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Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.

Conclusion

The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

Book Feature Friday: Undivided: How a Christian Mother and a Muslim Daughter Find Reconciliation

0529113058.jpgUndivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace is essential for anyone interested in interfaith dialogue. It is written by Alana Raybon and her mother Patricia Raybon. They write honestly about their faith, their passion, and their hope for reconciliation.

This book is important because increasingly the world seems to be divided upon religious hostility. Many in the US are suspicious of Islam. We are fed a constant diet of “Islamic extremists” on the news. That diet includes a poisonous main course that claims Islam is inherently violent. And if Islam is inherently violent, then Muslims are, too.

We need to stop eating that poison.

Just as the US is divided when it comes to religion, so were Patricia and Alana. Undivided invites the reader to glimpse into the life of a mother and daughter that seek reconciliation amid religious division. Like many mother-daughter relationships, the division and hurt between them is intense and painful. But Undivided also reveals that there is hope.

Patricia, a devout believer in Jesus, felt betrayed by her daughter’s conversion to Islam. She’s heartbroken because she believes that Alana has rejected Jesus in a “defiant choice of faith.” And in rejecting Jesus, Patricia feels rejected, too. She “feels the hurt of a daughter who turned the Lord down without spending even one second to ask her give-it-all mother what I thought.”

A little motherly guilt trip, there? Yes. Patricia “pounds” on Alana, in hopes of bringing her back to Jesus. “A few Christian friends of mine want me to keep pounding on Alana” she writes. “Even more want me to keep pounding on Satan. To take authority and pray Satan back to hell and Alana back to Christ. Jesus, instead, asks me to step out of the boat.”

But throughout most of the book, Patricia continues to pound on Islam. She writes about her steady diet of news stories claiming the Islam is violent and experiences with Muslims that are negative, putting Alana on the defensive. Alana defends Islam against the barrage of the news stories that emphasize violence in the name of Islam. She pleads that her mother stops watching the news and begins to understand that “I know firsthand about Islamic peace, through my own life and from the people who surround me every day.”

As I read Undivided, I noticed a general truth about family dynamics. The more a parent pursues, the more the child creates distance. Patricia’s pursuit to convince Alana that she needs Jesus only backfires because she talks past Alana. Alana distances herself by going weeks without responding to her mother. claims that her choice in converting to Islam wasn’t a “defiant choice of faith”; rather, Islam gave her a passion for God that she never felt before. Islam “holds me together when life seems to pull me in so many places.”

Patricia and Alana’s relationship was divided because they both insisted on being right about their religion. And in being right, the other had to be wrong. The religious battle between this mother and daughter is indicative of the religious battle of truth that seems to be playing out between Christianity and Islam on a global scale.

But not all Christians and Muslims are fighting that battle. In fact, Undivided is an important book because it reveals how this mother and daughter moved from an interfaith battle of right and wrong to walking hand in hand down the interfaith road to peace. Our religions aren’t the problem; it’s our shared desire to prove ourselves right and another wrong that divides us. This dynamic creates a mimetic rivalry because the more I want to be right and prove you wrong, the more you will likely respond by wanting to be right and prove me wrong. Fortunately, Patricia and Alana are no longer consumed by that rivalry. “We’ve moved past the point of needing to prove each other wrong,” writes Alana, “and I’m so grateful for that.”

I’m grateful for that, too. In fact, Alana states, “I find myself not offended” by statements that used to offend her. The spiritual maturity of becoming less offended is crucial for our future. We are so easily offendable, which leads to resentment, bitterness, and violence. If our society would read this book, we would discover how to better manage ourselves when we feel offended. We would discover that despite our interfaith missteps, the point of our religious traditions is not to be right by proving each other wrong, but to step out of the boat. To stop pounding on each other. And to seek reconciliation as we love one another as we would love ourselves.

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

Farkhunda: Their Scapegoat… And Ours

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

A month ago, a brutal and horrific tragedy took place in Afghanistan. A woman by the name of Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry men. This is the story of a scapegoat, but it is also much more. Beneath the surface of this incident lies many layers of violence and humiliation. Reflexive rage against the killers, while understandable, would simply deepen the dark abyss of ignorance and refuel the caldron of hatred that can bubble over again at any time. As I mourn for Farkhunda, I have pondered many issues related to her death that I would like to share. It is my hope that as we reflect on Farkhunda’s courage and the violence heaped upon her, we will take meaningful steps toward peace and reconciliation. We all have work to do, for I believe her blood is on more than the hands of the mob; it is upon all of us.

Farkhunda’s Story

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old student of religious studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had visited the Shrine of the King of Two Swords the day before her death, bringing clothing for the poor. Upset by the superstitious practice of selling charms and amulets outside of a historic shrine, which went against her understanding of Islam, she criticized the shrine attendants and dissuaded visitors from buying. With business threatened, one attendant, Zain-ul-Din, sought to protect his livelihood by undermining Farkhunda’s credibility. He accused her of being an infidel who had burned the Holy Qur’an. Within moments, a mob descended upon Farkhunda, berating and beating her as she denied accusations and begged for mercy. Her cries fell on hundreds of deaf ears as the men continued to pummel her to death. Her bloodied body was then set on fire.

Rush to Judgment

Farkhunda’s story has all the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, complete with a false accusation and a mimetically-propelled mob. The mob was not made up of criminal thugs but regular, mostly young, men. They did not beat and kill her out of a sadistic desire to inflict harm; rather, they were propelled by a sense of righteousness as they struck her. We are most dangerous when we are convinced of our own goodness over and against someone else, especially when caught up in a crowd where self-righteousness is released like a drug into the very air we breathe. Many reading Farkhunda’s story in horror could easily be caught up in the same mob mentality; it is not endemic to Islam or Afghan culture but epidemic across humanity. Even so, such explosive violence can erupt spontaneously but not unconditionally. Tension, insecurity, and a buildup of hostility fuel a mimetic crisis for which the scapegoat is an outlet. Long-damaged by war and corruption, Kabul was a powder keg waiting to be ignited by Farkhunda’s false accusation. In some ways, her murder was more than thirty years in the making.

30 Years of War

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for over three decades. According to Political analyst Helena Malikyar,

Afghans are often praised for their resilience. In reality, they are a nation of survivalists. They are survivors of the communist regime’s brutalities in the 1980s, the mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, tortures, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and loss of loved ones. They are damaged goods.

Of course, all of this describes the state of Afghanistan before 2001 and the never-ending “War on Terror,” but the United States bears some responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan even prior to September 11th. The United States supported rebel Afghan groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, but the weapons we supplied turned against the Afghan people as civil war broke out in the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet retreat. During these years of war, not only did American weapons remain in Afghanistan, killing people on all sides, but the eyes of the American government remained upon Afghanistan as well. According to an article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Afghanistan’s geographic location is strategic to America’s interest in controlling the oil of Central Asia by way of an oil pipeline. Needing a “stabilized” nation through which to build the pipeline, the United States originally supported the Taliban takeover of the nation in spite of their brutal human rights violations, only turning against it when it was clear that the Taliban would not be asset to U.S. oil interests. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has never been in the interests of Afghan citizens but rather in the interest of profit at their expense.

Since American troops began occupying and bombing Afghanistan in 2001, many “official” casualty counts have underestimated the death tolls of Afghan civilians. According to another article by Nafeez Ahmed, the Washington DC-based Physicians For Social Responsibility have estimated that, since the 1990s, US interventions have been responsible for between 3 and 5 million preventable Afghan deaths. Night raids and drone strikes have made a vulnerable citizenry fearful, restless and insecure. In such an environment, Helena Malikyar writes that “today’s survivalist mentality … has no room for vital human virtues of compassion and tolerance.” We bear much responsibility for this environment. It is hard for compassion to take root in soil that has been blown apart by bombs and polluted by blood.

Thus, while individual soldiers may have good intentions, motivated to fight for humanitarian concerns, it is clear that American interests do not align with Afghan interests. The Afghan people have been suffering on behalf of American foreign policies, which have exacerbated corruption and civil unrest. The United States has helped to weave and is deeply entangled in the web of violence that has ensnared Afghanistan.

With the blood of so many Afghans on our hands, the mimetic crisis that fueled Farkhunda’s murder is largely on our hands as well. As my colleague Adam Ericksen said, we may not have cast the stones, but we did cast the bombs.

 The Role of Religion

 There are many who use this tragedy to denounce Islam, claiming that only an inherently violent faith could inspire such violence on its behalf. But any religion can be interpreted either peacefully or violently, and Helena Malikyar’s article makes it clear how a rigid, violent interpretation of Islam could be born in a climate of fear and insecurity. She writes that, “While [pre-war Afghanistan] was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity, tolerance and a code of honour. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, was moderate and tolerant of the “other”.” Yet a steady diet of war, deepening poverty, and exploitation can morph the shape of a communal faith from an arm of outreach to a fortress of refuge. Clinging to one’s faith as a defense against an enemy other can turn a religion that encourages tolerance and hospitality toward others into a pillar of identity that helps define oneself against others.

I believe this destructive use of religion as a defense in a time of insecurity fueled the hostile spirit of the mob when it focused its rage on Farkhunda on that terrible day. Unable to vent their frustrations against heavily-armed military occupiers or corrupt war lords, the men of the mob saw in Farkhunda a threat to Islam and all they held dear, not necessarily because of what Islam is, but because of the way Islam separates them from the enemy “other.” The role religion plays in forming our identities over and against others is insidious and often unconscious, but under certain conditions, it can be deadly.

The spirit of scapegoating violence can easily hijack any religion, for religion can easily be abused. When we claim to have possession of the “Truth,” we can easily be roused to judgment and condemnation over others. Lest we think Islam is unique in this terrible regard, we need not look far into Christian history to see the cross presiding over Crusades, pograms and lynch mobs. Any religion can be twisted against its own teachings of humility and compassion, just as the mob in their ignorance twisted Islam.

True Islam

Farkhunda, on the other hand, represented true Islam – true submission to God – when she put herself at risk to expose economic and spiritual exploitation masquerading under the guise of piety. Angered at those who would take advantage of pilgrims and worshippers, she spoke out, most likely knowing that jeopardizing a business would put her at risk (yet probably unaware of just how much of a risk she was in fact taking).

In speaking out against such exploitive and superstitious practices, Farkhunda was not only following her conscience and her understanding of God’s will. She was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who received the revelation of Islam when he searched out a place of solitude and refuge to pray on behalf of the poor. He saw the corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable and knew intuitively that the true source of life could not be the tribal gods invoked on behalf of the rich against the poor. In a world in which the strong and rich were thought to be favored against the poor and weak, the intuition that God cares the poor could only be born of exceeding compassion. This compassion prepared Muhammad’s heart for the revelation of Allah as the One, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, God of all humanity, rich and poor, weak and strong alike. And this compassion lies at the heart of true Islam.

Faith that bolsters our own identities against others is deadly. Faith that leads us beyond ourselves to the God of mercy and compassion is life-giving.

The tragic irony of Farkhunda’s death, then, is not simply that she was killed while upholding Islam by fellow Muslims who mistakingly thought they were defending the faith. It is also that in their rush to defend Islam and their identity as Muslims, they distorted the faith of Islam, submitting not to the will of the God, but to the principal of accusation, the satan.

The Shape of True Justice

Yet the challenge for those of us looking on from outside the borders of Afghanistan and Islam is not to define ourselves over and against the mob, falling prey to the same spirit of scapegoating and hostility, but to take responsibility for our own role in the violence. Just as the mob destroyed an innocent life in their defense of Islam, distorting their faith in the process, our tax dollars fund the destruction of innocent life in the names of security and freedom, perverting both beyond recognition. In both Farkhunda’s murder and the wars we fight, greed wears a mask of righteous virtue. Just as bystanders allowed the mob to run rampant, we too often stand silently by and allow injustices perpetrated by policies carried out in our name. Our violence feeds a spirit of mistrust and hostility that can erupt in tragedies like Farkhunda’s murder. Then we see barbarity in the “others” and further define ourselves against them. The cycle of violence churns on.

True justice would seek not the destruction but the repentance of the violent. Calling for executions, while understandable, would only further erode compassion where it is needed the most. Reparations should be made not only to Farkhunda’s family, but to the nation of Afghanistan torn apart by war and corruption. Our hands are all stained with blood, and the more we identify ourselves as good over and against the brutal, barbarous “others,” the bloodier they get. The members of the mob have much to learn about compassion and women’s dignity in Islam (a subject worth exploring in full but beyond the scope of this article). We, in turn, must learn that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war,” acknowledge our destruction, and rededicate our time, talent and treasure from warmaking to peacemaking. For the sake of Farkhunda, for the sake of victims of violence everywhere, for the sake of ourselves and for God’s sake, we must all turn from our self-righteousness and submit to the will of the One who is Love, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Ways Mimetic Theory Can Help Create Interfaith Empathy – A Panel Discussion

adam empathy 2I was delighted to be invited to an international discussion about creating more empathy between people of different religions. The panel consisted of a Christian (that was me!), an atheist, and three Muslims.

(You can watch the video by scrolling down.)

The producer of the panel was Edwin Rusch, who is the founding director for the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Edwin’s goal is to create “a worldwide culture of empathy and compassion.” Through articles and videos, the website explores the arts, sciences, religion, and much more.

Sheima Salam Summer brought the panel together. I was introduced to Sheima about a year ago through our mutual friend, Lindsey Paris-Lopez. Lindsey suggested that I read Sheima’s book How to Be a Happy Muslims. As I state in the video, it’s a wonderful book that has taught me to be a happier Christian. I’m grateful for Sheima’s friendship, her book, and her blogging at howtobeahappymuslim.com.

Our other panelists were my new Muslim friends Amal Damaj and Eric Abdulmonaim Merkt. Amal enjoys studying the Quran and discovering connections between some of its verses and modern research findings in science and sociology. Abdulmonaim is a Sufi Muslim. He has a master’s degree in religion and a degree in philosophy.

I brought René Girard and mimetic theory into the discussion. Although not always explicit, I soon discovered that the principles of mimetic theory were permeating our discussion. So, from the conversation, I decided to make a top 10 list of the ways that that mimetic theory can help foster empathy across our religious and atheist traditions:

  1. Girard’s mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, help us better understand empathy as a natural process, but that there are positive and negative aspects to it. For example, in the same way we can imitate a smile, we can imitate a scowl.
  2. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition leads us to empathize in a positive way with the poor, weak, marginalized, and scapegoats of human culture.
  3. Atheism’s empathy comes from underlying values in our common humanity.
  4. Islam’s empathy is based on receiving the abundant mercy of God who has infinite empathy for creation.
  5. Christianity’s empathy is based on God in Jesus walking in human shoes/sandals. Since we recorded the discussion during Holy Week, I discussed Jesus empathizing with our pain and suffering on Good Friday.
  6. Empathy can help us overcome the scapegoat mechanism.
  7. To “know thy self” is to “know thy self” in relationship to others.
  8. The function of Satan the Accuser plays a similar role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – to encourage us to mimic the satanic accusation against our scapegoats.
  9. We can avoid creating an identity “over-and-against” another group by creating an identity that is “with” another group.
  10. Creating interfaith empathy and an identity that is “with” another group can be fostered by bringing people together to work for a common good. This is a form of positive mimesis and empathy. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core is a good example.

We talked about so much more! I’d love to know if this discussion stirred up any comments or questions for you about empathy in relation to mimetic theory or interfaith dialogue. Please leave your comments below!

My Biggest Concern for My Gay Son is Religion: On Being Catholic and Gay

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

I recently wrote about a former member of my church youth group. She was everything that a youth pastor could ask for in a student. She was kind, welcoming, smart, funny, and she took following Jesus seriously. And I’ll never forget the day that she told our youth group that she is a lesbian. Fortunately, she continues to be a faithful follower of Christ.

I’m a proud member of the United Church of Christ. We’ve had a long history that dates back to 1972 of being open and affirming of our sisters and brothers who identify as LGBTQ. As far as churches go, it was safe and relatively easy for this young woman to identify herself to our church as a lesbian.

But what about LGBTQ Catholics? What’s the experience like for many of them?

I was pleasantly surprised when Pope Francis stated, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” Well, for one thing, YOU’RE THE POPE! You could judge whomever you want. But you don’t judge. That’s because Pope Francis know it’s not his place to judge. It’s not the Catholic Church’s place to judge. It’s not even God’s place to judge. After all, Jesus, the one in whom the fullness of God rested, didn’t come to judge or condemn the world of sin. Rather, on the cross Jesus reveals how God deals with sin: by forgiving it.

Obviously, there’s much more to Catholicism than Pope Francis. I recently came across Owning our Faith. It tells the inspiring story of LGBTQ Catholics who are owning their faith and their sexuality.

At 8:20, a father talks about his gay Catholic son. He says, “My biggest concern with Matthew being gay is religion.”

That statement, just as much as Pope Francis’ statement, actually gives me hope. Why? Because Christianity, including Catholicism, isn’t really religious. In fact, Christianity is the anti-religion.

What is Religion?

As René Girard has taught us, religion in its archaic form was indeed something to be concerned about. Religion was formed from conflict. As proto-human groups began to emerge, they experienced inner rivalry that threatened to destroy the group. We now know that most of these first human communities experience self-destruction in a war of all against all. But in other groups, the war of all against all turned into a war of all against one. Girard calls this the Scapegoat Mechanism. The group united against a victim, whom Girard calls the scapegoat. From the Scapegoat Mechanism emerged religion, including myth, prohibitions, laws, and ritual. When conflicts re-emerged, the elements of archaic religion marked a future scapegoat. The community’s hostility was channeled toward the scapegoat who was sacrificed and temporary peace and safety were restored.

Catholic theologian James Alison describes the scapegoat mechanism in his book Broken Hearts and New Creations as,

…our tendency to create group unity, togetherness and survival by resolving conflict through an all-against one which brings temporary peace and unity to the group at the expense of someone, or some group, held to be evil.

Religion, in the archaic sense, created a system of laws and prohibitions that marked some people as “in” and others as “out.” Christianity challenged that impulse within archaic religions. Christianity is not religious at all. Christianity is the anti-religion.

Christianity: The Anti-Religion

Whereas the archaic religious tendency is to stand in judgment against a scapegoat, Jesus, God-with-us, actually became a scapegoat. Jesus was the ultimate revelation that God has nothing to do with laws and prohibitions that lead to scapegoating. They are purely human constructs. Rather, God has everything to do with creating a new human community. This community would not be based on religious laws and prohibitions that excluded some people as “other.” Instead, this community would be based on God’s love that embraces the “other.”

This anti-religious element within Christianity has profound implications for Catholicism. As James Alison states,

Please notice what this means: in any seriously ‘religious’ culture, the Catholic faith will, quite properly, be regarded as ‘not religious enough.’ Inevitably, as the Catholic faith permeates, various things will start to become unimportant: there will no longer be any good reason for sacred rules…

So, as a Protestant, I give thanks that the religious tendency to scapegoat is unraveling within all forms of Christianity. The Owning Our Faith  video reveals just that. The more Christians hold onto the ancient religious tendency to live by sacred rules that lead to scapegoating, including the tendency to scapegoat our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, the more we hear Jesus calling us to live an alternative way of being. That alternative is the Church. Whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox or whatever form it may take, the Church is called to form community, not by uniting against a scapegoat, but by uniting in love.

May we all own that faith.

 

Keep up with Owning Our Faith on Facebook

Relaxing into Lent: Identity and those Voices in Your Head

"The Temptation of Christ" by Ary Scheffer

“The Temptation of Christ” by Ary Scheffer

The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.

In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships – I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.

I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.

Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”

If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.

Lent and Identity

“Who are you?”

That’s the identity question the devil used to tempt Jesus, and it’s the question Lent poses to us. The answer involves our relationships. Human identity is always formed in relationships. But here’s the important point: we can take responsibility to choose our relationships.

When confronted with the temptation to doubt his God given identity as his Father’s Son, Jesus kept his faith by emphasizing his relationship with his Father.

In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen states that the words God gave to Jesus at his baptism are the same words God gives to everyone. “[T]he words, ‘You are my Beloved’ revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not.”

God’s voice comes to everyone and declares that we are all God’s Beloved children. That’s a beautiful insight, but Nouwen also knew that, like Jesus, we hear other voices that tempt to doubt our relationship with God. Nouwen wrote:

Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.

We all hear those voices in our heads. Like they did with Jesus, those voices tempt us into doubting our relationship with the God who loves us unconditionally. They tempt us into relationships that are based on proving ourselves worthy of love.

Relaxing into Lent

Don’t believe those voices. Nothing is more un-Christian than having to prove we are worthy of being loved.

Instead, believe in God’s voice that says, “You are my beloved.” The journey of Lent leads us to the truth that we are already loved. Lent isn’t primarily about giving stuff up. Only give stuff up during Lent if it helps lead you to the truth that you are loved just as you are. The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial. The Christian journey isn’t about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor. The Christian journey, including the Lenten journey, is about relaxing into the truth that God only relates to us like a parent who unconditionally loves her child. As theologian James Alison says, the Christian journey is about relaxing “into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about. It’s about being loved.”

Renewed Trust for a New Year: Blessed Rosh Hashanah

Image from unfinishedlivesblog.com

Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year! Rosh Hashanah commenced at sunset yesterday evening, and with it the 5775th year of the Jewish calendar. So here at the Raven Foundation we wish a Happy New Year to all of our Jewish friends, and find in this holy day an opportunity for reflection upon both our inward faith and our outward practice of shalom.

Like its secular counterpart, New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah is a time to make resolutions, solemn commitments to strengthen our faith and character. For Christians wishing to stand in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers today, the natural place to start is to repent of violence, especially violence against Jews throughout history continuing to today, and to make a resolution for continued reconciliation. The tragedy of Crusades and pogroms, culminating in their ugliest manifestation in the Holocaust but subtly pervading Christian culture in innumerable instances of anti-Semitism, is something Christians cannot afford to ignore or forget. The underlying sin beneath such sickness of heart and mind is the satanic principal of blame that turns the Jewish people into the scapegoats of humanity when it accuses them of putting Jesus to death on the cross. Such a misperception betrays the symbolism of the cross, which is that all humanity, every one of us, is responsible for unwittingly victimizing and hoisting blame onto others, and that God is found not in the triumphant but in the victim. Furthermore, it rejects the tradition that nurtured the thoroughly Jewish Jesus and the foundation upon which our faith in the nonviolent Love of God is grounded. For Christians reading this, being disgusted by the violence that has harmed so many people for so long is just the beginning. We must also engage daily in the work of reconciliation, which means deepening our understanding in order to build friendships. For me, that means deepening my understanding of Judaism and Hebrew Scripture not only as an integral part of my faith, but as a metanarrative of human history, connecting me not only with my Jewish brothers and sisters but with all people.

That process includes learning about Rosh Hashanah itself. Until I began to do the research for this article, all I knew was that it is the Jewish New Year. The articles I have read are merely appetizers, and now I’m looking for literature to take me deeper into Jewish philosophy and theology. But what I’ve learned so far from chabad.org is enough to fascinate me:

Rosh Hashanah … emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. …[T]his is also the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.

Continued existence depends on the renewal of divine desire for the world. This statement cuts to the heart of the Girardian hermeneutic — the lens of God’s nonviolent love through which we understand scripture and seek meaning in the world — that we seek to proclaim at the Raven Foundation. This lens is indebted to Jewish tradition as expressed in the Hebrew Bible and the rich interpretation of rabbis and scholars and believers throughout history wrestling with their faith like Jacob in the Jabbok.

God’s desire for the world, God’s creative love overflowing into stars and rocks and trees and animals and all of us, is t the foundation upon which we exist and grow and evolve. But we fail to trust this love, and in doing so we fail to live up to our end of our relationship with the Creator. For we cannot glorify God’s love if we cannot trust in it. Coming to trust this love is the struggle recorded in Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible is a “text in travail,” the story of humanity’s history of coming to understand God and each other, with plenty of stumbling and correction along the way. It can be understood in terms of the contrast between God’s beneficent, self-giving desire and the human twisting of desire into an instrument of self-promotion at the expense of others.

The article quoted above goes on to describe Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of Adam and Eve, and the anniversary of humanity’s first sin. We can understand this sin in terms of desire thwarted, trust disrupted, Love interrupted. The serpent can be seen as envy — desire for oneself over and against another — personified and whispered into the hearts of our first parents. God gave to us humans in our infancy the world for a playground, a joyful place, to be cared for and enjoyed in perfect Love. All of creation was pronounced good before the thought of being like God and knowing good from evil entered the minds of Adam and Eve. Suddenly, being made very good, in the image of God, was not enough, and the notion that evil could even exist was born. It was as if a nagging suspicion that God could desire something less than wonderful for God’s own creatures was born in Adam and Eve that day. More than mere disobedience, eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a breaking of trust in God’s self-giving love.  Subsequent sins can be traced to that lack of trust in God’s life-giving character. The notion that God could be less than Love has distorted God’s image in the world by thwarting God’s image-bearers, us.

A correction to our misunderstanding of God as a fearful, withholding deity is found in the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, which is also said to have taken place on Rosh Hashanah. The fear of a withholding deity had manifested in religious cultures built upon an economy of exchange – “I give in order to receive” – or sacrifice.  In a fearful world of diseases, tribal feuds, and scarce resources, the idea of appeasing an angry god for a sense of security was not far-fetched. Belief in a god who would ask for the sacrifice of one’s child was normal. Abraham, who had been called out from his tribe and family, was still coming to know the one Creator God who stands apart from the gods of scarcity, retribution and fear. So the thought that God demanded his son Isaac as sacrifice, while appalling to us, might have been expected, though certainly not welcomed, by Abraham.

But when God stays Abraham’s hand, a clear message is given. The fearsome god who demands sacrifice is not the God of Israel, not the God of the all creation, who needs nothing but rather provides the whole world for us. The message will later be reinforced by the prophets in whose tradition Jesus follows, particularly Hosea, who claims that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.”

The parallel between Adam and Eve and Abraham and Isaac extends beyond the usual emphasis on the first humans’ disobedience contrasted with Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command. It is a story of God’s proactive reconciliation, reestablishing trust and restoring the faith of a people that had been swayed by fear. Through Abraham, God was to bless the whole world, and the rejection of human sacrifice was a message to violent world that had God was much more loving and compassionate than they had imagined. It takes time to come to faith in such a God, learning through mistakes and consequences, constantly tempted to fall back on fear and the logic of tit-for-tat exchange and retribution. The Jewish scriptures honestly record human misunderstandings of God as well as genuine revelation, giving not only Jews but all of us a record of our evolving humanity. They bear witness to sacred relationship between the perfectly loving, gracious, generous God and his fearful, mistrusting but divinely-sealed image-bearers. We owe them our gratitude.

If the Hebrew Scripture is a “text in travail,” then all of us children of Abraham — Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike — are a people in travail, struggling to overcome our mortal fears that lock us in sin, striving to better magnify the love of the God.  We glorify God by committing ourselves to reconciliation and peacemaking. So again, on this New Year’s day, I commit myself to learning about and renouncing the evil done to my Jewish brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus.  I acknowledge my own indebtedness to Judaism, of which I am becoming more aware every day. The scapegoating of Jews by Christians is a misunderstanding of Judaism and Christianity that reverses the trajectory of the Hebrew Bible moving from sacrifice to mercy, a trajectory implied in the remembrance of both Adam and Abraham on Rosh Hashanah.

As I join my Jewish brothers and sisters in eating apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year — because yum  — I reiterate today’s blessing. May we all be inscribed with compassion and sealed in trust in the loving God of all of us. Shalom and Amen.

What ISIL Beheadings Can Teach Us about God and The Cross

RG evilWhat’s the difference between a beheading and a crucifixion? I ask the question as a Christian because we profess that a method of execution every bit as shocking, and perhaps even more cruel, than the beheader’s axe is the vehicle of our salvation. If we do not reflect upon the difference (and the disturbing similarities) between our veneration of the cross and the state support of the beheader’s axe by the self-declared Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) then we will not find a way to respond to the provocation from ISIL that does not betray our savior.

Should US Christians Support Military Action Against ISIL?

Our horror at these executions is in stark contrast to the cool, unfeeling attitude of ISIL. We can see all too clearly what they cannot, that their victims are innocent and do not deserve to be killed, let alone in such a gruesome way. And we are keenly sensitive to the suffering of the victims’ families who are doubly victimized by the public display of their loved ones’ violent deaths. Why is ISIL blind to what we can see? Are they so inhuman, so outside the pale of normal human emotions that they are the ones who do not deserve to live? Isn’t it a good and right use of the US military to seek out destroy such terrorists, such inhuman humans? Should we, the good citizens of the good nation, become their executioners?

Many US Christians answer yes to this question, and they do so in good conscience. The death of our savior on the Cross is the very thing that has sensitized us to the plight of victims and demonstrated what the Hebrew prophets had been proclaiming with very little success: that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God who hears the cries of the innocent, the oppressed, the widows and orphans. ISIL’s rigid enforcement of their cruel brand of Sharia in Syria and Iraq has generated a wail of suffering that has surely reached God’s ears. Christians confess that the God of our ancestors is a God who desires not empty sacrifices or mindless obedience to the law, but who longs for mercy, for justice, for humility and love. When the Kings of Israel and Judah and the Priests serving in God’s Temple turned away from God’s will in these things, the entire nation suffered under God’s judgment. What better use of government authority and might, what would be more in keeping with service to our God, than to use whatever power we have to defend victims of oppression and violence?

Whose Side is God On?           

Indeed, this is a compelling argument. It holds immense appeal precisely because it feels so right. It situates us on God’s side, as good people executing God’s will, but the difficult truth is that ISIL is compelled by the same argument. Their express aim is to inaugurate an era of God’s peace and justice by restoring God’s rule on earth, what is known in Islam as the Caliphate. Their belief that their goal is so noble, so in keeping with God’s will for peace, that any means is justified to achieve their end. Including the beheading, imprisoning, and punishment of their enemies – God’s enemies – whether infidel or Muslim. Isn’t that our argument, too?

So what makes us right and them so wrong? One reason I have heard offered in mimetic theory circles is that Islam is a mythological religion perpetuating pagan beliefs rather than revealing anything true about God. Such a claim is made in the context of mimetic theory’s understanding of the role of myth in human culture, which runs counter to popular conceptions. Myth is often praised for its poetic beauty or as a window into the complex realities of the human psyche. While these observations may be true, according to mimetic theory they entirely miss the salient point. To summarize all too briefly, mimetic theory holds that myth hides the truth of human violence and instead perpetrates the mistaken belief that violence is sacred. Myths tell stories in which the enemies of the community who are causing all the trouble, mayhem, conflict, and natural disasters must be expelled or killed for peace and harmony to be restored. Because these trouble makers are both the cause of the crisis and the cure when they are expelled, the mythological mind sees them as divine beings, gods who are capable of harm as well as good. To call Islam a religion of myth is to call it a religion of violence and to accuse it of perpetuating this ambivalence about God’s nature. It’s a damning accusation made in sharp contrast to the parallel claim in mimetic theory that Christianity is the religion that exposed the lie of the mythological world by revealing that God is not fickle or ambivalent. The Christian God is a God without any violence at all; violence belongs to humans and God longs for us to leave it behind as a failed instrument of peace to embrace love and forgiveness instead.

God Grieves All Violence

I believe that this use of mimetic theory to condemn Islam is denounced by the theory itself. Mimetic theory does not condemn Islam as an archaic religion but rather condemns the practice of demonizing others for their violence while justifying our own. This sin is not exclusive to Muslims or to Christians; all of us are guilty at one time or another of believing that our own violence is necessary and good, justified by our noble ends and blessed by God. I embrace mimetic theory for its insight that no divine agency is required to understand the phenomenon of violence – violence belongs entirely to the domain of human beings. Mimetic theory critiques all explanations of God’s involvement with human affairs that deny human culpability for violence, whether Christian or Islamic.

Christian theologians using mimetic theory have shown me that God entered into the history of human violence at the Cross not to endorse violence but to discredit it once and for all. When Christians buy into theories that say that God required his son’s death for our salvation, they are falling victim to mythological thinking. They are no better than ISIL, which betrays its own religion’s insistence on mercy as God’s unique and defining characteristic. (For a deeper discussion of the nonviolent resources in Islam, see my Raven colleague Lindsey Paris-Lopez’s recent article, Thirteen Years of Interfaith Reconciliation: 9/11 Then and Now.)

When Christians seek to destroy ISIL for their use of violence, we fail to see that the Cross and the beheader’s axe reveal the same thing: God does not require the deaths of any victims, including his own Son; God grieves all such deaths. By allowing himself to be killed by agents of government and religious righteousness, God intended to send a clear message that “when you kill your enemy, no matter how convinced you are that you are doing my will, you are killing an innocent victim, one of my beloved children.” The message of the Cross is that peace will not come by way of violence. Look at our own reaction to the beheadings – have we responded with mercy and peace or have we been incited to murderous rage? The latter, of course.

By seeking to purify our world of ISIL, we are of the same mind with them as they seek to purify their world by violent means. We each define and defend our communities by whom we exclude and are willing to kill without remorse. This is “violent atonement”, a mythological way of thinking and the source of the eternal return of myth in which life repeats itself in endless, identical cycles never heading anywhere, devoid of hope. Those who hope for peace and who claim to follow the Prince of Peace must abandon our mythological belief that God approved of and required the violence at the Cross. Instead, we need to accept that the violence at the Cross was as abhorrent to God as the violence of ISIL beheadings and, an even more scandalous claim, the violence at the Cross was as abhorrent to God as the violence we commit against ISIL. Only then will we see that from the Cross, as a victim of human violence, God forgave us. Only then will we understand the radical mission that the risen and forgiving Christ entrusted to us – the ministry of reconciliation of all people. The only way out of the eternal, futile return of violence for violence is through the way of God’s “nonviolent atonement”: only inclusive, all-embracing, endlessly forgiving love returned for violence can transform individuals and the world. Christians will not be worthy of the name until we believe as strongly in the power of love as our Savior did from the Cross.

 

For a further exploration of the difference between myth and Scripture, see the study guide, Romulus & Remus Meet Cain & Abel. For use in small groups, it is available here in the Patheos Premium store. Other study guides from Teaching Nonviolent Atonement for adult and youth groups are available here. Coming soon, a live video chat exploring mimetic theory and Islam with Adam Ericksen and Lindsey Paris-Lopez. The chat information will be posted on the Raven Foundation Facebook page.