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A Whole New World

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

Disney’s Aladdin is my daughter’s favorite “princess” movie…well currently…she always changes her mind. I also hear it is Adam Ericksen’s as well. And who can blame them, really? The film features Princess Jasmine, arguably the most gorgeous fictional animated character of all time (although I fancy her attire would not have been permitted given her cultural context). Plus, she is one courageous girl. She boldly stands up to the power structures; challenging the laws and mandates set forth by her father, the Sultan. She does not care about money or fortune, status or fame; but seeks true love, eventually even from a down and out “street-rat” named Aladdin. And speaking of Aladdin: how can one not root for an underdog like him? He has nobody and nothing—scraping together what he can just to survive. He is easy-pickings to be scapegoated by the people—unknown, poor, parent-less and downtrodden.

Agrabah, the Middle-Eastern setting for the film, is ruled with an iron fist. Commit petty theft and it’s “off with your hand”—literally! Sinister Jafar oversees police operations and has his cronies intimidatingly patrolling the streets looking to shake people down. Moreover, poor children roam the alleys, thankful even if they only get a few scrapes of bread. Certainly the Sultan—the “one-percent”—could kick down some of the lavish riches he has. Yet, he chooses to live in what appears to be a temple erected for self-worship. Because of this kind of society, struggling Aladdin finds himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. His trouble, however, will also include an unlikely encounter with royalty.

After prophetically releasing a group of white doves from her Father’s courtyard, Jasmine sneaks out of her palace home—clearing the walls for the very first time. Because of her ignorance to common society, she soon finds herself in a bit of trouble while at a bazaar, forcing street-wandering Aladdin to come to her rescue. In doing so, the two develop trust in each other; recognizing the shared desire to be free to be themselves—free from their current situation.

Aladdin—to be free from the oppressive socio-economic situation he is in.

Jasmine—to be free from the system of law she is under.

However, any budding relationship gets cut short by Jafar’s minions and Aladdin is arrested under the false charges of “kidnapping”. As we would find out, because of a prophecy that Aladdin was a “diamond in the rough”, and thus, worthy to acquire the lamp, this is all part of Jafar’s evil plan.

As a sorcerer, Jafar manifests himself as an elderly prisoner and slips Aladdin out a secret tunnel of the jail and toward a “cave of wonders” where this lamp is to be found. In exchange, Aladdin is promised riches beyond his wildest imagination. After turmoil in the cave, Aladdin is able to get the lamp to Jafar but Jafar does not live up to his end of the deal and shoves Aladdin into the cave and thus, trapping him inside. However, Aladdin’s side-kick Abu sneakily swipes the lamp from Jafar which leads to the introduction of “the Genie”.

While the Genie is able to use his magical powers to free Aladdin and his friends from the cave, they are also used to turn Aladdin into a “prince”, something Jasmine does not desire. Aladdin may have had good intentions in doing this—as he knew the law stated “the princess must marry a prince”—but his plan backfires when his false status goes to his head and Jasmine witnesses herself being treated as some “prize to be won”(Philippians 2:6). The Aladdin from the marketplace—the “nobody” in the eyes of society—is what Jasmine desired. He was humble and sincere: a romantic at heart. This “Prince Ali”, as he went by, was arrogant, flashy, and everything Jasmine despised in a man. This status Aladdin thought Jasmine desired was the very thing that initially kept them apart. It is not until some of Aladdin’s humility shines through later that night when Jasmine begins to show some trust in him (although he still is not fully honest with her as of yet).

After the two sail on a romantic magic carpet ride, all is looking up…for around 10 seconds. Shortly after Aladdin kisses Jasmine goodnight, Jafar captures Aladdin; nearly drowning him before the Genie can save his life. Shortly after, Aladdin exposes Jafar’s corruption to the Sultan and it seems like the case is closed. Jafar is guilty and headed for prison, maybe worse. However, being the sorcerer that he is, Jafar is able to break free from the guard’s restraints. Later that evening, Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago, is able to steal the Genie’s lamp—making the Genie subject to his new master, Jafar.

Jafar spends wish 1 & 2 on becoming sultan and “the most powerful sorcerer on earth”, using this new power to crush our hero’s hope. However, because of mimetic desire and Aladdin’s quick wit, Jafar is tricked into engaging into mimetic rivalry with the Genie…the very one he is manipulating for his evil plans. Aladdin’s plan to taunt Jafar—claiming he is second to the Genie in power—works brilliantly. Upon Jafar’s third wish; the wish to be the most powerful genie in the world, Jafar enslaves himself in his own “magic lamp” until someone should come along and free him. Jafar’s own desire to be the most powerful genie the world is the very cause of his enslavement.

When we enter into mimetic rivalry—when we desire power and to be over and above others—our fate is enslavement. In contrast, we discover freedom when we give of ourselves and lift others up. After Jafar is defeated, Aladdin uses his final wish to give the Genie his freedom. In doing so, Aladdin risked his chance at marrying Jasmine as they were still under the same archaic marriage law as before. However, because the Sultan witnesses the power of true love, he gives his daughter the gift of freedom—the freedom to love whom she pleases.

I applaud Disney for contrasting these two fates. Mimetic rivalry will always lead to conflict, violence, enslavement, and ultimately, death of some kind. However, the self-giving love of others is what sets us free—free to desire the same type of love our Papa has for us. This theme is prevalent throughout scripture. Jesus, in only doing what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19), was given up for us all (Romans 8:32). There is no greater gift than to be given freedom through Jesus Christ. Without it, our own desires, borrowed from the desires of others, will lead to our own enslavement. Thank God for the perfect Model out of this.

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

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The Glory of the Grammys: Desire, Hope, and Beck’s Perfect Response to Kanye West

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Ahh, we love drama, don’t we? Okay, maybe you don’t, but this year’s Grammys didn’t disappoint in creating some scandal. Kanye West was at it again. In 2009 Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video at the MTV Video Music Awards. As Swift was talking, Kanye took the stage and protested, claiming that Beyoncé deserved the award.

And on Sunday night, in straight mimetic fashion, Kanye pulled a Kanye. René Girard would be proud – after all, Kanye’s greatest imitator is Kanye. After Beck won the Album of the Year award and began delivering his speech, Kanye took to the stage. He looked at Beck, scoffed, waved his hand in disgust, and then walked off.

René Girard claims that desire is mimetic, or imitative. We imitate the desires of our models and so we learn to desire what they desire. But none of us wants to admit that our desires don’t originate with us. We hide this simple fact from ourselves and from others because we want to be originals. But, when it comes to desire, we aren’t individuals; rather, we are inter-dividual. The more we hide this mimetic aspect of desire, the more resentful we become of others who have what we want. On the other hand, the more open we are about our mimetic desire, the more we openly affirm our models and the more hope we have of living in peaceful relationships with them.

For example, at the Grammys, every artist desires to win an award. Winning is a sign that we have achieved our our deepest desire, which is to be loved and admired. But here’s the problem: imitative desire for an object puts us in a relationship of rivalry with our peers. Winners receive a Grammy, the admiration of their fans, and if their rivals are sore losers, the resentment of their peers.

Kanye’s resentment was on full display at the Grammys. Talk about a sore loser! Although he didn’t say anything when he walked on stage to interrupt Beck, he did talk after the Grammys: “If the (award shows) want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. Flawless Beyoncé video, and Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé. And at this point, we are tired of it!”

To put it mildly, Kanye disrespected Beck on multiple occasions. First, he walked on stage and then he implied that Beck is not a “real artist”. Kanye tried to steal the glory from Beck and give it to Beyoncé. Kanye is one of pop culture’s biggest models. He is highly influential. It would have been completely understandable for Beck to respond in mimetic fashion to Kanye by disrespecting him. Few people would blame Beck if had defended himself and publicly dismissed Kanye as a jerk.

But instead of adding fuel to the fire of rivalry, Beck changed negative mimesis into an example of positive mimesis. When Kanye left the stage after interrupting him, Beck actually invited Kanye back on stage. After the show, Beck said, “I was just so excited that he was coming up. He deserves to be on stage as much as anybody.” For Beck, the glory of the Grammys can be shared, even with someone who is being disrespectful.

Beck’s response gets even better. Instead of defending himself, he actually agreed with Kanye. After the Grammys, Beck was asked what he thought about Beyoncé. “I thought she was going to win,” he replied. “Come on, she’s Beyoncé!” In response to Kanye’s suggestion that Beck isn’t a real artist, Beck replied, “You can’t please everybody, man. I still love him and think he’s a genius. I aspire to do what he does.”

Notice that last sentence, “I aspire to do what he does.” Beck is open about his mimetic desire to be like Kanye. It takes a very mature human being, comfortable in his mimetic nature, to openly affirm and admit that he aspires to be like the musical genius who just disrespected him.

We learned something important at the Grammys. Beck taught us that we don’t have to respond to disrespect with more disrespect. That negative mimesis will only lead us down the pit of mutual hostility. Instead, we can respond with positive mimesis by sharing the glory, even with those who disrespect us. That’s our greatest hope for a more peaceful future.

Why I Hope Ann Coulter is Right: Soccer and the Moral Decay of the United States

ann and soccer 1In the midst the World Cup, conservative columnist Ann Coulter wrote a scathing article about soccer. She denounced the sport for infecting the United States with moral deterioration. She wrote, “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

Coulter is a shock journalist who specializes in scandal. She garners attention by shaming and demonizing liberals, in this case for our “morally decaying love of soccer” – and she is very good at scandalizing us. My Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with comments from my liberal friends criticizing Coulter for her arrogance, lack of soccer knowledge, and overt hostility. Unfortunately, all of the liberal animosity against Coulter gave her exactly what she wanted – more attention. She thrives on liberal criticism. As her follow up article demonstrates, it allows her to prove her point that liberals are not open minded, but rather very hostile and closed minded. In fact, Coulter is dependent upon the negative attention of her opponents. So, she becomes increasingly controversial. If liberals just ignored Coulter’s intensifying diatribes, she would disappear.

But we liberals won’t ignore her – nor do we really want her to disappear. As we become scandalized by Coulter, we gain a sense of righteous and moral indignation in our opposition to her. The more she opposes us, the more we oppose her. In fact, in our mutual opposition, we believe the exact same thing about Coulter that she believes about us. We think she is the one who is causing the nation’s moral decay.

Both sides are caught up in what René Girard calls a mimetic rivalry. Each side defensively imitates the other in mutual accusations of immorality. Whereas each side believes it is different than the other, that it is fundamentally good and the other is fundamentally bad, both sides are actually guided by the same spirit of hostility and opposition.

All in the name of moral goodness.

That’s why I hope Coulter is right. I hope that the nation is experiencing a moral decay, at least the decay of morals that defines itself as “good” in opposition to “bad.” Morals are a good thing, of course. I teach my children that killing, stealing, and lying are bad and that compassion, sharing, and honesty are good. But morals are also very dangerous. Emphasizing morals – behaviors that are good or bad – can quickly lead to moralism. Moralism is toxic because it binds one group of “good guys” in opposition to another group of “bad guys.” It’s a trap because each side of the rivalry for goodness genuinely believes that it is good and that the other is bad – and both sides engage the other with the same bitter hostility, which only proves to each side that they are good and moral while the other is bad and immoral. I don’t want to scapegoat Coulter or her opponents for being hostile moralists. After all, we see this dynamic of moralism in every aspect of our lives: from siblings to neighbors to sports to business leaders to religion to national politics.

The Bible’s Alternative to Moralism

It’s time for that way of being moral to decay. Fortunately, the Bible provides an alternative to the hostility and rivalry of moralism. If you want to be truly different than your rival, then the only way to act is with compassion and forgiveness. Like all of us, Paul had his moments of moralism, but he clearly showed the alternative in his letter to the Colossians:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Being compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient are the ways of being holy and authentically moral, but they are inherently not moralistic. They are the Bible’s alternative to moralism because they are not in rivalry. As “God’s chosen ones,” our sense of being morally good is not dependent upon labeling someone else as morally bad. Notice that Paul did not say, “If anyone has a complaint against another, you must decide which one is immoral and then criticize that person until the bad behavior stops!” No, he said, “you must forgive each other.”  As God’s chosen ones, we are chosen not to bind ourselves moralistically against another in the spirit of hostility; rather, we are chosen to bind ourselves together in the spirit of love and forgiveness.

Moralism’s Decay: Let’s Play More Soccer

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Courtesy of imgur.com

In fact, we saw an example of this alternative way of being moral during the World Cup. After Brazil’s devastating 7 – 1 loss to Germany, a Brazilian fan did something remarkably un-moralistic. Throughout the game he tightly held a replica of the World Cup trophy. It was an emblem of the hope he had for his nation and his team. As Germany scored humiliating goal after humiliating goal, that hope vanished and he became very sad. In fact, he’s been dubbed “Brazil’s saddest fan.” One can imagine not only sadness, but also hostility and resentment building up in him against Germany. Sports fans, after all, are not immune to gaining a sense of “goodness” in opposition to their rival team.

But after losing he didn’t respond with predictable hostility or resentment; rather he responded to his rivals with compassion and kindness. He walked to some Germans, handed them his trophy, and said, “Take it to the final! … You deserve it. Congratulations.” Full of smiles and good will, he then posed with the German fans for some pictures. He was surprisingly happy for his rivals.

Celebrating with a rival is very risky. Under the spell of moralism that binds “good” people against “bad” people with mutual hostility, celebrating a rival’s win is interpreted as immoral and even disloyal. But from God’s perspective, it is holy and authentically moral because it shows we are not in rivalry. Rather, it responds to opposition with compassion, humility, forgiveness, and the hope for reconciliation. As Paul stated, it’s how we clothe ourselves “with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

So, if soccer can help decay the moralism that infects the United States, I say let’s play more soccer.

Investing In Peace: Israel, Palestine and the Presbyterian Church.

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A couple weeks ago, I decided I would write in support of the Presbyterian Church USA’s decision, by a narrow vote of the 221st General Assembly, to divest from three particular businesses that facilitate the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel: Caterpillar, Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. While I feel anxiety speaking up on such a controversial topic, I am proud of my childhood church for lending a bold voice for peace. It is imminently clear to me that this selective divestment is not a condemnation of the state of Israel but a prophetic critique against a particular policy — the demolition of homes and the acquisition of further land in the occupied West Bank — which is destructive not only to Palestine but to Israel itself and the peace process. The resolution is clear in its affirmation of Israel’s right to statehood and security, its hope for viable Palestinian statehood, and its desire for interfaith dialogue. Despite what appears to be a very carefully deliberated decision and language that expresses the desire for peace common to all sides, the inevitable blowback against this decision is well underway. Dissenting Presbyterians are outraged, while many Christians of other denominations and many Jews are expressing anger, sorrow, and hurt, perceiving this to be a blow to Israel. I do not doubt the sincerity of their convictions and emotions, but I also do not understand how there can be a path to peace and stability if policies as counterproductive as home demolitions and displacements, which inevitably lead to outrage and sometimes violence, cannot be critiqued and countered.

So, I decided to do some research to prepare myself for inevitable criticism, making sure I read the PCUSA resolution thoroughly and preparing to have my facts straight on the surrounding context, including the formation of Israel in 1948, the 6 Day War of 1967, UN resolutions, statistics about violence and home demolitions, etc. But, in the midst of all my research, violence once again exploded in this volatile region. Angry voices on multiple sides have drowned out my naive notions that a reasonable presentation of facts and history can persuade anyone heavily invested, spiritually and emotionally, in either side at the expense of the other. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed. While HAMAS was blamed, Palestinians civilians were collectively punished and some were killed. Tracing this violence back to its origin is impossible; ongoing mimetic slaughter has plagued the land for decades. Intertwined within this vicious cycle of violence is mimetic blame and dehumanization — both sides accusing the other of moral depravity, indiscriminate targeting, and delight in death.

There are also hopeful voices, eloquent calls for peace, impassioned pleas for recognizing the humanity and dignity of everyone. But those who consider the other to be an enemy won’t be persuaded by arguments.

What will persuade someone violently opposed to another to listen to an enemy, respect the inherent dignity of an enemy, finally come to eschew the notion of “enemy” altogether? Only love. Only love can penetrate the fortresses built by generations of fear and misunderstanding. Israel and Palestine are full of love, for Love is God and God is everywhere and especially with the suffering; Love is in the beat of the human heart, it shines in the eyes and lives in the soul of every Israeli and Palestinian. But in a land of insecurity and fear on both sides, love manifests in self-protection, defense of home and family, making it difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to see in one another the brothers and sisters that they truly are. Such a volatile environment brings out the “stork-like” love, as Lee (Tzvi) Weissman writes, that to a greater or lesser extent characterizes all of us. Weissman explains,

In Hebrew the stork is called a “chasida” and the Torah tells us that it is a non-kosher bird. Chasida means “Kindly one”. How could a bird with such a nice name not be kosher? The Rabbis explain, it is called “kindly” because it is exceedingly kind to its own, its own family, children, even other chasidas. But let an outsider come, and they are vicious.. We are storks. We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with “the other.” Then all bets are off.”

This “storkish” love, fiercely protective, territorial love that lashes out at perceived threats, is understandable when neighbors live in fear of one another, laying claim to the same land and constantly looking over their shoulders. Even when the majority of people on both sides long for peace and strive to live peacefully, a “strike first or be struck” attitude is easily understood. How can a trusting, out-reaching, other-embracing love take root in the midst of such hostilities?

When security and safety are threatened, this kind of love can feel impossible. I admit that for all I preach about love of enemies, for all that I believe in it, I have never believed my life or home to be threatened by an enemy. This fear is common to Palestinians and Israelis, and as an outsider, I can only try to imagine it and certainly cannot judge it. Some consider the divestment of the Presbyterian Church to be a judgment against Israel. But I believe that it was for the sake of enhancing the security of both Israelis and Palestinians in the region, that neighbors may have the courage to look each other in the eyes, recognize the love in each other and let their own love reach out, that the Presbyterian Church made the decision to selectively divest. Home demolitions and increasing acquisition of land threaten the livelihoods of Palestinians, and thus inevitably, reciprocally, threaten the security of Israelis. Sometimes, when one recognizes a friend on a destructive path, love comes not as unconditional support but as critique. I believe the Presbyterian Church was reaching out in love to Israel as well as Palestine with its decision to divest.

Of course, there is so much more to say, so many questions raised, so much healing needed, so much more to pray for. Christians are ever indebted to Judaism for our faith, and indebted historically and morally to the Jewish people because of horrible, violent atrocities committed in every generation against them. But while we atone for our sins we must not compound our guilt by ignoring and facilitating the suffering of the Palestinians. We are all brothers and sisters, children of Abraham and moreover children of the living God. When God called Abraham out of his land, he chose him not for an exclusive blessing but for a responsibility to bless the whole world. Abraham’s children — Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide — have an obligation to all of humanity to reflect the generous love of God, and we cannot do this while we remain unreconciled to one another. And while I support the PCUSA for giving prophetic critique as a difficult but necessary step toward reconciliation, I also acknowledge the need for American Christians in particular (with our sordid history of imperialism intermingled with Christian triumphalism) to hear the critiques of our Jewish and Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) siblings. May we ever be willing to seek the truth and both speak and hear it in love, that we may rid our hearts and souls of rivalry, bless one another, and be the family we were created to be, reflecting the divine image of our God.

 (For more on Israel and Palestine, see Suzanne Ross’s article Battling to the End in Israel and Palestine.)

Rachel Held Evans and the Friendly Atheist on CNN: Grasping for Truth

On Sunday, CNN hosted a debate between two insanely popular bloggers. It was titled, “Debating why millennials are leaving the church.” The debaters were both born after 1980, which makes them millennials – evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, who blogs at rachelheldevans.com, and atheist Hemant Mehta, who is the primary blogger and editor at the friendly atheist blog.

As for the debate, Rachel’s best argument is that millennials are leaving the church because they “aren’t connecting with Jesus, and so I think they are looking for churches that care for the poor, that make social justice like anti-trafficking a priority…” Although she was cut off before finishing her point, you get the gist – millenials aren’t going to church because churches aren’t being the “church”; they aren’t fulfilling their mission of being the Body of Christ in our world. Rachel and Hemant agree on this point: Christianity has bad PR. As Hemant wrote in his CNN article leading up to the debate, millennials are leaving the churches because, “They’re anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex education, and anti-doubt, to name a few of the most common criticisms.”

These are superficial and broad brush strokes about “church” that don’t quite answer the question for me. Of course, it’s difficult to paint an in-depth picture in a six minute debate. But what I found most interesting about the debate was Hemant’s truth claims:

It’s very easy as an atheist to say, ‘You know what? You should just abandon those faiths altogether because it’s not just that Christianity is unpopular, but it’s untrue.’ And there are so many resources now that young people have access to that shows why it’s not just Christianity that is unpopular, it’s not just that it’s wrong, it’s that all religion just has no merit when it comes to the truth.

Hemant sounds very – how do I put this – religious in the debate. In fact, he seems to be mirroring his religious rivals. In his battle against religion, this staunch atheist makes the same claims to truth as staunch evangelicals. In the debate over the truth, Hemant and Pat Robertson, his straw man in the debate, begin to sound identical:

Join our side! We hold the truth! They don’t!

The anthropologist René Girard calls this phenomena a “mimetic rivalry.” We tend to see only differences between us and our rivals, but in fact rivalry isn’t based on differences. Rather, rivalries are based on our similarities, specifically our shared desire.

In this case, Hemant shares the same desire as Pat Roberston – a desire to hold the truth, which necessarily means that the other doesn’t hold the truth. The great danger here, whether one is an atheist or a theist, is that once one claims to hold the truth one uses the truth as a weapon. For example, in the video Hemant states that, “As atheists… we like exposing the church for all the bad things it does.” The problem is that many religious people mirror Hemant’s desire, only instead of exposing the church, they expose atheist for all the bad things they do. I frequently hear Christians expose atheistic and secular political regimes of the 20th century for the bad things they’ve done, including state sanctioned mass murder, killing an estimated 85 to 100 million people.

The unfortunate truth is that these types of accusations are universal. Humans like to expose the ugly truth about our opponents. We love to expose all the ugly truths and bad things about our rivals. This creates a cycle of accusations, as we defend ourselves by mimicking one another in an attempt to expose the ugly truth of our enemy, “I’m not the one who does bad things. He’s the one doing bad things!”

This is where I find religion, and particularly Christianity, helpful. One of the radical truth claims of Christianity is that I don’t hold the truth about myself or my rival.

A shiver will crawl up the spine of my liberal Christian friends when I say this, but when it comes to truth, I love it when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Obviously, if Jesus is the truth, I am not. Followers of Christ don’t hold the truth because the truth is not ours to hold. If we attempt to grasp our fist around the truth of Jesus, it will slip through our fingers like grains of sand. We don’t hold the truth; if anything, the truth holds us.

And since we don’t hold the truth, we can’t wield it as a weapon to expose the evil in the other. If we attempt to wield the truth as a weapon, it is no longer the truth. Rather, it is scapegoating: projecting our own evil upon another so that we don’t have to deal with the bad things we do. The truth of Jesus calls us to be self-critical by exposing the evil within ourselves before we expose the evil within anyone else. As Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This is what I appreciate most about Rachel Held Evans. As opposed mirroring Hemant’s accusations against Christianity with her own accusations against atheism, she does something much more radical. The CNN show was a setup for rivalry, and Rachel didn’t take the bait. She actually agreed with Hemant. The church has frequently scapegoated others by blaming them for the problems of the world. Indeed, it has often failed to connect people to Jesus and live out the Gospel message.

But Rachel is modeling another way. She reveals how we can model the truth that sets us free from rivalry with others and free to do the work of Christ in a broken world. It is always easy and, yes, even enjoyable to point out the bad things other people do. The much more challenging thing is to take responsibility for our own bad behavior so that we can be transformed into more loving and compassion human beings. I don’t know if that’s enough for millennials to come back to church, but I think Rachel offers a great place to start.

The Dark Knight Rises: Why I Am Bane and So Are You

Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.

– Alfred Pennyworth from The Dark Knight Rises

The most fascinating aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the constant search for truth amidst countless lies. The truths explored throughout TDKR are spiritual truths, and these truths are surprisingly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are the truths of immortality, resurrection, hell, identity, love, hate, good, evil, exodus, and liberation.  In the quote above, Alfred challenges Bruce Wayne to let the truth “have its day.” That’s a challenge we need to take upon ourselves, too. But what is the truth? And does TDKR let the truth have its day, or does it perpetuate the lie?

One of my favorite characters in the movie is the great villain Bane. He’s a scary, evil, killing machine bent on terrorizing the citizens of Gotham through violence. He kills anyone who gets in his way, his public show trials end in death, and he threatens to destroy Gotham with an atomic bomb. And yet he denies being a violent conqueror. Instead, he justifies his violence by claiming to be Gotham’s liberator.

Bane defeats Batman in a brutal fight, but instead of killing Batman, he tells Batman that his “punishment must be more severe” than death. He enjoys torturing Bruce Wayne in a foreign prison known as “the worst Hell on Earth.” The prison sits at the bottom of a tall, dark tower that opens into sunlight. It’s rumored that only one person has succeeded in escaping this Hell on Earth by climbing the tower – and that person was Bane himself. For everyone else, the sunlight presents a despairing hope as it beckons them to a futile attempt in escaping their hell. Adding to his torture, Wayne is forced to watch Bane terrorize Gotham on television screen. Only after Wayne has been sufficiently tortured, Bane says, “then you have my permission to die.”

All of this is a truth about Bane. But the movie insists that it’s not the whole truth about Bane.

My favorite part of the movie is Bane’s back-story. We are told that Bane was “born and raised in Hell on Earth.” While in the prison, Bane fell in love with a girl and helped her escape. After helping her, his fellow inmates united in violence against him. (Apparently, no one is supposed to escape Hell!) Bane became their scapegoat and they severely beat him, deformed his face, and broke his body. Bain survived the attack and was rescued from this “Hell on Earth.” But after the brutal beating, he suffered chronic, severe pain and had trouble breathing. A doctor created a mask that would provide medication to numb his pain and help him breathe.

There are three things that are important about Bane’s truth.

First, the backstory confronts us with the uncomfortable truth about our enemies – about the “Banes” of our world. It is all too easy to dehumanize our enemies – but here we gain a glimpse of Bane’s humanity. He loves. He feels. He protects. He suffers. He risks his life so that the one he loves could survive. It is here, in the depths of hell, where we find that Bane is not as evil as he seems. Indeed, it is in this hell on earth where we discover Bane’s humanity.

Second, like all humans, Bane is formed by his environment. We are mimetically structured by our social setting. By “mimetically structured” I mean that we observe and absorb what’s happening around us. Rather than being fully independent creatures, we humans are structured by our environment. And so Bane is formed in the depths hell. There he is molded into the image of hell’s hostility and violence. Bane reveals this truth when he tells Batman during their first fight, “Oh you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark, I was molded by it.” In the darkness of hell, Bane’s fellow prisoners united in violence against him. They scapegoated him. This is the risk of love. When we find the courage to turn away from the crowd so that we might love another, there is always the risk that the crowd might turn against us. After this experience, Bane’s heart was hardened, his body was nearly destroyed, and yet Bane arose from depths of hell.  He resurrected. He was rescued from the prison of Hell on Earth, but he couldn’t escape the ways of hell. He was molded by it. He mimetically absorbed his environment. He escaped only to spread the hostility and violence of Hell on Earth to Gotham City.

Third, Bane wears a mask to numb his pain and hide his facial deformity. The mask is an interesting aspect of the plotline. Indeed, it numbs his physical pain, but the mask also numbs the emotional pain of his past. Because he can numb his physical pain and hide his facial deformity, he doesn’t have to deal with the emotionally painful experience of being scapegoated in hell. Bane can hide that pain from himself, but that pain needs an outlet, and it finds an outlet as he mimics the violence that was inflicted upon him in hell.

Bane’s story matters because there is a bit of Bane in all of us. We are all mimetically formed by our environment. Those of us who perform acts of physical, verbal, and emotional violence have been raised in a culture that foments hostility and violence. We have all experienced the Hell on Earth of being scapegoated. I hope a mob hasn’t united against you in physical violence, but I’m sure a group has united against you in either verbal or emotional violence. We’ve all been scapegoated. Like Bane, we usually respond to this scapegoating mimetically. We imitate that violence by either redirecting it in acts of revenge against those who scapegoat us, or against someone else. By doing this we become scapegoaters ourselves. This only spreads the pain of Hell on Earth throughout our world. And in a culture that encourages us (especially us men) to hide our pain, we all wear the mask of Bane. Our culture interprets any expression of pain as a sign of weakness, but just like Bane, our pain needs an outlet. If we don’t deal with that pain in constructive ways, it will lead to destruction.

I appreciate Bane’s backstory, but I do wonder if it is enough. TDKR might provide the viewer with a bit of compassionate understanding for Bane, but we don’t see that compassion expressed in the movie. Instead, Bane is portrayed as the personification of evil. There seems to be no hope for Bane’s redemption. He is an evil villain who must be killed and so the movie mirrors Bane’s violence: just as Bane kills without remorse, we are invited to celebrate Bane’s death, when it comes, without any moral misgivings. This, I think, is the tension within The Dark Knight Rises, and the movie does little to resolve that tension.

If we are to follow Alfred and let the truth “have its day” we need to understand the mimetic power of human relationships – that we are formed by others. Understanding that Bane is formed by his experience of hell enables us to have some compassion for him. But we also discover that Batman is formed by his relationship with Bane. In their second fight, Batman finally defeats Bane by destroying his mask. As Bane suffers in pain, Batman mimics his violent words and we cheer him on, “Tell me where the trigger is [for the bomb] … then you have my permission to die!” The tragic truth revealed here is that violence makes us look, and sound, just like our enemies.

What’s the answer to the mimetic cycles of violence? Since Judeo-Christian themes are so prominent in this movie (there is even a reference to an “Exodus” across a river!) I feel justified in pointing out the theme that is conspicuously absent from these films: “Love your enemy.” At its best, I think The Dark Knight Rises provides us with a warning: This is what the world looks like when we fail to live by the spiritual truth of loving our enemies. It looks like Batman trying to cast out darkness with darkness, only to make the world a darker place. Sure, Bane is killed. But other supervillains will come. Thus the need for another superhero, Robin. Without the spiritual truth that guides us into loving even our enemies, The Dark Knight series comes dangerously close to perpetuating the lie that darkness can be defeated with darkness. The culmination of the Judeo-Christian tradition claims otherwise.

Alfred was right. It’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day. For us, the greatest truth that needs to have its day is the truth that only love can defeat darkness.

April 27, 2011: Kings and Queens – What a Deal!

Suzanne and Adam discuss the Royal Wedding. While William and Kate tied the knot in a very modern way, what do we know about the formation of ancient kingship? What is the point of a monarchy? Suzanne and Adam discuss the monarchy as it relates to mimetic theory, kingship, archaic sacrifice, and violence.

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For the Joy of Parenting: Desire, Penguins, and Roller Coasters

This morning it was the penguin.

It could just as easily have been the bear, the dog, the giraffe, or even the man dressed in blue pajamas who is missing his red cape.  But this morning it was the hand puppet penguin.

I have two boys, ages four and two.  They are adorable little tykes (which they clearly get from their Mother), but sometimes they fight.  As children do.

“I want penguin!” shouted our youngest.  (Part of what makes him adorable is that he isn’t quite speaking in full sentences yet.  That’s cute.)

“I had it first!” retorted his older brother.

Of course, our house is F.A.O. Schwartz on steroids.  Toys are everywhere: We have stuffed animals, Hot Wheels, Playmobils, and even a roller coaster in our basement.  (Seriously.  I ride it frequently.)  “Are you kidding me?”  I began to wonder.  “Why are you fighting over a stupid hand puppet penguin when we have a freakin roller coaster in our basement?”

I tried all the parental tricks I know.  Distraction.  Reasoning.  Sharing. None of it worked.  Why?

Here’s the thing: It wasn’t about the penguin.  The only reason our younger son wanted the penguin was because our older son had it.  His possession of the toy made that toy desirable – more desirable than any other toy.  But it was about our older son – his possession of the penguin.  So, they got in a power struggle over possessing a penguin.  Seems pretty irrational, huh?  Especially when you consider that there is a roller coaster in our basement!

It may seem irrational, but it is human.  As Rene Girard wrote in his book Deceit, Desire and the Novel, humans “desire according to Another” (4, italics in original).  So, our youngest son was desiring according to the desire of his older brother.  This created a cycle that went like this: the more our older son wanted to keep the penguin, the more our younger son wanted the penguin.  The more our younger son wanted the penguin, the more our older son wanted to keep the penguin.   That cycle of desire is natural, as is the unfortunate conflict that ensues.

It is easy to see how this mechanism works in children, but the truth is that adults fall into the same traps.  I’ve heard that married couples sometimes fight like this.  But, for me, the most obvious example is in our politics.  When we pick a political side of the spectrum, we often fall into the trap of trying to grasp political power from the other person or party.  Politics becomes our stupid penguin.  But again, it’s not about the penguin; it’s about possessing what the other has.  Sure.  Ideally, politics is about finding ways to do what’s best for citizens of a country.  Unfortunately, we so often use politics as a means to exert our political will.  It becomes a game of winners and losers, of possessing power, as opposed to doing what’s best for a country.  Yes, yes.  We have some different ideas about what is best for the country, but our ideas are mired in our shared desire to win the political power game.

So, what’s the solution?  I don’t know.  When my boys were fighting over the penguin, I asked our older son to look at his brother’s face and tell me what he saw.  Well, he ran off crying and I felt like the world’s worst Dad.  But, now that I’ve had a few hours to reflect about that, it seems to me he ran off crying because in that moment he empathized with his brother.  He moved into his brother’s place.  He felt his brother’s humanity.  And that’s an intense experience.  When we are able to have that experience with a family member (or a political opponent) to run off crying is an appropriate response.

I’m gonna go ride the roller coaster.