Posts

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 Cornterstone 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.

tibetan-monk

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.

 

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.”

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.

Jesus, Muhammad, and Traversing Hostility with Love

o-CHARLIE-COVER-570 (1)I have read two articles today on forgiveness. Amidst the violence of our world during that last few weeks, they both point us toward a better world.

The first is an article by James Alison titled “Traversing hostility: The sine qua non of any Christian talk about Atonement.” James talks about the “intelligence of the victim.” The phrase indicates in part that Jesus understood the risks involved in his preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. He knew he would most likely be killed by his fellow human beings, and yet he was not afraid. James explores Jesus’ parable of the vineyard. He says that the parable makes it “quite clear that [Jesus] expects to be murdered and furthermore that this is not a problem for him. It is, rather, the previously considered and generously assumed cost of business in a project of love.”

James has taught me that when it comes to the Atonement, there was an angry divinity at the cross and it was us. God has nothing with the violence of the cross, but everything to do with forgiving human violence and hostility. On the cross we find that the Real Presence of God “is one of deliberate love in the midst of violent and allergic hostility”. It’s not so much that God responds to us with love; it’s that God is love.

We humans, on the other hand, are not God and so we are not love. We can be so fickle and hostile. We find it natural to create group solidarity in hostility toward others. It’s almost become our default mechanism of creating identity. I do this, and unless you are a saint, you probably do this, too. That hostility, that way of creating identity in opposition to another, was clearly seen on the cross when it was directed against Jesus.

And Jesus revealed the love of God that traverses our hostility. God’s ability to traverse our hostility in the name of love changes our very humanity, because the way we respond to hostility is usually with more hostility. But the God revealed by Jesus shows us another way of being human: to respond to hostility in the way of God, by traversing hostility with God’s deliberate love and forgiveness.

That deliberate love was on display in the other article I read. Well, I didn’t actually read the article. It’s not out yet…and I don’t speak French…but I did see the latest cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The cover of the magazine depicts Muhammad with a tear running down his cheek. He holds a “Je Suis Charlie” sign and above Muhammad are the words, “All is forgiven.” But who exactly is forgiving whom and for what? Gerard Biard, Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, explained that the cover “means that France can forgive the attackers, not that the Prophet is forgiving the cartoonists for lampooning him.”

Muhamad, who cared for the victims of his culture, would indeed grieve for the victims at Charlie Hebdo. And James writes that God forgives us before we ever knew we needed to be forgiven. In that forgiveness we are “being let off our enmity.”

I applaud Charlie Hebdo for using the phrase, “All is forgiven.” I think that if we forgave terrorists instead of seeking violent retribution the world would be in a much better place. But I also hope that Charlie Hebdo will take a self-critical look at its own need for forgiveness, as my colleague Suzanne Ross suggests in her recent article about the tragedy. Both Christianity and Islam call everyone to the spiritual practice of repentance and transformation so that we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Forgiveness, it should be noted, is an essential characteristic of the God of Islam. One might say that Allah traverses our hostility with forgiveness. The Qur’an says to those worried about being forgiven, “Do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful.”

A God who traverses our hostility with nonviolent love? A God who forgives all sin? Many think that message from Christianity and Islam is too good to be true. I just think it’s good news.

In this world we should have the intelligence of the victim. Unfortunately, we can anticipate that there will be violence. We will commit violent acts and violent acts will be committed against us. We all need to repent of our own violence.

By having the intelligence of the victim, we know that tears will continue to fall, but we also know that violence doesn’t have the last word. Hostility is traversed with God’s love. And all is forgiven.

Why? – Unlocking the Answer to School Shootings

ap_school_shooting_ds_141015_4x3_992

A student attaches flowers to the fence of Marysville-Pilchuck High School. (Photo by Mark Mulligan, The Herald/AP)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week’s school shooting in Marysville, Washington has us all asking the question again – Why did this happen?

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary gave voice to the despair many are feeling as we search for answers. “The question everybody wants is ‘Why?’ I don’t know that the ‘why’ is something we can provide.”

Why did Jaylen Fryberg text his friends and family members to join him for lunch only to shoot them and then shoot himself? Whenever these tragedies occur we are tempted to blame the shooter by making him into a monster. We label the shooter “mentally ill,” claim that he was isolated from his peers, or was a generally troubled youth.

The answer to the question “Why?” has usually been to blame the shooter. We make the shooter into a monster because it allows us to make sense of senseless violence. Why did this tragedy happen? Because he was evil.

But Jaylen Fryberg’s case won’t allow such easy answers. He was a popular and happy young man, seemingly incapable of causing such harm.

This horrific shooting is so scary because no one saw it coming. If a popular kid like Jaylen Fryberg could commit such a heinous act, anyone could do the same. Jaylen’s case deprives us of the easy out of blaming another. The only thing left is to face our own violence.

This requires a shift from individual blame to corporate responsibility. We still must answer the question “Why?” but now we can begin to recognize that the answer is bigger than any individual. Until we understand how big the problem is we will never have the resources to solve the problem.

The problem is that we live in a culture of violence. As James Alison states in his adult education series Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, “We humans are not only slightly affected by, but are actually run by, a culture of war and violence.”

Admittedly, that’s a pretty depressing statement, but it’s also realistic. Violence is embedded in human culture and we are unaware of the various ways we are run by this culture of violence. The most obvious example is that the news feeds us a daily diet of violence and fear. Global politics has been dominated by acts of violence and counter-violence. Local politics is run by a spirit of violent hostility both in and out of election season.  And, yes, violent movies and video games that lack redemption and show little respect for human life bear some responsibility for fostering a culture of violence.

The answer to the question “Why?” is that we live in a culture of violence that infects us all with a faith in violence as a legitimate means to achieve our goals and desires. In the same way that God called out to Cain, God calls out to us, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Violence cannot exist without our faith in it, which is why Scripture says its desire is for us. But how do we master the sinful desire of violence?

Fortunately, the culture of violence and war is not the only culture that exists. There is an alternative culture. It’s a culture that invites us to repent of personal and political violence, but this culture goes beyond repentance. You master the sinful culture of violence by living into the culture of forgiveness.

Jesus is the “Forgiving Victim” because as he suffered violence from his fellow human beings, he prayed not for the revenge of counter violence against his enemies, but for his enemies to be forgiven. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

The only alternative to the culture of violence is the culture of forgiveness modeled by Jesus. Fortunately, we have seen the culture of forgiveness modeled for us in a Christ-like way since the tragic shooting in Washington.

Nate Hatch was among the victims that day. Nate, Jaylen’s own cousin, was shot in the jaw, but survived the shooting. While recovering at a hospital, Nate made two remarkable tweets. The first was an agonizing tweet, “Worst pain ive ever felt in my life.” The physical and emotional pain of being shot by a trusted family member may affect Nate for the rest of his life. But Nate doesn’t want revenge. Fifteen minutes later, Nate posted another tweet, “I love you and I forgive you jaylen rest in peace.”

Why do these tragic events happen? Because even a good kid like Jaylen cannot escape being run by a culture of violence. What can we do to stop these events from happening again? If we are serious about answering that question, we must follow Nate’s example. We must repent of our culture of violence and live into the culture of forgiveness.