Perseus by Antonio Canova (Vatican City), by Tetraktys (from Wikimedia Commons)

“Jesus said, Blessed are you when they hate and persecute you. No place will be found where they persecuted you (Gospel of Thomas 68).” Statue of Perseus by Antonio Canova (Vatican City), photo by Tetraktys (from Wikimedia Commons)

A: Another important theme you included alongside the idea that the poor were “heirs of the kingdom” was the idea that the faithful would be hated, excluded, reviled, defamed, and persecuted (Luke 6:22 and Thomas 68). Stevan Davies, in his commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, is puzzled by this. He says, “It is puzzling why so much very early Christian literature assumes that persecution is an inherent part of being a Christian. The ancient world was by no means a place where well-defined doctrinal parameters defined orthodoxy and heresy so that dissenters would regularly be persecuted for their beliefs. The violent suppression of religious ideas became characteristic of Western religions only in later centuries (p. 74).” Why did you place so much emphasis on the idea that the heirs to the kingdom would be reviled?

J: Davies makes a lot of assumptions here that need to be challenged. Like many commentators, he’s making dualistic assumptions. He’s assuming that I was primarily teaching about “mysticism” — something separate from everyday realities, something elevated or special or hidden. He assumes a Gnostic interpretation of my early sayings. He assumes that persecution arose when others became envious or angry because they didn’t know “my secret.” But this isn’t at all what I meant. I was telling people the honest truth about what would happen to them if they followed my teachings about God and status. I was telling them to be prepared to be vilified, attacked, abused, and scorned for daring to provoke the psychopaths and narcissists around them. I was telling people to be honest and realistic about other people’s reactions.

A: Whoa. That’s a pretty big statement you just made. That’s a statement with a lot of implications. Can you explain in more detail?

J: Yes. Put bluntly, “Hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned.”

A: Ooooh. Nice image.

J: This is the psychological context that all people should be aware of, not just the people who’ve chosen a spiritual life. This is the psychological context that lurks behind corruption and crime and abuse. If there’s one good thing I can say about TV dramas like Law & Order and Criminal Minds it’s this: these TV shows are doing more to teach regular people about psychopathy and narcissism than Christianity ever has. It’s a valuable public service.

A: It goes without saying that you didn’t have TV shows or films to use as teaching aids.

J: True. But we had something almost as good. We had Greco-Roman mythology. We had a complete psychological “language” available to us, a complete collection of cautionary tales that graphically described all the best and all the worst choices a human being can make. There were — are — myths about jealousy. Myths about rape. Myths about prophecy. Myths about hubris. Myths about suffering. Myths about trickery. Myths about bravery. Myths about romance. Myths about empathy. The characters in these myths are archetypes for different psychological states. These archetypes are still quite useful for talking about psychological choices, psychological states. They’re much more memorable than long-winded academic articles full of jargon.

A: And they make better action films, too. I’m thinking of the recent remake of Clash of the Titans.

J: The archetype of psychopathy that worked best for me was the image of Medusa. Not the snake chick from Clash of the Titans — that’s not the version of the myth I knew best — but the version that described Medusa as so hideous to look upon that she had the power to turn you to stone. That’s what the power of psychopaths is like — they’re so frightening, so unrepentant in their pursuit of power and status, that the people around them feel paralyzed, “turned to stone,” unable to move or think, let alone react in self-defense. This is how psychopaths end up running major institutions, corporations, and countries. They just keep on turning people into stone until they get what they want.

A: Which is usually money, power, status, fame.

J: And sexual gratification.

A: Yuck.

J: Respectful, tender, devoted, consensual sexuality between two committed adults is not on the menu for psychopaths. They can pretend for a while, but they get bored. Eventually they go looking for “side dishes” if they think they can get away with it.

A: What happens when you confront a psychopath directly, challenge his or her actions?

J: That’s when the fireworks begin. Psychopaths are often easy to get along with on a day to day basis as long as they believe they’re in full control, as long as they believe they’re receiving the status they “deserve.” They’re especially affable and agreeable at work or at home if people tell them how nice they are. One of the most misunderstood qualities of a psychopath is his or her desperate need to believe that he/she is “a nice person.” It’s their main coping mechanism, believe it or not.

A: Ahead of habits like lying, manipulation, substance abuse, and abusive sexuality?

J: The need to find “proof” that they’re nice is the psychopath’s Number One psychological defense against the truth of his or her unconscionable behaviour.

A: So Hitler believed he was “a nice person.”

J: Oh, absolutely. Same with his close buddies. As a group, they told themselves comfy little lies about what nice people they were and what an important job they were doing for the German people — the German people they loved.

A: Throwing themselves on their swords for the good of the people, eh?

J: That’s how they explained it to themselves. That’s how they managed to keep functioning, despite the severe damage to their biological brains.

A: Hitler had a violent temper and he made irrational military decisions that revolved around “honour.” His honour.

J: That’s what I meant when I said that hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned. When you impugn the “honour” — by that I actually mean the status — of a psychopath or a severe narcissist, you can expect to be on the receiving end of a narcissistic rage reaction. Such a person will not rest until he or she has exacted revenge. The revenge may be physical. It may be psychological. It may be financial or social. Or some combination of these. But you can count on one thing: it’ll hurt like stink, and you’ll probably be deeply traumatized for a long time afterwards. Only occasionally will such a person decide to “let it go” and walk away from the “deservee.”

A: They want to turn you to stone, in other words.

J: This is the reality. It seemed appropriate to me to caution my students about this reality. You could say it was a question of “informed consent.” Is it right to give students a new understanding of how to be in relationship with God and not warn them about the practical consequences of standing up to the bullies, the tyrants, and the religious status seekers? It didn’t seem right to me not to warn them.

A: The version of the Medusa myth I liked best when I was growing up was the version where Perseus cut off Medusa’s head and released the beautiful winged horse Pegasus who was trapped inside. There are other versions of the Pegasus myth, but somehow I liked the idea of the noble creature trapped inside the monster. It made sense to me. Not that I’m endorsing the Gnostic idea of good-soul-trapped-inside-evil-body. I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that so many people misuse their bodies and brains. They choose to ignore their true self — their Pegagus, if you will. They choose to identify with this horrible snake-covered outer mask that enjoys hurting other people, enjoys turning other people into stone. They’re in a complete state of denial about the choices they’re making.

J: Part of the journey of forgiving the Hitlers of the world is the choice to trust that behind every snake-covered Medusan mask of hatred lies the true self — the brave and beautiful Pegasus. A.k.a. the soul. The core consciousness that isn’t being listened to.

A: Ah. But we haven’t got to those teachings yet. Those are the most challenging ones of all.

J: One step at a time. That’s the best anyone can do.

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