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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.

 

Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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40 Questions For Rainbow Flag-Waving Christians, But Only 1 That Matters

A few weeks ago, Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition posted an article in response to the Supreme Court’s decision bemoaning the fact that we can no longer discriminate against people who identify as LGBTQ.

The court’s decision has people like DeYoung in a bit of a depression. He writes, “There are many reasons for our lamentations, from fear that religious liberties will be take away to worries about social ostracism and cultural marginalization.”

I sympathize with DeYoung on this point. I mean, social ostracism and cultural marginalization is a painful experience. Just ask the LGBTQ community.

DeYoung goes on to ask 40 questions to Christians who support the Supreme Court’s decision. 40 questions! Surely, with that many questions bombarding us, there must be something wrong with Christians supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians!

Allow me to simplify things and boil those 40 questions down to one. It’s the question that Jesus asked and it’s the only question that matters when it comes to the Bible.

Jesus was confronted by religious authorities who didn’t like the people he was hanging out with. According to their interpretation of scripture, Jesus was hanging out with sinners, which, in their eyes, made Jesus a sinner, too. Jesus responded to them with a reading instruction. He quoted the prophet Hosea as saying,

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

This is the key that Jesus provides for interpreting the Bible. Anyone can quote scripture, even the devil can do that. The only question that matters is whether we are going to interpret the Bible through a sacrificial hermeneutic that leads us to exclude others or a merciful hermeneutic that leads us to include others.

Theologian James Alison has emphasized Jesus’ instructions on biblical interpretation in his adult education series Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. James’ approach to the only question that matters in biblical interpretation is so important that I’m going to quote it in full.

Jesus is not saying to them “I think you should go and look up the text of Hosea.” Rather he’s saying “You all know that what God says in the Prophets is ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ But this is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it in two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice. Whenever you interpret anything morally, whenever you engage in any act of religious discrimination, as in your disapproval of the people I hang out with, are you obeying the word ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice’? It is perfectly possible to interpret the law in such a way that it demands sacrifice, creates a group of the good and casts someone out. As also it is perfectly possible to interpret the law as something always to be made flexible for the benefit of those who need reaching and bringing into richer life, leaving the good to look after themselves and going after the lost sheep. But only one of these two is acting in obedience to the word in Hosea.”

When we understand Jesus’ hermeneutical principle to interpret through God’s mercy, it means that we won’t discriminate against the LGBTQ community for any reason, but especially not for a religious reason. Why? Because Jesus teaches us to interpret the Bible through merciful love that seeks to include, not through the sacrificial mechanism that seeks to exclude.

And so we don’t need to ask or answer 40 questions. When it comes to the Bible, according to Jesus there is only one question we need to answer. Will we interpret with a merciful hermeneutic or a sacrificial hermeneutic?

 

Image Credit: Flickr, NathanMack87, Rainbow America, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Copyright: nebari / 123RF Stock Photo

The Supreme Court: Why Christians Can and Should Support Marriage Equality

Today’s Supreme Court decision that ruled same sex-couples have the right to marry nationwide has many Christians asking a question, “Can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage?”*

I believe that not only can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage, faithful Christians should support same sex marriage.

First, the can. Many people think the Bible is a stumbling block when it comes to this issue. They feel that they can’t support same sex marriage because the Bible is against homosexuality. But what if we’ve misunderstood the Bible? That’s the case that James Alison makes in his lectures The Shape of God’s Affection. Alison points out that heterosexuality and homosexuality are modern concepts. The terms were coined around the 1860s and it’s only been during the last 60 years that we’ve come to a scientific understanding of sexual orientation in general, and homosexual orientation in particular. Pre-modern people generally assumed all people were naturally attracted to members of the opposite gender. Although the percentage is often debated, we know now that roughly 4% of human beings are naturally attracted to members of the same gender. Why does that matter? There are 7 passages in the Bible that we moderns use to discuss homosexuality. The problem is that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t talking about our modern concept of homosexual orientation. To impose our modern concept of sexuality on the Bible is to misunderstand the very important critique the Bible makes in those 7 passages. Indeed, those passages denounce sexual sins, but they are the sins of gang rape and cultic prostitution. The ancient Hebrews and the authors of the New Testament were concerned about sexual abuse and believed the sexual humiliation of another was a very bad thing, but they were not commenting on homosexuality as we understand it today.

Let’s take the verse most often referred to in the New Testament: Romans 1:26.  Previously, Paul stated that many have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” It is “For this reason,” Paul continues, that

God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The New Testament scholar Neil Elliot wrote an essay called The Apostle Paul on Sexuality. The essay supports Alison’s argument that the biblical authors weren’t talking about homosexuality, but about sexual abuse. Elliot claims that Romans 1 was principally about the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a very infamous and active sex life. Elliot quotes ancient historians and claims:

Nero’s sexual passion for his own mother was “notorious,” … but then Nero “practiced every kind of obscenity,” defiling “almost every part of his body with men and women, usually under threat of force” … His cruelty and sexual predations paled, in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy, next to his profligacy with money: when he had devoured his personal fortune he turned to “robbing temples.”

In the Romans 1 passage, then, Paul is not against our modern understanding of homosexuality, but rather against sexual abuse and excessive sexual indulgence.

Now for why Christians should support same sex marriage. The speech made by Washington State Representative Drew Hansen provides an important theological account of what God is doing on this issue. Representative Hansen is a Christian committed to the way of Christ who voted for Washington State’s same sex marriage bill when it came up a few years ago. Hansen said, “What if God is doing a new thing in the church right now on this question?  I mean, remember, as Christians we believe that it is the stone the builder rejects that becomes the capstone.”

This is a crucial point for Christians. Hansen illuminates the “truth about God” that Paul referred to in Romans. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the One who reveals who God truly is and what it means to by truly Human, is the Cornerstone that the builders rejected. As the Son of God and the Son of Man, he has become the capstone to our theology and to our anthropology. By being rejected, Jesus radically identifies with those who are rejected by other human beings. Theologian Walter Wink reflects on this principle in his essay Homosexuality and the Bible:

God sides with the powerless.  God liberates the oppressed.  God suffers with the suffering … In light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospels imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.

It is unmistakably clear because the particularly Jewish Jesus suffered in order to show us that God in Christ identifies with all who are rejected and excluded. In this way, African American theologians can say Jesus is Black. In this way, GLBT theologians can say Jesus is Gay. But here’s the next important point: Jesus freely allowed himself to suffer and be rejected by his fellow human beings so that our pattern of rejecting others would be transformed into a pattern that loves and embraces others. Refusing to allow GLBT people to participate in the joys and challenges of marriage is a way of rejecting them. The Holy Spirit guides us to include people into relationships of love and compassion, whether we are straight or LGBTQ.

When it comes to same sex marriage, the authentic Christian response is not one of exclusion and rejection, but one of love and affirmation.

And that’s why faithful Christians can and should support same-sex marriage.

*This article is reposted with revisions from a previous Raven Foundation article published in 2012.

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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.

What About the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzanne and I recently delivered a workshop on the Bible and violence at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago. We highlighted the differences between the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

You can read the description of our workshop here, but to summarize, in the Roman myth, Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city of Rome, and the god Mars vindicates Romulus by welcoming him to heaven and divinizing him as the god Quirinus. The biblical account is similar, but has important differences. Cain kills his brother Abel, founds a city, but God doesn’t vindicate the murderer. Rather, God actually vindicates the victim by hearing Abel’s blood crying out from the earth.

In the Roman myth, the god vindicates the persecutor’s violence and ignores the victim. In the biblical account, God hears the voice of the victim and seeks to heal and protect the repentant persecutor from a cycle of violence that might turn against him.

The differences couldn’t be more profound.

But as we talked about those difference, someone asked an important question, “You are telling us about the compassionate God of the Bible, but what about the Canaanites?”

It is the most troubling story in the Bible. As they enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes – including women, children, men, and animals. As if God wasn’t clear enough, God instructs Israel to kill more than just the Canaanites. God says to “annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perrizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you do thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Our questioner was right. How can we talk about a biblical God of compassion in the face of genocide and Holy War? What about the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites?

Great question.

Peter Enns does a remarkable job exploring some answers in his masterful book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Peter discusses the various answers historically offered to justify God’s demand for genocide, but there are two answers in particular that interest me.

Did God Actually Command Genocide?

First, it’s important to note that while the Bible tells a horrific story of the conquest of Canaan, there is no evidence outside of the Bible that the conquest actually happened. Generations of scholars have known that there are no textual sources to corroborate the conquest. So, scholars looked to archeology to support the biblical claim. But archeology has come up empty, too. Peter states,

Biblical archeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes it did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded.

Archeologists could be wrong, of course. Maybe archeological evidence of a conquest will emerge. Still, with such a massive conquest, you would expect archeological evidence to be easy to find. The lack of archeological evidence sheds serious doubt on the historical facts of the conquest. But if we claim that the conquest never happened, we’re still left with an important question – Why is the genocide in the Bible? Peter postulates,

It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1,000 BCE) stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old…What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light indeed. He didn’t.

In a similar vein, James Alison talks about the “conquest” of Canaan in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim. James also highlights the lack of archeological evidence and provides another explanation for the violent story. He states that the story as we have it was finally solidified by the ancient Jews, known as Judeans, who were returning from the Babylonian exile. As they entered into the Promised Land, they told the story to those who remained in the land during the exile. Understandably, those who remained in the land feared those who were returning from exile. James states that the story’s purpose,

[W]ould have been a way of letting the current occupiers of the land know, among other things: “You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.” In other words…the account of the ancient conquest becomes a backdrop to a modern co-opting without conquest.

If Peter and James are right, God didn’t call for genocide. Nor was the point of the story to strike fear in Israel’s enemies. Rather, the point was to alleviate the fears of those who were left behind in Judea during the Babylonian Exile.

Jesus and the Canaanites

Which leads me to Peter’s second point – Jesus and the Canaanites. Interestingly, there were no Canaanites in the first century. They were long gone as a people. And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus met a Canaanite woman. Peter claims this “Is the only time Israel’s ancient foes are mentioned in the New Testament.”

The woman wasn’t actually a Canaanite. In fact, Mark and Luke claim she was a Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew intentionally called her a Canaanite, not because he was lying, but because he had a point to make about their “ancient foes” – that the Canaanites might actually have been exemplars of faith.

The Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus refused by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted and Jesus refused again, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Dogs?!? Ouch. Jesus, that wasn’t nice.

But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Like Joshua destroyed the walls around Jericho to defeat the Canaanites, this Canaanite woman destroyed the wall around Jesus’ heart. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.”

What about the Canaanites?

In the end, I don’t know if these answers are satisfying. Whether or not it actually happened, the story of Israel’s conquest over the Canaanites is horrific. But the last word in the Bible about the Canaanites belongs to Jesus, and it’s a positive one. Peter claims that Jesus was fully immersed in his Jewish context when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lead us to a different view of, and a different ethic toward, our enemies:

Jesus, taking a page from some Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) would complicate things. God’s people are a light that shines into dark places, or salt that makes the whole meal taste good, or a pinch of yeast that makes the entire loaf rise. Wherever God’s people are, it makes a difference—for better, and without violence.

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ: How to Overcome the Place of Shame

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had the same experience. Their shared experience could have defined their lives. It could have made them bitter. They could have sought revenge. But they didn’t. Instead, they invited us to change. They invited us to live into a better world.

Monica Lewinsky and the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both occupied the place of shame. In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture.  In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.

The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”

But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”

And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:

The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors… that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created.

A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over-and-against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!

Sure, Monica made “wrong turns.” But by shaming her, we gained a false sense of moral superiority that is rooted in our lack of self-esteem. After all, deep down we know that we have made wrong turns, too. We have all compromised ourselves morally and ethically. Shaming allows us to project our own sense of shame upon another. When it comes to shaming, it’s not really about them. It’s really about us.

Monica’s statement is prophetic because she is putting the price of public shaming where it belongs – on us. We are all responsible for the culture of shame. By claiming that “we have created” a culture of shame, Monica admits that she also needs to take responsibility for her part in participating in that culture. But she is also taking responsibility for transforming our culture of shame. Monica explains how we can change that culture,

Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop. And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. The shift begins by… returning to a long held value of compassion and empathy.

That’s the key. Yet, typically we respond to shame and humiliation by mimicking shame and humiliation. We shame the shamers. We scapegoat the scapegoater. We project our own shame upon someone else. When we do this, we have only reinforced the spirit of shame that permeates our culture.

The answer to shame is not more shame. It’s more compassion, more empathy, and more love for others and for ourselves.

Jesus Christ and the Place of Shame

jesus teacherJesus and Monica were both publicly exposed, shamed, and humiliated. Of course, Jesus’ public humiliation didn’t happen on the Internet; it happened on a cross. Jesus hung on the cross, naked, exposed, and humiliated for everyone to see. The cross was a place of torture and shame.

Jesus didn’t make “wrong turns” as Monica did. He was innocent. And yet the cross reveals that innocence doesn’t matter. He was still mocked, shamed, tortured, and killed.

The remarkable thing about Jesus is the same thing that I find remarkable about Monica Lewinsky – neither are defined by their experience of shame. Neither want revenge. Rather, both invite us into a new reality where the cycle of shame stops and a new cycle of compassion and empathy begins.

Jesus invites us into a new life – a new way of being in the world. Unfortunately, human cultures run on shaming a scapegoat. As James Alison states in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, we humans would much rather someone else occupy the place of shame than we occupy that place ourselves. And so we point the finger of accusation and shame against others so that we can feel safe.

But when we play by the rules of shame, no one escapes life without experiencing it. Everyone, whether we make wrong turns or not, experiences shame. The good news is that we don’t have to play by those rules. In fact, we can learn an entirely new game.

Jesus called that new game the “Kingdom of God.” He based that game on two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Your neighbor, Jesus reminded us, might just be your enemy, the one who shames you. While that often hurts, Jesus gives us the freedom to respond to shame with compassion and empathy.

Even more important, Jesus invites us to take responsibility for the way we all participate in the culture of shame. We all stand in need of forgiveness and Jesus hung on the cross to offer that forgiveness. In the face of human violence and shame committed against him, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

How Monica and Jesus Overcame the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both reveal that we can overcome our experience of shame. The place of shame is overcome not by projecting our own sense of shame upon another or by the revenge of shaming those who shame us. Rather, it is overcome by responding to shame with compassion and empathy for ourselves, our neighbors, and even those we call our enemies.

Our culture is run by cycles of shame, but we don’t have to be. By receiving the forgiveness and compassion of God, we can run our lives by different rules. The only way to transform a culture of violence and shame is to play by different rules – the rules of self-giving love and compassion.

Ted Cruz and God’s Political Subversion

Ted Cruz at Liberty University (Photo: screen shot from YouTube.)

Ted Cruz at Liberty University (Photo: screen shot from YouTube.)

Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare a presidential run for 2016. His formal announcement came this morning at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.

Cruz’s announcement at Liberty University was an important political strategy. Cruz is the poster child of the Tea Party movement. He wants to spread his influence by appealing to evangelicals. There is no better place to garner the evangelical vote than the largest Christian university on the planet.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says that Cruz’s message at Liberty was essentially this, “I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign.”

Cruz put his religious faith at the center of his campaign by invoking God and American exceptionalism, while at the same time critiquing Democrats and Obamacare. Liberty students cheered as Cruz passionately claimed, “God bless Liberty University…God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”

Cruz is the first serious candidate to officially throw his hat in the presidential ring. Because he quickly invoked God, it’s a safe bet that future Republican and Democratic candidates will also invoke the blessings of God the Almighty.

So, let’s talk God and politics.

There is a good reason that we aren’t supposed to talk about those two topics at the dinner table. It’s because of the human tendency to claim that God is on our side of the religious and political divide. And, if God is on our side, that means that God is against our enemies. In this sense, the term “God” is merely a social projection of group identity that pits us over-and-against a wicked “other.”

A God who stands with us over-and-against our religious and political enemies is no God at all. It’s an idol; a mere function of human social projection. I would rather be an atheist than believe in that God.

Fortunately, that’s not the God of the Bible. The human understanding of God in the Bible moves from being a tribal god to becoming God of the universe. This God is infinitely bigger than our rivalries of group identity; in fact, the God of the Bible is on a completely different plane than our rivalries over-and-against one another. As such, God subverts our tendency to form group identity over-and-against a wicked other. As James Alison points out in his book Undergoing God, the great Hebrew insight, made first with the prophet Isaiah, is that of monotheism. Alison claims this is important because,

…if there is a God who is not one of the gods, who is not on the same level as anything else at all, then of course it is true to say that there can be no “as opposed to” in God. Or in other words, there is no rivalry at all between God and anything that is.

That insight begins with the prophet Isaiah and culminates in the teaching of Jesus to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus calls his followers to be like the one true God, who subverts the violent human inclination to form group identity in opposition to a scapegoat by modeling God’s love that embraces all people, including those we call our enemies.

But faith in God goes a step further. The Bible never, ever talks about national exceptionalism. Any politician or Christian who invokes American exceptionalism doesn’t do so from biblical faith. As opposed to national exceptionalism, biblical faith is based on national self-critique. Far from God being the one who shores up our exceptionalism, God is the one who comes in our midst and leads us to self-critique. Amos is the earliest prophetic voice in the Bible and other prophets follow his lead of critiquing the nation. Sure, as Alison states,

The first two chapters of Amos consist of a series of quick prophecies against the nations…But this is the build-up to the real criticism, which is of Israel. Where each of the nations gets a couple of verses of criticism, Israel gets ten, and then, from chapter 3 onward, the blast is entirely directed at the ‘we’ (Israel).

The prophets critiqued political institutions when they formed identity over-and-against a convenient other who functioned as the political a scapegoat. That scapegoat might have been a political opponent, another nation, immigrants, or the poor, weak, and marginalized within their society.

I do not want to scapegoat Ted Cruz for invoking the name of God, American exceptionalism, or for critiquing his political opponents. After all, Democrats will likely do the same. In fact, they are already uniting against Ted Cruz.

That’s because uniting over-and-against a wicked other has become the default mechanism of human identity formation. Fortunately, God has nothing to do with that kind of formation because God is not over-and-against anything at all. Rather, God is for us, all of us, finding new ways to develop social cohesion through the spirit of love, forgiveness, and self-criticism.

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.

 

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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.”

4 Things You Need to Know about Terrorism and Religion

Rene on differences and mimeticism 1After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence.  What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:

 

1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.

 

2. Scapegoat Blindness

We should therefore not be afraid to have an honest discussion about the similarities between the victims and the perpetrators in this or in any case of violence. This is the only way to cut through the haze of confused differences generated by the archaic sacred. Here’s the similarity we need to find the courage to acknowledge – everyone who engages in violence thinks of themselves as good people, their enemies as wicked and their violence as legitimate. If we can be “good” and still use violence without remorse then we are actively engaged in scapegoating and have become unwitting agents of the archaic sacred.

The archaic sacred generates and is fueled by scapegoats, which is another term for “legitimate target for our violence”. Our scapegoats always appear guilty to us and we consider it a duty, even a sacred duty, to hate, expel or destroy them. To be clear, scapegoats can be wicked people, guilty of flawed thinking, dangerous beliefs, and remorseless atrocities. But it is not these things which make them our scapegoats: it is the role they play in the construction of our own goodness. When we construct our identities over against some other who we think is as utterly misguided as we are noble, then we become blind to the ways in which we are behaving just like them! We glorify our own violence and condemn theirs while they do the same thing, ensuring that violence will continue in perpetuity without anyone ever acknowledging just how dangerous their goodness has become.

You will rightly protest that the staff at Charlie Hebdo was not engaging in violent behavior. Satire is not the same thing as violence, and I agree. But the editors at Charlie Hebdo had their scapegoats nonetheless: anyone whose beliefs seemed ridiculous to them became a legitimate target for ridicule. They have been called equal opportunity offenders because they satirized any “sacred” belief whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. As I said in the previous article, believers from any religion seem to them to be stupidly clinging to a dead dragon and so by comparison they considered themselves enlightened secularists on a mission to save the world from religious belief. What I hoped to make possible by pointing out that even victims of terrorism can be guilty of scapegoating was to open our eyes to the ways in which we are all scapegoaters without knowing it.

 

3. Enemy Twins

Scapegoating is the driving mechanism behind an unfortunate outcome of the sacred: enemies become more and more alike while more loudly proclaiming their differences. Girard refers to such adversaries as enemy twins and the war on terror is sadly a very good example. The Charlie Hebdo newspaper is part of a larger political-military system that has waged war in Muslim neighborhoods to keep violence out of ours. As President Bush famously explained in 2002, “The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide. And that work goes on around the world.”

We should not be surprised that the terrorists agree so completely that they embrace the same strategy – they plan to keep their neighborhoods safe from invading coalition forces by going after us where we plan and live. As one New York Times reporter explained: “In each decade, a familiar pattern has emerged: a radicalized minority of European Muslims — whether they have gone abroad for jihad or not — have been angered and inspired by wars the West has waged in the Arab world, Africa and beyond, and have sought to bring the costs of those conflicts home.” (emphasis mine)

Less than a week after the attacks, millions in Europe gathered in public demonstrations to express their unity over against extremists. Many wore or carried “Je Suis Charlie” signs, a poignant identification with the victims. From heads of state down to the average citizen, all proclaimed their determination not to be cowed by terrorism. Unfortunately, politicians then recommitted themselves to rooting out the wicked, violent people in their midst without any hint that they might disavow their own violence. Until all violence is condemned, especially our own, the archaic sacred will continue to thrive and we will continue to be its puppets.

 

4. Revelation

Secularists make the mistake of confusing the archaic sacred with revelation: they are not the same thing. I used the image of the dragon to talk about the sacred because that’s an image used in the text of revelation we call the bible. For Girard, the bible is a primary source of knowledge about the relationship between violence and the sacred. For example, Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation is rife with dragon imagery, an image of the frenzied escalation of violence that has been unleashed by the revelation of Christ.

The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)

Jesus uses this same imagery, of the sacred dragon being expelled from the heavens: “He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’” (Luke 10:18) Please do not make the mistake of reading these passages too metaphorically. What is being unmasked here is the human practice of sacralizing violence and blaming God for it. If we continue to scapegoat the bible, lumping it in with the archaic sacred, we will leave ourselves bereft of its wisdom that a dragon of our own making is about to devour us. In that case, Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies will be fulfilled and no amount of satire will be able to save us from ourselves. Recognizing our complicity in sacred violence is the only sure path to peace. As James Alison wrote recently about Jesus’ warning about our reaction to his murder and our complicity in it:

“From now on, those who are scandalized by their involvement in the murder that is to happen and by this teaching about it, will remain scandalized by it; while those who recognize their complicity with the perpetrators of what has gone on and allow themselves to be forgiven will find themselves producing the desired fruit of the vineyard.”

Admitting that we and our enemies are equally complicit in the violence of this world is the only way to end the plague of justified violence. If we can repent and allow ourselves to be forgiven, then the legacy of this tragedy will be a turning point in human history.