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Book Feature Friday: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of building interfaith bridges of peace so desperately needed in the ongoing aftermath of September 11th, we are reposting this book review from two years ago for Book Feature Friday. As it did for Adam, this beautiful book helped me also to identify questions central to interfaith peacemaking and served as a map for me on the road toward answers. It is as relevant today as it was two years ago, and the issues explored within are both urgent and timeless. – Lindsey Paris-Lopez

Today, 9/11/2012, marks the release of Brian McLaren’s book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. The date, of course, is significant. It’s been 11 years since the tragedy of 9/11 – a tragedy that had religious overtones, but also political and economic overtones as well.

The question I often ask myself about religion is simple: What needs to stay and what needs to go? Jesus might have asked, “What’s the wheat in religion and what’s the chaff we need to burn?” Brian’s book has helped me discern an answer to that question.

Bob Koehler and I interviewed Brian about the book last week on our podcast Voices of Peace. At the end of the show, I asked him about the title of his book. “So, Brian, why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad cross the road?” Brian responded, “To get to the other.”

Of course, one can get to the “other” to do harm or to do good. But the point of Brian’s book is that Christians need to have a strong identity based on the love of Christ. Christ loved the “other.” He loved people as they were and for who they were.

For Christians, that’s the point of our religious identity in the post 9/11 world. Some bloggers are suggesting that Brian is somehow watering down Christ. That Christ would help people, sure, but Christ would also demand that they worship him, or he’d send them to hell. That’s not the Christ I see in the Bible. Brian has helped me see that Christ had no superiority complex. He didn’t get into a rivalry with people by demanding that they worship him; rather, he did things like wash 1st century filthy, nasty, sandal-wearing Mediterranean feet! Jesus came to serve, not to be served! It’s true: Jesus did come to convert us, but he came to convert us away from a life of hell on earth. Away from a life of violence over and against others and into a life of love and compassion that is for the flourishing of others.

Christian tradition has always emphasized the cross, but has frequently gotten the cross wrong by stating that the Father demanded the violent death of the Son. That understanding of the cross, often referred to as penal substitution, is wrong. It’s a myth based on a god of violence; it’s not the Gospel, which is based on the God of love. So, the Father didn’t demand the death of the Son; we humans did! We are the ones who demanded that Jesus be crucified, and we continue to demand crucifixion in various forms of violence today.

The Gospel Jesus proclaimed invites us to stop our hostility and violence against one another. His early followers learned from him that God is love and violence belongs to us alone. Brian claims that the violence we witnessed 11 years ago and the violence that continues to rage leaves us with a choice. “We are increasingly faced with a choice,” writes Brian, “not between kindness and hostility, but between kindness and nonexistence.”

Kindness or nonexistence.

How can we be kind and love the “other” in a post 9/11 world? However Christians answer that question, Jesus was right: Our future depends on love and compassion. Brian is leading the way in helping us answer that question in our 21st century context. And so I hope you read his book!

Brian McLaren, World War I and the New (Old) Heroism

A sea of crosses at the Germany cemetery of Neuville St. Vaast. www.spiegel.de

A sea of crosses at the Germany cemetery of Neuville St. Vaast. www.spiegel.de

On July 29, 1914 the first shots of the Great War were fired from gunboats on the Danube River. Austro-Hungarian artillery shelled Serbia from the river and the war that was supposed to be over in weeks or months lasted four and a half years, nearly wiping out a generation of young men from across Europe. Wikipedia’s WWI entry reports that “The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.” But these are just estimates. The total number of combatants blown to bits or buried in hastily dug graves can only be guessed at.

What led to such wholesale slaughter? Volumes have been written on the political and social upheaval that occurred as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires faced their death throes, but the most eloquent explanation comes from the battlefield itself. The soldier poet Wilfred Owen, killed in WW I at the age of 25, witnessed heroic actions and died heroically himself. But in the poem, “Parable of the Old Man and the Young” Owen warns against romanticizing battlefield deaths. He insists instead that we see the soldier not as a hero but as a victim sacrificed on the altar of pride. Comparing the deaths of the sons of Europe to the biblical story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abram*, he says that Europe is doing what Abram would not do – kill his child.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In Owen’s retelling of Genesis 22, Europe does what Abram refused to do and “half the seed of Europe” is sacrificed, “one by one”. As Brian McLaren explains, Abram’s refusal was riskier and more difficult than we realize because in Abram’s time, to offer one’s son as a sacrifice to the gods was a religious/ patriotic duty. To refuse would be akin to draft evasion or desertion in Owen’s Europe. In his new book, We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren explains Abram’s predicament as he headed up the mountain with the accoutrement of sacrifice:

The sacrifice of children for the well-being and security of adults has a long history among human beings. For example, in the ancient Middle East there was a religion dedicated to an idol named Molech. Faithful adherents would sacrifice infants to Molech every year, a horrible display of twisted religiosity to appease their god’s wrath and earn his favor. In contrast, beginning with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we gradually discover that the true God doesn’t require appeasement at all. In fact, God exemplifies true, loving, mature parenthood… self-giving for the sake of one’s children, not sacrificing children for one’s own selfish interest.

At the recent Colloquium on Violence & Religion Conference in Germany, Simon de Keukelaere from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome called our attention to Owen’s poem and his belief that the fathers of Europe had failed to be heirs to Abram. Owen sees his predicament as identical to Isaac’s as both sons watch the preparations of their fathers for sacrifice. Abram’s refusal to believe that piety and duty required the death of his son was in direct contradiction to the prevailing beliefs of his family, his tribe, and the wider culture. Had Europe’s fathers been willing to “offer the Ram of Pride” instead of their sons, if they had found the courage to sacrifice their own ambitions, wounded egos, and national identities instead of the lives of their children, then like Abram they would have stayed their hand. Such self-sacrifice is what we might call a new heroism that is as old as Abram, a heroism that might have saved the life of Wilfred Owen and millions like him.

As McLaren explains, any war yet to come “will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grandchildren.” Rather than demand that our children make the supreme sacrifice of their lives, might we yet find the courage, like the father of our faith, for the heroism of our own, lesser sacrifice of self-interest? McLaren frames the question this way: do we serve God when we sacrifice our children? On this anniversary of the onset of the Great War, I invite you join me for a conversation with Brian McLaren as we reimagine what it might mean to make a new road by following in the footsteps of Abram.

 

*Though by Genesis 22, Abram was known as Abraham, I chose to follow Wilfred Owen’s use of Abram in his poem.

Live Chat with Brian McLaren

Brian We Make the RoadWe invite you to join our upcoming live chat with Brian McLaren at 3:00 EDT on July 31st! Brian is a highly influential activist and author of many books, including his latest, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation.

This is a unique opportunity to engage with Brian – he has been an inspiration to many of us seeking to reimagine Christianity for the 21st century. We’ll be asking Brian about the nonviolent reading of Scripture and the Cross that he makes possible for us in We Make the Road by Walking

We hope you can join us for this important conversation with your comments and questions. You can register for the chat here.

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry and Choosing Grace

Image from foxnews.com

Image from foxnews.com

Though Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has been argued and decided by the highest court in the land, the battle rages on. Politicians, columnists, editorial staffs and bloggers are furiously duking it out along clearly drawn battle lines. On one side, we have the Champions of Religious Freedom. Squaring off against them are the Defenders of Women’s Rights. The Champions are celebrating a victory for free expression of religion, the Defenders are sounding alarm bells about losses of protections for civil rights.  On the storm tossed surface it can seem as if this is a clear case of irreconcilable differences. But it is worth wondering if the differences are as vast as they seem. Rather than focus on differences, I’d like to search for the possibility of reconciliation.

False Differences

Mimetic theory is my favorite tool for analyzing conflict. It lays bare the dynamic by which we come into conflict and nurture differences in order to feel secure in our identities. As a rivalry escalates, such as this one between the Champions and the Defenders, each side insists on its utter and irreconcilable difference from the other. But on close examination, what emerges is an odd symmetry, what René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, calls mimetic doubling.

What passes notice beneath all the sound and fury is that each side is acting as a model for their rival to imitate. You see, even though the rhetoric proclaims differences, passion and certainty is what each side has in common. The more one side displays its passion through protests, law suits, political platforms, action plans and so forth, the more the other side’s attention is drawn to the issue. Each side is learning from the other that this issue is the critical issue of our time which can brook no compromise. As a rivalry escalates in intensity, such as arriving at the Supreme Court for adjudication, the rivals come to resemble each other more and more. They have imitated (mimetic is the Greek word for imitation) one another’s passion for such a long time that they have become mirror images of one another (that’s the doubling).

Of course, the rivals don’t want us, or themselves for that matter, to see the similarities. But they are very much alike in their insistence on their moral superiority over each other. Each side accuses the other of being irrationally attached to a position based on flawed reasoning. Neither side is willing to consider that their rival is in possession of even a grain of truth or a modicum of rationality. I can predict right now that comments on this article will take issue with my insistence on the importance of this similarity. Readers will dive in to convince me that their side is the right one, that they are really and truly in possession of the truth and occupy the moral high ground. That the difference between them and their rival is undeniable and vitally important to all that is good and just.

But despite this predicable response, I must insist that it is this identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections – all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. Unless we begin from a position that says we refuse to talk with you or compromise. Which, unfortunately, is the position that both the Champions and the Defenders occupy, together.

The Scapegoating Conundrum  

One reason that the rivals refuse to recognize what they have in common is that there is a real difference between them, a difference which is much easier to see than their similarities. Each side has a different scapegoat – each other! Champions of Religious Freedom have no problem recognizing that they are being scapegoated by the Defenders of Women’s Rights. They know that the accusations against them of being narrow minded, misogynistic, irrational and the lot are completely false. And the Defenders of Women’s Rights see the same thing, only in reverse. Defenders know that they are not religious persecutors or unmoved by the moral issues of abortion. Scapegoating the other side is another similarity disguised as a difference.

But it’s a difference with a benefit. Each side gets a boost in their sense of themselves as morally superior over the other exactly because they know that the other side is scapegoating them. Having a shared scapegoat cements their sense of solidarity and of being united for a noble cause. As Girard explains, “What people call the partisan spirit is nothing but choosing the same scapegoat as everybody else.” (Evolution and Conversion, 83)

However, the scapegoating conundrum is that we can always see someone else’s scapegoat, but never our own. That’s because our own scapegoats appear guilty to us even though we can clearly see the innocence of other people’s scapegoats. Once the innocence of a scapegoat is revealed, they no longer can function as our scapegoats. So if the Champions and Defenders could begin to see that their accusations against each other are false ones, then dialogue and reconciliation would become possible.

Choosing Grace

Girard calls the tendency of rivalries to escalate to the point of mimetic doubling the escalation to extremes. It is the point at which the differences between the two sides appear to be extreme but which paradoxically is also the point at which very little separates them. Girard’s insight is that rivals are mistaken to believe that the path to justice goes through their rival. It is a function of the scapegoating phenomenon and its benefits that each side believes that justice requires the defeat of the other. That belief only leads to escalation and the perpetuation of conflict – or peace by the annihilation of one side or the other. The escalation to extremes leads to partisan strife in the political arena and provides the justification for violence in pursuit of our ends.

The fact that each side in this contest between the Champions and the Defenders share a concern for justice and the protection of victims is more important than their disagreement about who the victims are. If the rivals were to actually walk their talk about the concern for justice, then they would be acutely and humbly sensitive to learning about the ways in which they might be guilty of injustice without knowing it. As we grow more and more alike in our passionate intensity for what is good and right, we unwittingly open up the possibility for reconciliation. Girard explains that reconciliation is actually “the reverse of the escalation to extremes. It is a real possibility, but no one wants to see it. The Kingdom is already here but human violence will increasingly mask it. This is the paradox of our world.” (Battling to the End, 46)

I’d like to invite you to signal your willingness to inhabit the Kingdom by resisting the urge to defend your position with a partisan comment on this article. Instead I encourage us all to confess our complicity in scapegoating our rivals, in resisting reconciliation in favor of partisanship, and in nursing our hatred and anger against one another. As inspiration for this Kingdom exercise I’d like to leave you with these words from Brian McLaren in his new book on spiritual formation, We Make the Road By Walking. They come in the context of Brian’s look at the rivalry-infected families of Genesis, including Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.

As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflict. We all experience wrongs, hurts, and injustices through the actions of others – and we inflict wrongs, hurts, and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, and equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the faces of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces, too, reflect the face of God. We come alive as God’s image bearers indeed. (35)

Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education, Part 3

What’s Emerging? A New Theology of Atonement

Cross-FSWhy do violence and religion appear to be such intimate bedfellows? The apparent connection between the two has provided low hanging fruit for atheists and anti-Christian polemicists for centuries. Not only do we fight brutal wars for religious reasons, but religion itself seems to have been born as a practice of ritualized violence. No human culture seems to have emerged without the appearance of religion, and most of these archaic religions involved some form of sacrifice. It seems hard to argue against the atheists who gleefully insist that religion was founded in and continues to perpetuate violence and so humanity is better off without it.

This presents Christian educators with some fairly difficult issues to deal with. As Dave Csinos, founder of the Faith Forward Conference, points out in this video interview, we really do not have a choice when it comes to addressing the relationship of religion to violence with our children.

I don’t think children and youth are as sheltered as we like to think they are and I feel, with a lot of people, the onus is on us in how we present violence in the Bible and in the world. But they are already well aware of violence in the world and if they are people who are part of a Christian tradition I’m sure they are already aware of violence in the Bible as well… [And] there are more children in the world and more youth in the world who by far can’t be sheltered from [violence].

If we are silent in church school classrooms on the subject of violence in the Bible, at the Cross and in our world children and youth could not be faulted if they concluded that either Christianity has nothing useful to say on the subject of violence or that it is so intertwined with violence that those of us who profess to be Christians are silent out of shame. Silence is no longer a viable alternative.

So what’s a Christian educator to do? If you can, get to the 2014 Faith Forward Conference in Nashville, May 19-22 and join other educators actively seeking answers to these questions. You’ll hear some wonderful presentations from folks doing important work in the field of emerging theology and Christian education today, such as Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Romal Tune, Mark Yaconelli, Melvin Bray, Andrew Root, Ivy Beckwith – check out the entire list of speakers here and here’s the registration info. I hope to see you there!

In my presentation, I’ll be suggesting that one big task facing us is to get our own theology of the Cross straight because I’m guessing that those of you who avoid discussing the violence of the Cross do so for a very good reason – you haven’t found an interpretation that doesn’t blame God for it. From the expulsion of Adam and Eve through the Cross and on to Judgment Day, God’s purposes seem tangled up with God’s violence. The most common understanding of the saving power of the cross still attributes the violence we see there as a divine necessity. Sorting that out from Jesus’ teaching that God is love, in whom there is no darkness at all, has escaped most of our theologies.

An Emerging Understanding of Human Violence

Using the insights of René Girard’s mimetic theory, theologians like Brian McLaren and James Alison are pointing out that if we look at the Cross and see evidence of God’s violence there, we have things backwards. Mimetic theory is an anthropological theory of human violence and it reveals that the violence at the Cross can be explained entirely in human terms. The Cross is, in a very real sense, not unique at all. These theologians understand what happened to Jesus as an instance of how we have habitually scapegoated innocent victims in order to keep and maintain the peace in our communities: we create peace through violence.

Atonement is the goal of a community at odds with itself, riven with conflict, threatened by its own violence. A community in conflict seeks to heal the divide, to find a way to reconcile and achieve unity again, at-one-ment. Habitually humans have achieved reconciliation over against a victim, a practice we have come to call scapegoating. By expelling, demonizing, or killing a scapegoat whom all can agree is guilty of the discord threatening our community, we achieve atonement through violence. What is emerging in atonement theology today is the understanding that God does things differently. God reconciles humanity through enduring our violence, even unto death. Rather than inflict divine violence on his Son, God suffers our violence and forgives us for it.

Human and Divine Atonement in the Gospels

In the Gospel of John, Jesus pointedly contrasts human and divine ways of atonement when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14:27) What passes our notice is that Jesus is not questioning the goal of peace, which is rarely in dispute, even among warring enemies. Human beings have a rather long and shameful history of killing each other in the name of peace. What should demand our attention is the contrast Jesus was drawing between two different methods to achieve the goal of peace. Our word “method” comes from the Greek words meta and hodos, literally “after a way” or “pursuing a way.” Christianity is called the hodos, the Way, in the Acts of the Apostles. Which is to say that there is a choice between this way or that way. Jesus came to shift our reliance from the world’s way of achieving peace to his way. The Christian call is to renounce the world’s way and follow Jesus’ way instead.

Caiaphas famously described the world’s way. The Gospel writer has given us Caiaphas’ message to the ruling Council not because his way of thinking was unusual, but because how he wants the Council to respond to the rabble rouser Jesus is normative. In other words, Caiaphas represented the normal human way of keeping the peace when he said: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:49-50) Of course, we do understand it. Caiaphas is describing the world’s way of creating peace by sacrificing and scapegoating victims – the one for the many. Yet we cast Caiaphas as the bad guy in this story so we can star opposite him as the good guys who would never have advocated killing the Son of God. Clinging to our sense of our own goodness prevents us from seeing that scapegoating is not the way that only some of us keep and maintain the peace. It is the way of all of humanity, good and bad alike, the sin that Jesus died to forgive.

Of course, this is a difficult truth, something we resist knowing. Such resistance is understandable, even forgivable, for it is painful to accept that we are not as good as we think we are. It may be that the realization that is now emerging, that we are no different than the crowd that cheered Jesus’ death, is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) If we can bear it now, it will be because the Spirit of truth has at last broken open our hardened hearts so that we can receive bigger, more forgiving hearts.

Emerging Questions for Christian Formation

What might these new hearts be capable of? What mimetic theory reveals is that there are two ways of forming unity and identity available to humanity and that what they have in common is that they both depend on a victim. It is simply the perspective on the victim that is different. With hardened hearts, we form our unity according to the sacrificial model, in which we shame and ostracize some “other” who is not us in order to create solidarity. Or as our hearts break open we shift our perspective – or rather we allow our perspective to be shifted by a God who occupies the place of shame for us such that we begin to draw our identity from the Risen and Forgiving Victim in our midst. Rather than shame, expel, demonize and exclude scapegoated victims in order to be reconciled, we find ourselves being let go from that pattern and freed for a new unity which does not require scapegoats at all.

Before we venture into redesigning Christian education curricula, we need to reimagine the central Christian claim that Christ died to save us from our sins. We need to be able to answer the question James Alison poses:

How might it be possible to imagine Jesus going up to his death as being quite simply an act of generosity from God who knows no violence toward us at all? What is the shape of that self-giving toward us in our violence?*

How to invite our children into an experience of the saving love of our God is the task facing Christian educators today. In the next and final post in this series, I will look at the issue of Biblical interpretation and the new story of the relationship of God to violence that is emerging today.

 


*James Alison created an introduction to Christianity for adults, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice (produced by the Raven Foundation) to engage us in exactly these questions. Brian McLaren says: “This course is what so many of us have been waiting for: a resource for discovering anew the total nonviolence of God and what that means for how we read the Bible and interpret the Cross. Before you design your next children’s or youth program, before you prepare another sermon series, before you give up or give in or check out or fade away… invest a few hours in ‘Jesus the Forgiving Victim’ and watch your faith be deeply renewed.”


Part 1 of the series

Part 2 of the series

Part 4 of the series

Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education

Part 1:  Just what is emerging?

Holy Spirit Fire, John the Baptist Artworks

Holy Spirit Fire, John the Baptist Artworks

There’s a lot of talk about “emergent church” these days. But just what is emerging? Phyllis Tickle, popular author and founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, says we are entering the age of the Spirit, and I agree. But where is the Spirit leading us? Brian McLaren, a leading voice in the emergent church movement, calls it “A New Kind of Christianity.” But what is this new Christianity all about? Having any chance of living the “new Christianity” requires at the very least a tentative definition. Truthfully, tentative is the best we can ever do, because what we think we know will change as we attempt to live it.

The need for some tentative understanding of what is emerging is especially pressing in the field of Christian education. As Christianity changes, it only makes sense that Christian education would change as well. But before new curricula and teaching methods can be created, we need to understand what it is we are trying to share in our classrooms. In other words, we need to be able to explain something of what this “new kind of Christianity” is, how it differs from what has come before, and why that difference is relevant to today. Christian educator Dave Csinos observes that as content shifts, no doubt the form will shift as well, testing the limits of the big box, one size fits all, denominational model for church school curricula that dominates the market today. (You can watch my entire conversation with Dave about current trends in Christian education here.)

To explore the new possibilities emerging in Christian Education, Dave Csinos and Brian McLaren launched the Faith Forward Conference in 2012 (originally called Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity), the second of which will be held May 19-22, 2014, in Nashville, TN. Their goal is to bring “together children’s and youth ministry leaders for collaboration, resourcing, and inspiration toward innovative theology and practice.” Here’s how Dave and Brian see the problem facing Christian education today:

Something is happening in the church. A new kind of Christianity is taking root and growing across the globe. New forms of ministry, worship, and community are emerging. Questions are being asked. And change is happening.

But amidst these changes and shifts, children and youth are being left behind. Innovative approaches to ministry with adults are emerging around the world, but little critical reflection and attention has been given to how to nurture young people within a new kind of Christianity.

What struck me at the first Faith Forward conference in 2012 was how much difficulty Christian educators were having in articulating the tenets of new Christianity. We knew things were changing, that the Spirit was blowing through our communities almost at a gale force, but we lacked a language to name the shape of the new call and so were, needless to say, at a loss as to how to teach it. It’s exactly that difficulty that Dave and Brian hope to address at this gathering. I encourage you to watch this video in which they discuss their hopes for the upcoming conference. At one point Brian says that we need a better theology and Dave says we need to tell better stories – I agree! I believe that the Spirit moving through Christianity today is prompting a re-interpretation, in other words, a new story to be told about two central components of Christianity: why it took the cross to save us (atonement theology) and Biblical interpretation.

To put it simply, I believe the Spirit is moving us to question whether God is responsible for or approves of the violence at the Cross, in Scriptures and in our world. Because from the expulsion of Adam and Eve through to the Cross and on to Judgment Day, we in the West since the time of Anselm have woven a story of salvation history that has God all tangled up with violence. Sorting divine violence out from Jesus’ teaching that God is love, in whom there is no darkness at all, has eluded most of our theologies, and our politics as well.

The good news (pun intended!) is that there are good answers to these questions, ones that make sense of the violence at the Cross and in the Bible without blaming God for it. The answers are being worked out by a cadre of theologians using the insights of mimetic theory, which is a theory of human violence, to bring new understanding to orthodox Christian teachings. In the coming weeks, I’ll present the ABC’s of this old-yet-new theology ahead of the Faith Forward conference on May 20-22. If you’d like to get a jump start, you can listen to this podcast at Homebrewed Christianity of Brian McLaren and James Alison, two of those theologians working with mimetic theory today. It was recorded at the 2013 conference of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), an annual gathering of academic researchers using mimetic theory in their disciplines. Here are two excerpts from the video:

Brian McLaren: “… the work of mimetic theory, and the work of people like you all in this room, I think is profoundly important because there are not many ways out of the violence in the Bible. I’m not aware of any ways out of it that solves any of the problems that mimetic theory does.”

James Alison: “If, in the objective model, Jesus did something like an offstage, backroom deal with the Father of some sort in order to pay for our sins and then left us with morals, then we really are stuck… I think it’s probably better to be atheist than it is to be stuck with those gods. The real question is, ‘How might it be possible to imagine Jesus going up to his death as being quite simply an act of generosity from God who knows no violence toward us at all? What is the shape of that self-giving toward us in our violence?’”

I hope you will follow along with this series and engage on the Raven Foundation Facebook page with others like yourself who are working through these questions not only for the sake of their own faith, but in order to be better able to pass on the faith to the next generation.

Part 2 of the series

Part 3 of the series

Part 4 of the series

Mimetic Reflections on Syria

This article appeared as part of the Mimetic Monday series on the Patheos.com Faith Forward blog.

obama assad

Image from nydailynews.com

As the world wrestles with how to respond to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, we thought we’d offer you some mimetic reflections on the use of violence. Mimetic theory is an anthropological theory of human violence that has theological implications. The reflections in this article are from friends of ours who are guided by the mimetic insight about violence in their work as preachers, teachers, bloggers, film producers, activists and civilian peacekeepers.

What is the mimetic insight about violence? What you will observe in their comments and prayers are two basic insights: (1) that violence creates more violence as adversaries become mirror images or doubles of each other and (2) Jesus came to shake our faith in violence as a means to achieve peace. Jesus knew that we have persistently and to our own detriment relied on violence to keep the peace, and that in so doing good people lose our claim to being any better than our adversaries.

Listen to his words to his frightened disciples who feared reprisals from the Roman soldiers, the peacekeepers of the day: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) When Jesus says “I do not give to you as the world gives” he is offering a critical, often overlooked, distinction between two methods of achieving peace. Jesus knows that we rely on violence because it works – not always, not perfectly, and not without cost, but violence has its own pitiless efficacy which we would be foolish not to acknowledge. Yet Jesus’ distinction begs the question we should be asking ourselves today: Can we take this particular moment in time to imagine our world on the inside of Jesus’ promise of peace with a new foundation, one built on mercy and self-giving love?

We’d like to thank our friends Ann Frisch, Michael Hardin, Mary Gay McKinney, Brian McLaren, Kevin Miller and Susan Wright for helping us imagine our way into Jesus’ promise. We hope you will join us at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement for our weekly conversations about human violence and the divine promise of peace. This Thursday we will be joined by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein, the author of the comprehensive website Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

 

The Seed of Desire

Kevin Miller

Success breeds imitation. As Walter Wink says, “The fact that something works reinforces its use the next time.” Therefore, if America’s military intervention in Syria succeeds at all in toppling the Assad regime or deterring it from launching further chemical attacks against its citizens, it will plant a seed of desire in the hearts of those on the receiving end. Having witnessed the effectiveness of America’s military might, those sympathetic to Assad—as well as those who oppose him—will seek to acquire and employ the very weapons used against them. Consequently, rather than relax tensions in the region, America’s actions will exacerbate them instead by hardening their enemy’s resolve and inadvertently kicking off a regional arms race. We’ve seen this cycle repeated over and over again in conflicts throughout the Middle East and around the globe. Surely we realize the futility of such actions by now.

If President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry truly want to help bring an end to the conflict in Syria, rather than model the imposition of national will through superior firepower (which is the very principle they claim to oppose in the Assad regime), they should seek out a response that kicks off a chain reaction of imitation in the opposite direction. The first step toward such an approach is to refuse to imitate the violence of their enemies. The second step is to pursue a course of action that not only reveals the full horror of the regime’s actions to the world but also humanizes the victims to the point that the Assad regime is shamed into abandoning such tactics and demonstrating they aren’t nearly as inhuman as their actions would lead us to believe. Such an approach would not only enable America to legitimately reclaim the moral high ground, it would set off a new competition among other nations eager to establish their own worthiness to claim that position for themselves. 

Kevin Miller is the producer of numerous films, including Hellbound?, and he blogs for Patheos at Hellbound?: Exploring Faith and Film, Good and Evil

 

A Mimetic Theory Look at the Syrian Crisis

Susan Wright

No one wants Syria to be the new Iraq. But how are we to prevent it?  Mimetic Theory, by exposing the unconscious social dynamics, which turn peaceful citizens into a single population galvanized for war, may provide a new found self-awareness on the part of politicians and the American people which could prevent a repetition of the past.

How many of us, looking back on the Iraq War, felt like the morning after, waking up with a really nasty hangover, horrified and dumfounded by what we had done in our drunken state? What were we thinking when we invaded Iraq?  We can blame the Bush Administration for distorting the facts, for manipulating public perception by linking Iraq with 9/11, knowing all along that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein the terrorists responsible. But that’s only half the story.  It shouldn’t have been that easy to fool the entire country, and the UK too…

It’s important that we draw the parallels between Syria and Iraq.  We’re asking the right questions and expressing necessary doubts.  But beware. Our opportunity to debate soberly in the full light of day, an appropriate response to the suffering of the Syrian people, the real victims in this, may disappear at any moment just as it did prior to the Iraq invasion.  The political pressures staking Obama’s reputation on his ability to gather support at home and abroad may unintentionally trigger the same mechanism, a flip of the switch in the American psyche, which will render true debate, contrary voices, and massive anti-war demonstrations inoperable.  Once the single mind of the crowd and it’s thinly veiled rationale for war is engaged, rationality no longer holds sway.  We’ve done it before.  The moment we transferred the trauma of 9/11 onto Iraq, convincing ourselves that Saddam Hussein was to blame, that moment was one of no return.

We’re not there yet, so be vigilant. Look for manipulative language lumping Syria and Al Qaeda in the same sentence. Beware of promises that military action will be short and sweet. Watch for impatience with UN investigators and proceedings. Don’t trust US intelligence claiming independent proof supporting the administration’s allegations. Keep watch over your own emotional register.  Don’t let fear get an inside line. Participate in a prayer vigil as possibly the best way to interrupt those unconscious social dynamics.

We don’t have to wake up a year from now with a hangover, wondering how a “limited military action” escalated into a full-scale war.

Susan Wright lives in Syracuse, N.Y. where she writes and teaches, combining her interests in theology, mimetic theory, and continental philosophy. She blogs at NoOutcasts.org

 

Civil Society Provides Common Ground in Syria

Ann Frisch

While the use of chemical weapons is deplorable, any action must be viewed through the lens of what will help lead to a just and lasting peace: Syrians must decide Syria’s future.

At this very moment, courageous Syrian women and men are working for a peaceful settlement. They are mostly ignored by the world. They are doing peacebuilding and reconciliation work. They are establishing local ceasefire zones. While differing in viewpoints they share a commitment to a peaceful, pluralistic and democratic Syria.

The Syrians working nonviolently for a sustainable Syria deserve our support, not a fragmented, violent opposition who are committing war crimes.  These civil society actors, a substantial number of whom are women, provide the common ground for a peaceful transition.   They need diplomatic and financial support.  Their leadership needs to be promoted in the international initiatives including Geneva II.  Chairs at negotiating tables should not be reserved exclusively for men with guns.

On the international level President Obama and other leaders can decrease the violence to allow civil society to do their work.  They can help stop the flow of weapons.  The US can start by withdrawing our support for armed actors and engaging Russia to follow suit.  The two nations could exert tremendous pressure on their respective allies to stop supplying weapons.  They could jointly offer a Security Council resolution sanctioning any nation supplying arms to any group in Syria.

Likewise, the US and Russia could lead the way in establishing a ceasefire.  They could create an opening for the new leadership in Iran to play a constructive role.

Unarmed civilian peacekeepers could be deployed to protect civilians and support Syrian civil society in preventing violence and building peace from the ground up.  Such nonviolent peacekeepers would come from international civil society and thus not represent national or multi-national interests.  Indeed, unarmed civilian peacekeepers are working effectively today in such places as the Mindanao region of the Philippines, South Sudan and Colombia.

Ann Frisch is Senior Adviser and Returned Peacekeeper for Nonviolent Peaceforce

 

An Open Letter to President Barak Obama

Michael Hardin

August 31, 2013

 Dear Mr. President,about the motives and means of who was behind this attack. It is not clear to me, nor was it clear to the British Parliament that military action is required at this point. I confess that I do not have the access you do to intelligence but from non mainstream news reports it would appear that there is not “actionable” intelligence that is unequivocal in nature.

Inasmuch as you have a Christian background, I urge you to reconsider your theological heritage and remember that just two days ago you spoke about the legacy of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firmly against the war in Viet Nam and we know how that ended. Dr. King chose to follow in the steps, not of R. Niebuhr, but of the Prince of Peace, Jesus.

You may, as you said in your Nobel Prize speech feel that war is a legitimate instrument. However, you have been misled both by Niebuhrian ethics as well as the justification for the use of violence in certain liberation theologies. One searches the Gospels in vain for justification of war, indeed one searches the New Testament in vain for the use of violence as a tool in the Kingdom of God. As a Christian brother I urge you to rethink your faith and heritage. I beg you to read the Sermon on the Mount again tonight. I ask you to consider how many times Jesus called for peacemaking and how peacemakers will be called ‘the children of God.’ I urge you as a citizen of these United States not to use the US military to achieve questionable goals that have been initiated by the neo-con community.

Please pray about this. I guarantee your heavenly Father will not in any way authorize you to pull the trigger (unlike your predecessor who heard voices). Jesus is the Lord.

Sincerely Yours,

Michael Hardin

Like you and the world I was shocked at the use of chemical weapons in Syria this week. Like you, Secretary of State John Kerry and others in your administration, I sensed that a corner had been turned that a line had been crossed. However as an average ordinary citizen I am concerned about the reports that send conflicting information about the motives and means of who was behind this attack. It is not clear to me, nor was it clear to the British Parliament that military action is required at this point. I confess that I do not have the access you do to intelligence but from non-mainstream news reports it would appear that there is not “actionable” intelligence that is unequivocal in nature.

Inasmuch as you have a Christian background, I urge you to reconsider your theological heritage and remember that just two days ago you spoke about the legacy of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firmly against the war in Viet Nam and we know how that ended. Dr. King chose to follow in the steps, not of the Niebuhrs, but of the Prince of Peace, Jesus.

You may, as you said in your Nobel Prize speech, feel that war is a legitimate instrument. However, you have been misled both by Niebuhrian ethics as well as the justification for the use of violence in certain liberation theologies. One searches the Gospels in vain for justification of war; indeed one searches the New Testament in vain for the use of violence as a tool in the Kingdom of God. As a Christian brother I urge you to rethink your faith and heritage. I beg you to read the Sermon on the Mount again tonight. I ask you to consider how many times Jesus called for peacemaking and how peacemakers will be called ‘the children of God.’ I urge you as a citizen of these United States not to use the US military to achieve questionable goals that have been initiated by the neo-con community.

Please pray about this. I guarantee your heavenly Father will not in any way authorize you to pull the trigger (unlike your predecessor who heard voices). Jesus is the Lord.

Sincerely Yours,

Michael Hardin

Lancaster, PA

Michael Hardin is the co-founder of Preaching Peace and is the author or editor of numerous books and videos, including The Jesus Driven Life, Striken by God?: Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, Peace Be With You, and Compassionate Eschatology.

 

On the Road to Damascus

Mary Gay McKinney

 As Congress debates a military intervention, we must engage our moral imaginations. A host of effective options lie between doing nothing and firing Cruise missiles.  The methods are there.  The people are ready.  Will there be the political courage to invoke them?

As we ponder the question of whether and what kind of violence to add to the unfolding horror in Syria, scripture holds light and wisdom.  Paul, being as righteous as he knew how to be, went to Damascus to destroy the followers of Jesus.  This movement could be called an emerging mimetic double for Judaism as Paul understood it.  On the road to Damascus Jesus intervened with questions.  Jesus had taken a side, based not upon right or wrong, but upon addressing an author of the violence unfolding and upon its result.

Now we have another well-meaning individual, being as righteous as he knows how to be, planning a trip to Syria.  In the case of this traveler, our President, he has already departed from even the most humanly righteous model, which would be to go there himself.  He plans to send messengers, another Biblical method, but not verbal messengers.  He wants to send his message with bombs, and perhaps military men and women to follow.

Just as Jesus undoubled Paul from his rivalry with the followers of Jesus, Syria needs an undoubler, first, to stand between Presidents Obama and Assad.  What might happen if they met in binding arbitration answering each other’s questions, at a neutral location such as Geneva, Switzerland?  Just the two of them, their translators and religious advisors could be in the room, until they emerge with a plan for all.  Subsequent to this conference would be meetings between President Assad and his mimetic doubles, his rivals within his own country.  Existing in Syria are multiple doublings created over the years by multiple factors.  It is like chess on a three dimensional board.  As challenging as it is for one doublet to sit town, it is next to impossible for multiple doublets, intertwined like a tangled chain, to find a way to the conversations desperately needed.

The remaining non-negotiable step that might make the impossible possible is that any of the negotiating parties must be accompanied and advised by the best, deepest, strongest and least violent of their holy men and women who can bring new truth and new light from the Koran and the Bible.

Mary Gay McKinney is pastor of Open Prairie United Church of Christ in Princeton, Illinois and an active participant in Theology and Peace. Mary is the mother of Sgt. Will McKinney who was wounded in Afghanistan.

Praying for a Creative Alternative

Brian McLaren

I joined many others in praying for the situation in Syria last Saturday because I think it’s time we realize that Dr. King was right: we can’t cure violence with violence.

Mirroring violent behavior sets vicious cycles of offense and revenge in motion. We need a more creative response – not passivity, not inaction, but something more creative and constructive than “punishing” or “retaliating” or trying to cure violence with violence.

What might those more creative and constructive alternatives be? Maybe a day of prayer with fasting will prepare us to imagine them. Here’s what others are saying:
Pope Francis
Evangelical leaders

Here’s a prayer that expresses what is on my heart (feel free to use or adapt as is helpful):

Living God, our world is broken-hearted by the atrocity of chemical weapons being used in Syria, killing children, women, and men indiscriminately. And our hearts grieve no less for the many tens of thousands killed and millions displaced by the civil war there.

We pray for peace, God of peace: not just the cessation of conflict, but a new day of reconciliation, civility, and collaboration for the common good … in the Middle East, and around the world.

We also pray for the United States, whose leaders are contemplating military strikes in retaliation for the atrocity, to punish those who ordered it, and to deter those who might plan similar atrocities in the future. We acknowledge that our leaders are trying to do what is needed and right, based on the understanding they have. But on this day, as millions of us around the world pray, we ask for greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater foresight, so that we can find new, better, and non-violent ways to achieve lasting and profound peace.

We know from bitter experience that “our” violence promises to end “their” violence, but in the end, it only intensifies vicious cycles of offense and revenge. We also know from bitter experience that inaction and passivity also aid and abet evil. So on this day, we seek your wisdom, for a better way forward … a new way that we do not yet see.

We Americans sense that our nation is on the verge of rethinking its role in the world. In this moment of rethinking, we also pray for guidance. Help us learn from past mistakes, and help us imagine better possibilities for the future. In this time of political tension and turmoil – not only between, but within our political parties – may your Spirit move like the wind and give us a fresh vision of what can be, so that we do not repeat old, tired, and destructive cycles of what has been. May the wisdom and ways of Jesus, upon whom your Spirit descended like a dove, guide us now – to a wise and responsible role as good neighbors in our world. Amen.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. You can follow him at brianmclaren.net and at his Patheos blog.

The Nonviolent Atonement: Brian McLaren and James Alison on Violence, God, and Mimetic Theory

brian and james

Brian McLaren and James Alison
Courtesy of the COV&R Facebook Page

I’ve been excited to tell you this ever since July… The much anticipated conversation between Brian McLaren and James Alison has been posted! You can listen to the podcast over at Homebrewed Christianity by clicking here. I first need to point out that this recording never would have happened without Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity. At the last minute we were scrambling to find a way to record the live Internet broadcast of the discussion. Brian called up his friend Tripp who graciously dropped what he was doing to record the conversation from his home-base. And so Brian, James, Raven, and the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) are all extremely grateful to Tripp for recording the conversation and to Bo for editing it and introducing it in the podcast. A transcript of the conversation is now available.

The conversation took place at the aforementioned COV&R conference held at Northern Iowa University back in July. Just for clarification, in his introduction Bo mistakenly states that it took place at the Wild Goose Festival. This is an understandable mistake. James and Brian both attended Wild Goose, so it could have happened there, but it actually took place at COV&R.

Here are some observations about the conversation that I’d like to make:

  1. James Alison is awesome.
  2. Brian McLaren is awesome.
  3. James Alison + Brian McLaren = A boatload of awesomeness.

I know. I know. Those three points are highly technical and difficult to understand, but, alas, I can’t think of a better way to describe this conversation. I downloaded the podcast yesterday and have listened to it twice. There are some minor problems with the audio that go away pretty quickly, so don’t let them distract you from this amazing conversation about the impact mimetic theory has on transforming our understanding of God, the Bible, and the Atonement from violence to nonviolence. One of the most important things I heard from Brian is that:

… the work of mimetic theory, and the work of people like you all in this room, I think is profoundly important because there are not many ways out of the violence in the Bible. I’m not aware of any ways out of it that solves any of the problems that mimetic theory does.

One of the most important things I heard from James about the Atonement is:

If, in the objective model, Jesus did something like an offstage, backroom deal with the Father of some sort in order to pay for our sins and then left us with morals, then we really are stuck…I think it’s probably better to be atheist than it is to be stuck with those gods. The real question is, “How might it be possible to imagine Jesus going up to his death as being quite simply an act of generosity from God who knows no violence toward us at all? What is the shape of that self-giving toward us in our violence?

Those are the important questions you will hear James, Brian, and participants at the COV&R conference discuss in this podcast. So, click here to listen to the conversation at Homebrewed Christianity, then pull up a chair, grab some coffee, and enjoy the discussion between two of the most important thinkers bringing mimetic theory and a nonviolent understanding of the Atonement together. If you would prefer to read through the discussion, here is a transcript of the conversation.

Addicted to Hate: Guns and Other Stuff

My readers in Europe see one thing more clearly than we in the States do – that Americans have a gun obsession. No matter your position on gun ownership or gun control, guns are larger than life. Either they are necessary and good, delivering protection from forces of evil that can be arrayed against you without warning, or they are evil itself, the cause of all that we need protection from. I am not writing to position myself on one side of the gun debate in order to persuade you to join me in uniting against the other side. I am writing to persuade you to see that both sides are barely distinguishable from each other. Despite their attempts to establish their differences from their opponents using the starkest language of good vs. evil, for both sides, guns possess an almost totemic power to situate evil in someone or something that is nothing like us.

I am talking here about what author and theologian Brian McLaren calls hostile identities. Relying on mimetic theory in his most recent book, McLaren illuminates a fundamental human reality: our identities are formed in relationship with others. We do not spring from the womb as fully formed human beings but go through an extended maturation process in which parents, family, friends and the wider culture induct us into a particular identity rooted in time and place. If I were born, say, a few centuries ago or a few continents away, it is safe to say that I would be a different person than the one I am today. This is not rocket science, but what often escapes our attention is that while we receive identities from others we can also secure or solidify our identities against others. In particular, to know we are good people, worthy of love and friendship and membership in our communities, we use evil people to compare ourselves to. It’s reassuring to locate evil in another culture, another religion, another political party or, as is our topic for today, in the other side of the gun debate. Finding evil somewhere completely outside of who I believe I am allows for a simple, comforting logic: if those guys are evil, and I am not those guys then who could argue that I must be good! That is what McLaren means by a hostile identity – our goodness depends on hating another.

Hostile identities galvanize around objects that we can argue over, but the object itself is barely relevant. Once an object like gun ownership has triggered the momentum of hostile identities, the hostility escalates and energizes each side equally. When this happens, the triggering object recedes further and further from view until it is a speck on the horizon of the debate. All that’s left is a red-faced anger that thrives on hurling accusations of evil against the other, while the issue itself is never discussed let alone resolved. When I take up an issue like this one, my aim is always to try to wean both sides away from their shared addiction to hostility. Being gripped at the level of identity by hostility makes them mirror images of each other and prevents them from achieving what both sides say they want: in this case, a sane and safe gun policy.

You can make the same argument about hostile identity over any number of issues today. Wherever “guns” appear in this article, substitute taxes, abortion, marriage rights, education policy, urban poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran – plop in the issue that gets your blood boiling and you have the same dynamic – the issue will never be addressed until both sides stop using it as a foil to establish their own goodness over and against the opposition. To be authentically good we cannot use the shortcut of hostility. Authentic goodness emerges when I am willing to risk the possibility that I might be wrong, that my opponent might have something valuable to say, and that the issue we are all shouting about might be more important than my need to bolster my fragile sense of self-worth. Authentic goodness requires kindness towards the other not hostility, hospitality toward adversaries not exclusion, and sincere questions not close-minded accusations.

Chicago, the big city near my home, could provide an excellent test case for the practice of authentic goodness. The unfortunate truth is that our murder rate stands at 400 this year, up 25% from last year. And since 2001, we have logged more than 5,000 gun related-deaths. Many in Chicago have found the comparison to a war zone sobering: in the same 11 years since 2001, there were 2,000 military deaths in Afghanistan, 40% of Chicago’s total.  It is past time for Americans in Chicago and across the nation to honestly address not only gun policy, but poverty, racism, welfare, education, housing – all interrelated issues that we falsely isolate so that we can pepper our public landscape with reasons to hate one another. Americans want to claim the mantle of goodness on the world stage – let’s do it at home first. There’s plenty to work on here.

TheWordoftheLordtoGOP_cvr

The Word of the Lord to Republicans: A Review

When was the last time you took a word of advice from someone? I tend to get a bit prickly when, for example, my husband dares to suggest I stand a bit further from the ball on my tee shot or my sister reminds me that I haven’t called Mom and Dad lately. I immediately get defensive, and my mind races for a justifying explanation that preserves my tidy little story about myself as someone who is wise and perfect, a dispenser of golf and relationship advice, not in need of any. And this is how I react to gentle, helpful advice coming from people who love me! Imagine if I thought the advice was coming from a hostile source – I’d probably counter with a big helping of “advice” for them to chew on.

I bring this up because I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s clever e-book, The Word of the Lord to Republicans, and the issue of how we give and take helpful criticism is a theme of this book and its companion, The Word of the Lord to Democrats (which I reviewed here). I was a bit wary of reading Republicans because, as I said, I think of myself as an advice giver, and having strong Democratic leanings, I feared I would feel a bit too closely aligned with God’s dim view of the opposing party for my own good. One bit of advice I always find hard to take is that I need to listen more openly to those who disagree with me – hey, who doesn’t have trouble with that one. So I read the book on the alert for any hint of smug self-satisfaction as the Lord pointed out to Republicans all their many failings through his chosen emissary, a Republican soy-bean farmer from Ohio named Fred Walters who is so out of touch with contemporary culture that he wouldn’t know the internet from a hair net.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy the Lord’s critique of the Republican Party as much as I would have liked because I felt called to account as well. At one point someone asks Fred why, if he is such a devout Republican, he is not bringing the word of the Lord to Democrats instead. Here’s Fred’s answer, “I suppose the Republicans wouldn’t listen if the Lord sent a Democrat, just like Democrats wouldn’t listen if the Lord sent a Republican.” And I suppose Fred is right. It’s hard to listen to critiques, no matter how sound and helpful they are, if they are coming from someone who wants to defeat you in the next election. They certainly don’t have your best interests at heart so you’d be wise to think that what they are saying is meant to be destructive, not constructive, no matter how they sugar coat it. And if the critique is coming loaded with anger and delivered in a scream, a prickly response would be natural.

But is Fred right? Are Republicans any more likely to listen to a fellow Republican? Or more generally, are we more likely to take advice from someone within our own group? As Fred explains that the Lord chose him to speak to Republicans because he (Fred) was one, someone quips, “You probably won’t be for long!… They’ll kick you out if you don’t stick with the party line.” That’s how it works, isn’t it? If you criticize your family, your co-workers, your town, your church, your party, your nation – whatever group it is, they get prickly. The group closes rank to defend themselves against your criticism. They polish up their tidy little story about how right, good, noble or just they are and paint you as the enemy within who must be eradicated for the good of the group. Anyone who critiques from within runs the risk of being expelled and so only the crazies or the prophets dare to try.

So if we won’t listen to critique from without or from within, how can we receive advice at all? I’m always amazed by how big the self-help section in bookstores is. We seem to realize we are in need of advice, that we aren’t perfect, that there’s room from improvement. So what explains the defensiveness? It might be that it’s okay for me to self-identify as needing help. After all, admitting you need help is the sign of a good person! But if you, whoever you are, friend or foe, suggest I might need a bit of self-improvement, well that means I’m not quite as good as I thought I was. Which is hard to swallow.

One aim Brian McLaren seems to have with both these books is to get both parties to loosen up a little bit and let go of needing to have all the answers all the time. In other words, he’s hoping he can nudge us out of wanting to have an exclusive hold on goodness. It’s only then, when we relax about needing to be good, that we will be able to receive advice from within and even accept critiques from without. After delivering the word of Lord to Republicans, Fred’s wife asks him if he learned anything from his prophetic journey, and he tells her: “I realized that some Republicans are very different from what I expected, worse than I thought, and some Democrats aren’t as bad as I thought.” The theme of the book might be this: When we learn what Fred learned and are able to add, “And I’m not as good as I thought I was,” maybe we’ll be able to give and receive advice more constructively. It takes a brave man to dare to hope for something like that during a hostile election season. But I applaud Brian McLaren for his daring and I encourage Republicans to read this short e-book with their defenses down. If you find it hard to do, well, this prickly pear will understand.