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We Do Not Hit!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Children are like sponges, always soaking up the world around them. Every little detail is noticed, especially when you least expect it. I have noticed this, for better or worse, with my daughter. From little mannerisms, to phrases of speech, my daughter imitates “mommy” and “daddy” more than anyone else in her life. This forces me to be on top of my game at all times—always vigilant so as to not model some horrific behavior that will only bring trouble for her. The interaction I witnessed between a mother and child today tells me not everyone is this aware of the impact their behavior will have on their children’s.

The topic of my last entry was on positive mimesis—this one will cover the negative side of imitation.

This particular encounter played out as follows:

A 3-year-old girl begins to “act out” and in doing so, hits her mother across the face. Her mother grabs the little girl’s wrist and smacks her on the hand—while at the same time saying “we do not hit!”

(While the negative effects of spanking [euphemism for hitting] are not the primary topic of this article, I would like to mention how opposed I am to the practice. Please look up as much data as you can prior to deciding “to spank or not to spank.”)

In the scenario above, the mother is not in fact teaching her child not to hit. Instead, she is teaching her child two things—both unintentional consequences of her actions. First, she is modeling for the child “how” to hit others. In this instance, she showed how to grab someone’s wrist, control it, and smack the back of the hand. Second, she is displaying her brute, physical force; now modeling “when” to hit someone. When her child gets bigger and is strong enough to control someone who is smaller and probably younger, she will more than likely use her own physical force to control and hit that smaller and younger person. More than likely, this will be a younger sibling and/or peer at school. The little girl may have heard, “We do not hit”; but she will more than likely copy her mother and do so anyway.

Rene Girard, in The One Whom Scandal Comes, writes:

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.”

In this particular case, the mother probably viewed her 3 year-old’s violence as “bad” because it was the “original” act of aggression. The mother’s violence—her “eye for an eye”—was good because it would “teach her daughter a lesson”. The reality, however, is that the 3 year-old girl learned the act of hitting from somewhere…and, more often than not, it is from one or both parents. So, who is responsible for the first stone, the child or the parent? Who will be responsible when the child copies her mother while at school, the child or the parent? Who is responsible when two siblings hit each other, the children or the parents who “spank” them for it?

There may not always be a direct correlation, but if I may use one piece of anecdotal evidence—my daughter, who is not spanked, never uses violence when dealing with adults, peers, or those younger than her. As much as I notice her imitation of me, I cannot help but think if I hit her in order to “teach her a lesson”; she would also imitate that at some point. I have no evidence to believe otherwise.

Where I used to see the most extreme examples this type of negative mimesis is when I worked in youth group homes. Part of my job was to monitor visits between parents and residents of the home. Inevitably, I would learn back-stories, histories, and, all too often, tragedies. There were stories of abuse and neglect—violence and madness—all manners of evil. Not to minimize spanking, but we are talking much more than spanking here! The kids I worked with for 8 years were the most abused of victims. And yet, they often became victimizers themselves. It was on one hand tragic, but on the other, all too predictable. In their situation, who is responsible? Given the dire circumstances many were in, and given that we are not autonomous beings but interdividuals (Girard’s term), I cannot conclude the youth were 100% responsible for all their actions all the time. As Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NRSV). I am certain the abused children I worked with for so many years felt like that many times in their lives.

My point in this entry is not to point out people’s behavior so I can then judge them—far from it. I am, however, dead set on pointing out behaviors that model “how to commit violence against others”. In doing so, my hope is that more and more people will acknowledge that all of us have this potential violence in us; all of us imitate each other and enter into mimetic conflicts. And all of us imitate self-destructive behavior from time to time. If we can acknowledge this, I believe we can then focus our energy onto positive imitation. When energy is focused on positive imitation of others, namely forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and love, real change can occur.

So, my goal is for those who engage in any form of violence—intentional or unintentional—to recognize the slavery it causes and progress toward a more peaceful “self”. In modeling peace, we free ourselves to experience true relationship with others. We discover our true humanness when we serve others wholeheartedly. Let’s start modeling that type of behavior. The sky is the limit as to how far humanity can go if we all begin to model peace.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

Mother’s Day Book Feature Friday: It Runs In The Family by Frida Berrigan

Berrigan book 2I am a stay-at-home mom, and I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker. It often feels like a strange, paradoxical life. At any given moment, when my mind is filled with the major challenges of the 21st-century world – a constant “war on terror,” environmental degradation, racism, sexism, and homophobia in all of their violent manifestations – my hands are filled with a squirming toddler demanding, and deserving, my undivided attention. Or I’ll find myself writing an article on forgiveness and empathy, only to see the latest “experiment” of my six-year-old leave a mess of flower petals and water strewn across the bathroom sink, feel tempted to lash out, and struggle to live up to my own rhetoric. How do I strive to make some small difference in a desperate and vulnerable world, and remember that the most important difference I can make is in the lives of two small, vulnerable human beings? How do I strike the best balance for the world, my children and myself?

My answers will differ from those of Frida Berrigan, but her witness as an activist, a peacemaker, and a mother of three children, makes her a powerful role model for me. Her autobiography It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood is filled with deep wisdom of dedicated, faithful activists and humbling, humorous lessons learned through trial and error to which any parent can relate. With the blood of renowned peacemakers Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister running through her veins, Frida’s own life is a credit to the inspiring activism of her parents. She and her sister and brother are living proof that one of the most important tasks of a peacemaker is helping to inspire the next generation, those who must continue the work of healing this bruised and battered world.

But the task of raising conscientious, dedicated persons – aware of but undeterred by the many troubles of the day – is difficult and complicated. The urgency of the world’s needs often clash with the need to stop everything and nurse or change a diaper. The mimetic pressure to throw our children the perfect birthday party to fit in with other kids (and for us to fit in with their parents) clashes with a desire to teach them not to be materialistic and to live with an awareness of others in true need. And knowledge of the importance of modeling peaceful behavior does not stop the occasional outburst when they push all our buttons in the ways that only our own offspring can. Seeing Frida Berrigan – whose last name is synonymous with the peace movement – struggle with all of these matters is deeply comforting. Within the pages of her autobiography, I have found someone that I can relate to in addition to a model I would like to try to emulate.

Relatable though she is, however, I confess that, had I not learned about her life through the lens of motherhood, I might have been a little intimidated by Frida Berrigan. I look at her activism – cofounding Witness Against Torture, traveling to Guantanamo, at the forefront of peace and social justice issues long before I found my voice on such matters – and I feel a sense of awe. I cannot help being impressed by someone who was out on picket lines since she was in cloth diapers, raised in a counter-cultural commune by a small village that helped to care for her and her siblings when her parents served jail sentences for witness against war. I admit it is a little hard to read this book and not feel like my own witness is far behind. At the same time, Frida’s wise and compassionate words help me to realize that what I am doing right now – beyond writing, beyond any volunteering or marching or petitioning I may find time to do – this crazy, messy, sometimes unpredictable job called motherhood – is one of the most important and meaningful ways I will ever make a difference for peace, not only for the way I am shaping my children, but for the way I am letting them shape me. So as I read, I strive to keep my model from becoming my obstacle by recognizing all the challenges and opportunities for nonviolent witness that motherhood provides.

Frida herself, of course, provides a wonderful model of resistance to the scandal of model-obstacle relationships! After all, her parents gave her “big shoes to fill.” “I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace,” she writes. “So what can I offer my own children?” Exchanging communal life for a single-family home but still participating in co-ops and community gardens, avoiding arrest for civil disobedience but being a legal war tax resister, Frida Berrigan has learned from her own upbringing without replicating it. Grateful to her parents and the many role models who inspired her, she and her family are making their way in the world as peacemakers in their own right, inspired but not burdened by the examples of a generation gone before.

I am not ready to become a war tax resister. I am not even ready to trade in the convenience of disposable diapers for the environmentalism of cloth. But with the help of this book I am inspired to explore nonviolent living and parenting in more holistic, integrated ways than ever before. I am ready to cut back on waste and materialism and consumption, and teach my children to do the same. I am inspired to be more present with my children and fully listen, reducing the distractions of technology. I want to help them become more involved with our communities and more aware of the world around them. I want to teach them how to respond to the troubles of our time with determination and compassion. Frida Berrigan may not have all the answers, but seeing her ask the same questions is encouraging.

But above all, I am encouraged and humbled by the reminder that activism and peacemaking are not “put on hold” for raising children. Rather, it is in raising children that peacemaking and activism take on their most complex, integrated, and authentic forms. In our relationships with the most vulnerable members of our community, we have the opportunity and awesome responsibility to model compassion and humility. My knowledge of mimetic theory makes me even more aware of how much children are influenced by the examples of their surrounding adults. Showing them that they are loved by modeling conscientiousness and compassion to them is perhaps the most important way I can influence peace. It will certainly leave its impact after I am gone in a way that nothing else can. Motherhood is but one manifestation of this responsibility that we all have to children; in whatever capacity we relate to them, we have a duty to model the kindness and compassion that we wish for the world when it is in their hands. And in modeling such kindness, we can begin to create such a world today.

But as Frida and my own children constantly remind me, the peacemakers in the child-parent relationships are not exclusively or even primarily the parents!

Children are little insurrectionists. They turn our lives upside down and they insist we see it through their eyes—and they care more than anything about fairness and friendship. Maybe we have more to learn than to teach.

I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker, but It Runs In The Family reminds me that in truth, as a mother, I am a peacemaker, at least when I am at my best. I add Frida Berrigan to a growing list of role models who bring out the peacemaker in me, including my own parents, my patient and compassionate husband, and my wonderful, world-upending daughters, who have shown me new dimensions of unconditional love.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about rebellious motherhood by following Frida Berrigan’s column “Little Insurrections” at wagingnonviolence.org.

 

 

 

 

The Case for Child Labor

My grandpa was a Pennsylvania coal miner and a union man. He overflowed with gratitude for the unions that won miners shorter workdays, higher wages, and safer conditions. None of which could save him from black lung disease, which took his life before he turned seventy. But thanks to the unions, his widow, my grandmother, collected black lung payments from the government until her death.

My grandmother told of what it was like when company owners treated the workers as expendable and exploitable. When a man died in the mines, she told me, the body was delivered home in a wagon and deposited without comment at the front door. It was up to the family to clean the soot and grime off their dead father and husband, bear the cost of burial, and face the future without their primary wage earner.

Each May 1 we celebrate International Worker’s Day. It gives us occasion to reflect on these gains for worker rights and give thanks for those who fought to achieve them. An important outcome of the labor movement was legal protection for children. This represented a revolution in society’s approach to childhood itself as it became clear that children were not miniature adults who could be exploited for their small size and agility in adult workplaces.

What we have yet to grasp is that children have a work of their own, something that no adult can do for them. The revolutionary educator, Dr. Maria Montessori, recognized this in her work among the poor laborers in Rome. Treating diseases of the body as Italy’s first female medical doctor, Montessori was a pioneer in the women’s labor movement of the 1890s. When trying to explain her discovery about the work of children, she referred to the popular labor movements of her day, saying that:

the laborer… is seen as a producer of wealth and well-being, an essential partner in the great work of civilized living… [the child], too, is a toiler, and the aim of his work is to make a human being.

What she wanted the world to understand is that the child has “a kind of psychic life totally different from that of adults… the child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself.” Montessori was reduced to mystical awe in the presence of the power of the child’s mind to create a human being perfectly suited to his time and place of birth from the raw materials of his environment. Adults move through the world gathering impressions, some of which form memories, others of which pass by unnoticed. Not so with the child.

Instead, the child undergoes a transformation. Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it. They incarnate themselves in him.

Montessori felt that a child free to go about this work of inner formation would be joyful and calm, happy in his work – what we too glibly call “play”. This easy contentment with the work (or play) of one’s hands was, she believed, humanity’s natural state. Anger and conflict, materialism and spiritual impoverishment were unnatural conditions, the result of preventing children from doing the work they were born to do.

Montessori was also a peace activist. She was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering work in peacemaking through education. She believed that one thing remained for the world to achieve the global peace we all claim to want, and that was to dedicate ourselves to the service of children. If she were alive today, I believe she would tell us to stop arguing about the causes of violence, war, racism, poverty or oppression. She’d say that the solution is already known and it is for society to seek first the well-being of the child. All other problems will resolve themselves as we work toward that goal. She sought another workers’ revolution, this time on behalf of the work of the child.

“I think of this as the final revolution; not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.”

From Baltimore to Iraq, children around the world are cowering beneath the shadow of violence. Peace will never be possible until children the world over are free to work in the light.

Doing The Hokey Pokey For Lent

Image from 123rf.com

Image from 123rf.com

I’ll be doing the Hokey Pokey with my children today.

It may seem like a strange way to observe Ash Wednesday, but bear with me. If you’re searching for a way to teach children some basic principles of discipleship, repentance and forgiveness, with some reference to the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection to boot, this childhood favorite is an excellent resource. With a little modification, this song and dance can be a joyful tool for helping children – and adults – understand what it means to follow Jesus.

I give credit for this idea to Josh Kaufman-Horner, who led a workshop at the 2012 Theology and Peace conference entitled “It’s Not About Fun, Justice, Or The Hokey Pokey,” about the importance of using biblical language when talking about mimetic theory as applied to faith. It was a great workshop, but it wasn’t about The Hokey Pokey. However, what Josh meant as a creative gesture to advertise his workshop gave me an idea for a Sunday school lesson particularly apt for the Lenten season.

Lent is all about turning our hearts and minds toward Jesus. It is about repentance, which means turning ourselves around, reorienting ourselves away from patterns of desire that entrap us in cycles of violence and envy and destruction of self and others and toward unconditional love. It’s a slow process, a lifelong process, a hokey pokey process, if you will. And as we follow Jesus on the path to the cross that leads to eternal life, we will find this process increasingly demanding.

I explained it to the children of All Saints Episcopal Church in Sunnyside, NY like this (and there could be a separate lesson for each body part):

Jesus calls us to follow him in his way of love and peace. The Church is known as Christ’s body, which means each of us has a role to play in the work that Jesus wants us to do. We have to use our own bodies to follow Jesus and be his body, to do his work for peace and love on earth.

To follow Jesus, we must use our hands. Hands can build, hands can hold, hands can hug. We might use our hands to follow Jesus by building homes or giving food to the hungry. We could follow Jesus by hugging a friend or a loved one who is sad or hurt, lonely or scared. We could follow Jesus by lending a helping hand to anyone in need.

But sometimes, we will get tired, or sad, or frustrated. Sometimes it might seem like the work we do is never enough. Sometimes we will be the ones who need a helping hand, and we won’t be able to see what we have to give. Sometimes, we might take our hands out of God’s work.

The good news is that Jesus will always extend his hand to us, and we will always have another chance to put our hands right back into the middle of God’s work. And when we do God’s work, we shake up the world!

To follow Jesus, we must use our feet. We might have to follow Jesus into new and strange places, whether across the world or across the street. We might follow Jesus into hospitals or prisons to give comfort to people who are hurting or shut away. Or we might follow Jesus far across the world, to help those who do not have the resources we enjoy. Wherever Jesus calls us, we should follow to spread a message of good news, comfort, and forgiveness.

But our feet will sometimes tire. Sometimes, the road will seem too long, or the waters will seem too rough. We could be overwhelmed by fear or fatigue. We could become distracted and wander far from the path, losing ourselves and losing our focus on God’s way.

The good news is that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will always search to find us and put us back on track. We will always have another chance to jump feet-first into his way of love. And when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we will shake up the world!

To follow Jesus, we must use our heads. Jesus changes the way we think and the way we act. When someone hurts our feelings, or says something we disagree with, our first instinct might be to argue or fight. But Jesus teaches us to forgive and listen to each other. He helps us learn how to be friends even when it’s hard to get along.

Learning how to think like Jesus may be the hardest part of following him. It is natural for us to love our neighbors and hate our enemies, but Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them! Most of the time, we completely fail!

The good news is that the more we forgive, the more we love, the more we try to work on our own mistakes before we try to correct others, the more we recognize that Jesus has been there all along, changing our minds to be like his! And as more and more people begin to think like Jesus, the whole world will tremble with excitement and love overflowing!

During Lent, we remember how God is changing the world. God came into the world as a person, as Jesus, to teach us how to live. His way of love for everyone made some people very angry, because he didn’t see a world of good guys and bad guys. He loved even the people we might not like. And because of this, he was killed on a cross. But Jesus came back and forgave the people who killed him, showing us that there is nothing we can do to lose his love! This love is so powerful that it is changing the whole world one heart at a time. And as our own hearts are changed, we are called to follow Jesus in his way of love.

Following Jesus takes our whole selves. It is hard work, and we will run away from it again and again. But, again and again, Jesus will gently seek us out and guide us back onto his path. We will stumble, fall and fail, but Jesus will patiently help us time and time again. Jesus’s work of turning the world around is a hokey pokey process because it starts with turning us around. But as we follow Jesus, we join him in the awesome work of building the Kingdom of God – a kingdom of Love – right here on earth.

And that’s what it’s all about!

 

You put your right hand in
You take your right hand out
You put your right hand in
And you shake it all about!
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around (repentance)
That’s what it’s all about!

(Repeat for “left hand,” “right foot,” “left foot,” “head,” and “whole self.” Then add a special verse:)

He put his whole self in (incarnation)
We took his whole self out (crucifixion)
He put his whole self in (resurrection)
And he shook it all about!
He does the hokey pokey and he turns the world around
That’s what it’s all about!

On Being a Good Dad: Mimetic Desire, Toys, and How Not to Love Your Neighbor

I consider myself to be a good dad.

And that’s where the problem began.

One of the main reasons that I consider myself to be a good dad is that I buy my children really cool toys…that I get to play with… Well, a few years ago I bought them a toy rocket with a launch pad. When I…err…I mean *they*…stomp on the pad the rocket launches 50 feet in the air! My status as a “good dad” increased last year when I bought my oldest son a set of Loom Bands. He loves making bracelets and necklaces with the little rubber bands. And, last April, when we moved to a new neighborhood halfway across the country, my status flew off the “good dad chart” when I bought him a brand new bike!

So, you see, my children have really cool toys. And that makes me a really good dad.

But then we met our neighbors.

A few days after we moved into our new house, my son took his rocket launcher outside. As he started sending it into the air, a neighbor boy came over to play. “Hey!” the boy said. “I have a rocket launcher that goes even higher!” He ran back to his house and brought his super-duper deluxe rocket launcher that he stomped 75 feet in the air!

My son was very impressed with that rocket launcher. Me? Not so much. I began to feel a sense of inferiority. The thought crossed my mind, “His dad bought him a better rocket launcher! Maybe I’m not such a good dad after all.”

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

When we went outside the next day, the neighbor boy came over again. “Hey!” he exclaimed as he looked at my son’s Loom Band bracelet. “You make Loom Bands too! I’ll show you some of the things I’ve made!” He ran home and came back with a frog, turtle, horse, and a freakin’ dragon made of Loom Bands. As my son looked in awe upon our neighbor’s Loom creations, the thought crossed my mind, “His dad not only bought him Loom Bands but also encouraged him to make a freakin’ dragon with them! I’ve only encouraged my son to make these sorry looking bracelets!”

And then it happened. I bought my son a new bicycle. He was riding it with pride when (deep breath) the neighbor boy came out of his garage driving his new Power Wheels!!! My son instantly ditched his bike and ran toward our neighbor’s new car. I stewed there in my resentment as my dad ego deflated and I thought to myself, “You gotta be kidding me! That dad has an answer for every toy I buy. What a jerk!”

I share this with you not just because of my masochistic tendency to share my failures in parenting and in general being a human. I also share it with you as an example of mimetic desire at work in my life. Mimetic theory’s basic claim is that human desire is imitative. We “desire according to the desire of another.”

In other words, we want what others have. We have an innate desire to “keep up with the Jonses.” Do you remember the 10th Commandment? To paraphrase, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff.” The 10th Commandment warns us against desiring our neighbor’s stuff because when we desire this way it leads resentment, envy, and often to violent conflict.

But even more than wanting our neighbor’s stuff, we want our neighbor’s identity. Sounds kind of creepy, right? Well, it happens to us all and you can see how it happened to me. I want to be a good dad and one of the ways that I know I’m a good dad is that my children have cool toys. But what happens when another dad buys his child cooler toys than I buy my children? I start comparing myself with him. I start thinking that I’m not enough. I become resentful. In my own head I compete with my neighbor in a rivalry for the coveted prize, “Dad of the Year.”

Comparing ourselves with others is a fundamental aspect of human mimeticism. We are always comparing ourselves with others. As a blogger, I compare my stats with other bloggers. Businesses are always comparing their bottom line with other businesses. Politicians compare themselves by how many votes they get. Nations compare themselves by their military might. And, yes, dads compare their fatherly prowess by the toys they buy their children.

It sounds silly and ridiculous, I know, but it’s also human. Now that I look back on my silly mimetic behavior that led me to compare myself with my neighbor, I can gently laugh at myself. I can remind myself as I navigate the traps of mimetic desire of what I already know deep down – being a good dad is not about buying cool toys for my children. Being a good dad is about having children who know they are unconditionally loved.

Being a good dad also means modeling not just the refusal to desire our neighbor’s stuff, but also the desire to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

And so I walked over to my new neighbor, shook his hand, and said, “That is such a cool Power Wheel. Thanks for letting my children play with it, too.”

“You’re welcome,” the dad responded. “Our previous neighbor got one for his children. So I thought I’d get one, too.”

It’s silly, isn’t it? But that is mimetic desire at work.

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Sophie Saves God

Sophie the Superhero Self Portrait

Teach your children well.” The words to this simple, beautiful song have been on a continuous loop in my head recently, perhaps due to my first-born daughter, Sophie, starting kindergarten! She’s growing up so fast! And like all parents, I sometimes wonder how well I am teaching her, how well I am preparing her for the challenges and transitions she will face in life. Most especially, I wonder and ponder and pray over how to model a life of compassion, appreciation, respect and responsibility that she can learn, imitate and emulate in her own unique ways. Often, I am haunted by the concern that I am not doing enough. But every now and then, one of those serendipitous parenting experiences comes along, providing blessed reassurance that, somehow, I must be doing something right.

Such a moment happened about a month ago, when Sophie and I had just finished reading an “Olivia” story. For those unfamiliar, Olivia is a cartoon pig who has her own book and television series. She also has a little brother named Ian. As I was putting the story away, my daughter, out of nowhere, exclaimed, “Ian got killed!” What followed was one of our many “playtalk” discussions, where we imagine up a story together, but this time it was filled with hidden nuggets of theological wisdom.

“Oh no! How did Ian get killed?” I asked.

“He fell on a fire and died!” she shouted.

At this point, I was starting to wonder if she was taking death a bit too casually. Surely she couldn’t comprehend the horror of which she spoke with so much gleeful enthusiasm.

“Do you understand what that means? It’s very serious and sad when people are killed. It means that they are hurt so much that their bodies are broken forever. We shouldn’t talk so easily about that.”

She considered what I was saying, and the child-like excitement in her eyes was replaced with concern.

“But he’s with God now,” Sophie replied.

Shoot; what do I do now?, I wondered.  Of course, I was proud of her for finding comfort in the thought of being embraced by God after life on earth, but I still didn’t want her to play with the idea of death so joyfully. But then a thought occurred to me that steered the conversation in another direction, leaving me ultimately to marvel at my daughter’s narrative logic and even more at her compassion.

“Well, you know, we don’t have to wait until after we die to be with God. God is with us right now.”

“God is with us now? Where?”

“God is in our hearts.”

“Is God only in our hearts?”

“No…”

“Is God in our house?”

“Yes…”

“I see God over there! And there’s a kitty shaving him like crazy!”

Ian before his untimely demise, from

Ian before his untimely demise. From nickjrcharacters.blogspot.com

“There’s a cat shaving God?”

“Yes!”

“How?”

“With her sharp, sharp claws!

“Shaving God’s head? God’s beard?…”

“No, shaving God’s eyes!”

“Owww! That’s horrible!”

“I have to save God!”

“Why is that cat so mean?”

“Because she hasn’t had any cat food for, for… 3 years!”

“Oh! That would make anyone mean! But why not?”

“Because Ian was her owner and he got killed!”

Well, now we had come full circle, and I was stunned. Not only had Sophie managed to rein in that meandering narrative, but she had given that cat a motive to scratch out God’s eyes that made complete sense! It is not at all unusual to rail at God for the untimely death of a loved one, believing that God “took” so-and-so away. Did that cat think God was raining down fiery vengeance on Ian for some inscrutable sin? I don’t know if Sophie made all those connections in her mind, but it is a plausible interpretation of the story. Moreover, it’s a faulty conclusion many come to, to attribute a painful death to a vengeful God. And, with violence being mimetic, if the cat had perceived violence on the part of God, it’s only natural that she would respond in kind.

Plus, that cat was hungry.

Starving kitty lashing out. From animals.howstuffworks.com

Starving kitty lashing out. From animals.howstuffworks.com

Violence is not excusable, but it is understandable when people, like this cat, feel they have no other means of survival. All over the world, wars are fought to acquire and secure resources, and we ourselves spend a majority of our tax dollars on violent means of defense, though we are far less vulnerable than this poor kitty. That cat wasn’t a monster; she was a desperate creature who had reached a breaking point! She wasn’t just causing pain, she was lashing out in pain. I had rushed to judgment when I asked, “Why is that cat so mean?,” and, quite frankly, I had expected Sophie to give me a simpler answer like, “She’s just crazy!” or “Because she’s a bad, bad cat!” (Her first sentence, after all, was “Bad bad bad cat cat!”) Instead, I am quite impressed that my daughter could think of a tangible reason to make this hellcat break out her claws, beyond the sound bites we tend to hear in the media that would probably have scapegoated her as the embodiment of all evil.  My 5-year-old daughter knows how to make a multidimensional antagonist, which is more than I can say for so many of us, sometimes myself included, who refuse to look at the potential good within our enemies… or the potential evil within ourselves.

Anyway, now that Sophie had so skillfully managed to steer the narrative back to Ian’s fiery demise, I thought we were finished. In fact, I was so proud of the symmetry of her story that I almost wanted to wrap things up there, merciless as it would be to leave God in the claws of a cantankerous kitty and Ian a crispy corpse. But as I started to transcribe our conversation, she reminded me, “We need a happy ending, Mom!”

So I let her dictate an ending to me, and it went like this:

“God cried. Then Sophie came and gave the cat a dead fish and a pink dress. This made the cat feel better, so she stopped scratching God’s eyes. Then Sophie and God brought Ian back to life by singing a song. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.”

So our hero rides in, guns blazing, to blast that cat to smithereens… oops. No, she doesn’t. Instead of responding with violence, Sophie goes to the heart of the problem. She reconciles the violent one with the victim with gentleness and compassion, by answering the need, the hunger. She gives the cat a dead fish (a fresh fish would be cruel to the fish… and I doubt it’s in Sophie’s power to make that cat a vegetarian) and a pink dress. Of course. Pink dresses make females of any species feel better.

And she leaves the vengeance to God, who smites that cat… oops.  No, God doesn’t. God lets the poor, starving cat empty all of her frustrations onto Godself, becoming a victim in solidarity with other victims, including the cat herself! God becomes vulnerable, even to the point of crying. The gospel allusions just keep unpacking themselves. And after Sophie helps the cat with her immediate need, God (and Sophie) responds to that cat’s deeper need, reuniting her with her beloved Ian. The power of God’s utter vulnerability drains that cat of her violence, and we join God in the process of renewing life by serving one-another. Maybe in another theology lesson I can teach Sophie that, when it comes to resurrection, we leave the major work to God (truth be told, Sophie wanted to bring Ian back to life by herself, but I told her to include God in the process. Hey, it’s a work in progress!)

When I asked Sophie what she wanted to call her story, she immediately replied, “Sophie Saves God.” Scandalous, I thought to myself. “Perfect,” I said. It sounds blasphemous to consider ourselves as saviors of God. I know full well that the truth is the opposite. God saves us. The nonviolent God came among us in Jesus, absorbing our violence, responding with forgiveness, and showing us how to live not enslaved to our desires over and against one-another, but in accordance to God’s desire which is for us and for one-another. But we are also made in the image of God, and when we respond to violence with love, magnifying God’s love to the world, in a way we save the reputation of a God who is very often misunderstood, onto whom we subconsciously project our own worst violent instincts. Of course, this is still God working through us. And I think God is doing an incredible job working through Sophie!

She’s come a long way from playing “Sleeping Beauty the Superhero,” whose superpower is “making bad guys die!” At first she was resistant to my suggestion that she make bad guys nice instead, but now she has learned not only to do this, but how to do this… with compassion and service. I know it’s God working through me, but I want to take a bit of credit too; in some ways I really am teaching her well! And these serendipitous parenting moments are, in turn, an education for me in faith, hope and love. As the song says, “Teach your parents well.” Sophie and God are working wonders on me!

 

As long as our children keep gracing us with their unique theological wisdom, we will keep writing about it! This is the beginning a new series: “Out of the Mouths of Babes!” to be updated whenever our children give us something new to write about! Is there a child in your life who has said or done something to make you contemplate the wonders of God anew?  We invite you to share your stories in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Rock, Paper, Scissors … GOD! – Children and a Nonviolent Reading of the Bible

Last April, my family moved to Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is located in Linn County. This is all you need to know that important fact:

grass seed capital

Linn County is the “Grass Seed Capital of the [FREAKIN] World.”

Guess who is allergic grass seed? Yeah, that’s right. Me. My face has been a hideous mess of goopy sludge emanating from my nose and eyes.

I’ve tried everything soothe my pain. Claritin. Allegra. Zyrtec. Nothing worked. The only thing that provided any relief were frozen blueberry waffles:

10351409_10152248594063702_5428871211373425594_n

So, I decided I needed allergy shots. In addition to this being the summer of the merciless grass seed, it’s also been the summer of Daddy-Day-Care at the Ericksen house. So, when I went to my first appointment, I took my three children with me.

Childhood Games and a Violent God

As we sat in the waiting room, my boys decided to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. At ages 7 and 6, they have become very skilled, so I recently decided to introduce them to the ultimate weapon – dynamite. Dynamite is made just like the rock, only you lift up your thumb to create the fuse. With the colossal “BOOM!” sound effect, dynamite utterly destroys rock, paper, and scissors.

At least, it used to be the ultimate weapon of destruction. While waiting for my shots, my oldest boy came up with an ever more destructive weapon – God.

My boys dropping hell fire and brimstone on each other.

My boys dropping hell fire and brimstone on each other.

After a few rounds of the game, he activated the omnipotent God weapon. When he did, all hell broke loose. “Rock, paper, scissors … GOD!” he yelled. Then he lifted both hands high in the air and violently threw them down with the thunderous sound of hell-fire and brimstone on top of his younger brother.

God. The Destroyer.

I know it’s just a game, but as the good mimetic theorist that I am, I’ve spent their young lives trying to teach them that God isn’t like that.  As First John teaches us, I try to teach them that, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” No darkness. No violence. Only love. We are the Destroyers. We are the ones who rain down hell-fire and brimstone upon one another. God doesn’t do that.

Biblical Violence

Of course, many people will point to passages in scripture where God does rain down hell-fire and brimstone upon people. Take, for example, the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. All you need is this one verse to justify a violent God: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

I remember learning that story, and many others like it, in Sunday school. Without any qualms or hesitation, I was taught that God nearly destroyed the whole earth though a flood and that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah through fire. The Bible is full of violence, both human and divine. This really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we moderns don’t have a good track record with violence. Whether we justify our violence in the name of God or national security or freedom or whatever, the outcome is always the same violent destruction.

sodomStill, we moderns like to critique the Bible for its violence, but the truth is that the Bible provides a huge leap forward in the human understanding of the relationship between violence and the divine. After all, if you look at other ancient myths, the gods of all religions were violent. In fact, the gods of Babylon, Rome, and Greece were not only violent, but also fickle. You never knew what would send those gods into a violent rage. Take the Babylonian flood story, for example. The Babylonian gods destroyed the world with a flood because humans were being too noisy, causing the gods to lose sleep. The biblical flood story is horrific, but it’s a huge step forward in the human understanding of the divine. In the biblical story, God’s problem wasn’t with human noise causing God to lose sleep; it was with humans creating violence, death, and destruction. And, as terrible as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was, we can say something similar about that story. God’s problem with those nations was that they refused to show hospitality to strangers and to aid the poor and needy members of their society.

The Bible’s Critique of Violence

While those are huge steps forward in the human understanding of the divine, they don’t go far enough. They still claim that God is violent. But the Bible contains a critique of its own violent version of God, and there is no more important story for Christians to claim the nonviolence of God than the story of Jesus.

Jesus, of course, was Jewish and was formed by his religious tradition. But what many modern Christians don’t understand is that within Judaism there have always been multiple interpretations of the Bible. Ancient rabbis had their schools of thought, where they provided instruction on interpreting the Bible.

Jesus, whom Christians claim to be our Rabbi or Teacher*, provided specific instruction for interpreting the Bible, and specifically for how to interpret biblical violence. On multiple occasions, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea, instructing anyone who would listen to:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

In his Adult Education Course entitled Jesus the Forgiving Victim, James Alison claims “This is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice…‘Mercy’ and ‘sacrifice’ are not here discrete religious gestures. Each one is an entire anthropology of God’s desire, and they are incompatible with each other.”

The theology behind the violent sacrificial strand within the Bible, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah story, is incompatible with the theology behind the “mercy and not sacrifice” strand within the Bible.

Jesus’ Critique of Sacred Violence

jesus teacherNot only did Jesus teach that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, he enacted God’s desire for mercy and not sacrifice. For example, Jesus implicitly critiqued the theology of sacred violence behind the Sodom and Gomorrah story when he sent his disciples ahead of him to a Samaritan village. The Samaritans rejected Jesus and his disciples. When James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, heard this, they channeled the same sacred violence in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. They said to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus, who had been teaching his disciples to love their enemies, which clearly meant they shouldn’t command fire or missiles or bombs to come down from heaven upon their enemies, rebuked his disciples and he simply led them on to the next town.

Notice that the disciples had an interpretative lens of sacrificial violence, not mercy. In rebuking his disciples, Jesus rebuked the whole idea of sacred violence; the idea that God has anything to do with violence.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Before we take our children to stories depicting sacred violence, such as the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to take them to Jesus. Jesus saves the world not through sacrificial violence, but through merciful love. The disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve God’s purposes through sacrificial violence. Unfortunately, we continue to make this mistake today, and we unwittingly indoctrinate our children into that same theological mistake. And pretty soon they start dropping the God hand in Rock, Paper, Scissors!

Yet, Jesus calls us to follow him, to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” With that teaching Jesus, and the prophet Hosea before him, critiqued sacrificial violence. With his merciful life, death, and resurrection, Jesus offered forgiveness to break the cycle of violence and he revealed the nonviolent love of God that reaches out to all people.

Everything You Need to Know About God You Learned from “Jesus Loves Me”

Preschoolers are cute.

Two of my kids sing "Jesus Loves Me" in church

Two of my kids sing “Jesus Loves Me” in church

That’s my self-evident, undeniable thesis. Churches know this is true better than anyone else. Some churches even have a children’s sermon, where kids run up to the front of the sanctuary and the pastor asks them questions about faith. A discussion ensues and we are amazed at the darndest theological observations that children will make.

We don’t have a children’s sermon at my church. Instead, we frequently incorporate children and youth into our worship services. Sometimes they will do a reading, sometimes they assist with offering or the Eucharist, and sometimes we parade the 3-to-6-year-olds to the front of the sanctuary and listen to them sing.

Yesterday at our worship service, our children sang “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.” This children’s hymn was written in 1860 by Anna Bartlett Warner. Since then it has become one of the most loved Christian songs of all time, providing comfort to children and adults alike.

All you need to know about Christian theology is summed up in the title of this song. In fact, as my children were singing yesterday, my mind wandered to Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, and possibly of all time. Indeed, Pope Pius XII referred to Barth as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinaswho died in 1274. That’s high praise coming from a Pope, especially since Barth was a Protestant.

I read some of Barth’s seminal work, Church Dogmatics, while attending seminary. Dogmatics is composed of four volumes, each with multiple parts, making the 14-book series 9,233 pages long. I didn’t have to read all of it during seminary, but we read enough to make me frustrated. One of the things I remember most about Dogmatics was that Barth went on long tangents. Not footnote tangents, but tangents within the text. And his tangents were written in smaller font, making an already long reading assignment even longer. I asked our professor if we had to read the stuff in small font. Of course, he said we did. I cursed Barth – “Damn you Barth! Why didn’t you make your tangents into footnotes like everyone else!”

From the website Cheesewearing Theology (cheesewearingtheology.com)

From the website Cheesewearing Theology (cheesewearingtheology.com)

Since seminary, I’ve come to appreciate Barth much more. Church Dogmatics is radically Christocentric, which means he puts Jesus first. As Roger Olson explains in his book God in Dispute, “In every doctrine of [Barth’s] massive Church Dogmatics he begins with Jesus Christ and requires everything to revolve around him as God’s sole, supreme revelation. Even the Bible is subordinate to God’s personal revelation in Jesus Christ.”

What does Karl Barth have to do with a bunch of children singing a well-known hymn? Well, because Church Dogmatics was so long, and because Barth wrote many other books, people began to wonder what Barth’s theology boiled down to. After he retired, Barth toured the United States, delivering lectures at various universities. At a Q&A session after one lecture, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his life’s work in one sentence. Barth responded,

Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Barth stridently believed that we know God when we know Jesus. A lot of theology gets derailed when it talks about God’s anger, or wrath, or violence. Barth is part of long line of theologians who emphasized Jesus’ role in revealing that God is love. Barth also knew that God’s love was not dependent upon him being good.* In fact, this long line goes back to Jesus himself, who said that God’s perfect love reaches out to everyone, even God’s enemies. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, put it like this, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all,” and then he brought home the point by affirming that “God is love.”

So, feel free to read Barth’s 9,000 pages of Church Dogmatics, but in the end, all you really need to know you learned in a children’s song.

 

*For more on this, see James Alison’s adult educational course, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. In his first essay, James talks about the Christian story and states, “One of the things which I hope will happen to you as you undergo this course is that you will be able to relax into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about. It’s about being loved.”

Parenting: The Day I Became Darth Vader

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

-Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, 69.

Darth Vader MasksMy dear, sweet Mother-in-Law threw me a birthday party last Sunday at her house. Now, when my Mother-in-Law throws a party, there is always a theme of epic proportions. She loves themes – for example, when we brought our daughter Abbie home we celebrated with Dora … Dora. Dora. Dora the explorer. Dora was everywhere. Dora dolls, pictures, streamers, balloons, paper plates and napkins filled our living room. It was as if someone from Nickelodeon threw up Dora all over our living room … err … I mean delightfully graced our living room with all things Dora.

The theme for my birthday was Star Wars. Which, due to the Mother-in-Law, was all kinds of awesome. She bought three Darth Vader masks, one for each of the Ericksen boys. And this 34-year-old Ericksen boy instantly thought: NEW FACEBOOK PROFILE PIC!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was still wearing my suit from church that morning and I thought the Darth Vader mask juxtaposed with the suit would inspire awe and fascination from my Facebook friends. (Because, you know, that’s what Facebook is all about.) But for a perfect picture, I needed the Boys to wear their masks. And I needed them to cross their arms, as if we were a bunch of baaaad dudes.

Because a picture of a six year old in a Hawaiian shirt, a four year old in a flannel shirt, and their dad in a suit, each wearing a $2.99 plastic Darth Vader mask with their arms crossed just screams “baaaad dudes.”

As you can tell, not everyone liked my idea. The six year old refused to cross his arms. I kept asking him. I was playful at first. “C’mon! Do it for your Dad! It’s my birthday!” But he kept refusing. Of course, the more he refused, the more I wanted him to do it! So my mood quickly went from playful to anger and I became a Dark Lord of the Sith.

new adam shame

Stare from the Dark Lord of the Sith.
That’s just evil.

“If you don’t cross your arms right now … well … no cake for you!” And thus I channeled the horrifying combination of Darth Vader and … umm … the Cake Nazi? The poor boy went running upstairs to his bedroom in a self-imposed time out.

Parenting can be so hard. Shame lurks around every corner. Sometimes I shame my children when they refuse to do the things I want them to do. Then I feel shame because somewhere along the way I got the message that good children are supposed to submit to the will of their Fathers, so I must be doing something wrong. Then I think, Wait…I’m raising bad children!!! Maybe I’m too lenient! Maybe I’m too strict!! Oh crap. I suck at this. JUST CROSS YOUR ARMS!!!!!

But as I watched him walk up the stairs I realized that I’d shamed him with a ridiculous threat. I began to experience my own sense of shame as I realized I was in danger of becoming that Dad who loves his kids only when they conform to his demands.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown says that “Shame is the fear of disconnection … [that we are] unworthy of connection.” That’s the problem with parenting strategies of threats and time outs. Time outs disconnect us from our children at a time when what our children really need is a sense of connection. Threats are the ultimate in shaming at a time when what children really need is to know their ultimate worth.

IMAG0634 (1)Six years ago I was talking with a trusted friend about my parenting fears. He gave me two pieces of advice that remain with me. The first was that my primary responsibility as a Dad was to make sure my children know that I love them. It’s a simple point, yet also complicated. Among other things, love requires ensuring safety, opportunities, and providing appropriate boundaries for my children. But love also requires the second piece of advice, which was forgiveness. Forgive yourself for the inevitable mistakes you will make in parenting. With that advice in mind, I headed upstairs. When I found my boy, his head was covered with a pillow, which, of course, broke my Daddy heart. I sat next to him, rubbed his back, and told him I was sorry. He mumbled something very sad through his pillow and then told me he wanted some alone time.

“Okay.” I replied. “I love you. We’ll be eating downstairs. You can come when you are ready.”

Parents can beat ourselves up over these types of mistakes, playing them repeatedly in our minds. When our children see us doing that, it implicitly teaches them to beat themselves up over mistakes, too. In parenting, as in every aspect of our lives, without forgiveness we enslave ourselves and one another to past mistakes. Forgiveness frees us from those mistakes and frees us into a future of new possibilities; new patterns of behavior that move us away from being the Dark Lord of the Sith to reflecting an unconditional love that heals our relationships with our children.

Saved from Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown tragedy

“Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen.” Scott Ostrosky, Newtown resident, owner of informal shooting range, as quoted in the New York Times.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” President Obama, speaking at a Newtown, CT prayer vigil

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT on Friday, who has not been touched by the grief of the parents who lost children, of the children who lost mothers? Coming in the midst of the Christmas season, it could not help but bring to my mind a part of the birth narrative that is rarely recalled amidst the serene scene of animals, shepherds, angels and kings paying homage to the newborn child. It’s the story of King Herod’s massacre of all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to kill the one child who was foretold to take his throne. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah in response to the long ago horror with words that feel all too fresh: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.”

Yet we offer comfort – family and friends, ministers and priests, grief counselors and politicians, and President Obama on behalf of the nation – we rush to embrace and cry together. What can we say now except, “You are not alone. We will not leave you to endure this without community, friendship and love.”

That’s America at our best. We respond with open hearts and a generosity of spirit in times of tragedy that always comforts me. And we ask not just what can we do in the wake of this devastation, but how we can prevent future suffering and loss. It’s right that we do so. It’s right that we continue the debate about America’s gun culture with a new urgency. As we wrestle with an appropriate national response, I want to point to one truth that, though overlooked, is central to our search for a response that will actually bring about the change that President Obama called for.

I quoted a Newtown resident, Scott Ostrosky, to begin this article because his observation that this nation’s freedom was won at gunpoint is undeniably true. We wrested political control from Great Britain through war and violence. What is not true is what his historical memory leaves unspoken: that what we won through war was true freedom. Scott is a prisoner of his own faith in violence, as is our nation. We are enslaved to violence through our belief that it is only through violence that we can protect ourselves and our freedoms. It is not just gun rights advocates who believe this. Almost all of us, whether we own a gun or not, believe without question that violence is the most powerful force in the world and if we want to be free we had better have bigger, better and more lethal weapons than our enemies.

This is a lie. Violence does what we have witnessed in Newtown, CT: it destroys life, generates fear, causes us to retreat, retrench and rearm. And if that is how we feel, I hope you can see that those on the receiving end of America’s superior violence feel the same. This is not freedom, friends. When we enshrine violence we become its puppets, dutiful marionettes dancing to strings pulled by the gods of war. Here’s the truth: King Herod failed to kill the threat to his reign of violence, a threat that appeared in the form of a defenseless infant. This child became a man whose only weapons were love and mercy and who we celebrate as our Savior. If you have ever wondered what exactly he came to save us from, let the victims of Bethlehem and Newtown, and all the victims of violence in the two thousand years separating them, lead you to the most obvious answer: Jesus came to save us from our faith in violence. We must change, but the call to change is millennia old. Our response is overdue.

 

(This was part 1 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here to read Saved from Violence Part 2: What we owe our children in a violent world, by Adam Ericksen and here for Saved from Violence Part 3: The social dimension of mental illness, by Suzanne Ross.)