Spaders’ secretary engaged in self-destructive behavior in hopes of discovering the fires of passion, these prophets slashed themselves in hopes of igniting the passionate fires of their god. The blood flowed, but the fire didn’t come. Elijah’s prayers were more successful, and once God proved to be the more powerful, Elijah set out to do some blood-letting of his own, slaughtering all 450 of the prophets of Baal, as the people gave praise to the Lord.
In our relatively small and sanitized world of privilege, we often get uncomfortable with the imagery of blood, particularly as it is associated with ritual. Traveling a bit outside this somewhat innocent world, into the realm of disturbing movies and Mayan kings and college dorms, we see how deeply woven the connections are between ritual and blood as people deal with the challenges and anxieties and stresses of life, and the deep hunger for authentic feeling in a world that does all it can to numb us from pain and suffering. In this comfortably numb world, we religious folk sometimes shy away from the theology of substitutionary atonement, the narrative that Jesus’ blood on the cross saved us from the necessity to do our own ritual bleeding. When I see how deep-rooted the human need is to have a ritual connection with bleeding, though, it makes me wonder if there isn’t an important mental health aspect to this theology. If young people in college dorms can dive deeply into the story of Jesus and his blood-letting on the cross, the cutting he experienced at the hands of the soldiers, and embrace it in an archetypal way, then maybe they won’t be shouting quite so desperately for the fire to come down, maybe they won’t be so drawn to ritual cuttings, and maybe they won’t have the Nine Inch Inch Nails song running through their heads – I hurt myself today, to see if I could feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real. I wear this crown of thorns, upon my liar’s chair, full of broken thoughts, I cannot repair. Maybe they’ll put the razor blades away as they hear another song running through their heads – what can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.