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"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Image from pixabay.com

“Piss Christ” And Drawing Muhammad: On Not Being Offended

I recoiled a little just typing the title to this article.

The title of the infamous photograph by Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” makes me bristle as much as the content of a crucifix submerged in blood and urine. I can’t get used to the language on a gut level, even as I have come to appreciate it on an intellectual and even spiritual level. My visceral repulsion to this juxtaposition of the filthy and the sacred is probably similar to the feeling Muslims get when they see the beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) degraded in crass and crude caricatures. It can feel like a blow to the stomach, with anger and disgust rising up in response, to see or hear that which we hold most sacred defiled.

Muslim Americans have had to deal with an exceptional amount of bigotry lately, even for an oft-misunderstood minority in a post-9/11 nation. In the past month, two large-scale events have been organized specifically to demean and provoke them. First came the “Draw Muhammad” contest hosted in early May by Pamela Gellar in Garland, TX. When this event ended in the shooting death by police of two vengeance-seeking gunmen, it prompted Marine veteran Jon Ritzheimer to organize a similar rally held on the last Friday in May in Phoenix, AZ. The rally began with another “Draw Muhammad” contest at a nearby Denny’s before protestors (mainly described as “armed bikers”) gathered outside a mosque at the time of the Friday prayer. While both rallies were promoted by their organizers as defense of the freedom of speech, they also deliberately vilified Islam, relishing in their defiance of the prohibition against depicting the Prophet and seeking to portray Muslims as violent, backward savages. The irony of such events, aggressively wielding hatred in order to provoke violence so as to call the dreaded “other” violent, cannot be lost on students of mimetic theory.

Imagine arriving at your place of worship, preparing to surrender your troubles to the all-compassionate, all-merciful God, only to be surrounded by a jeering, gun-brandishing mob claiming that you are violent. It is not only insulting, it is threatening. And while it is true that the Christian faith has also been ridiculed, the Christian community has not been targeted and labeled an enemy by popular culture, nor treated as such by authorities, in the same way Muslims have been in this nation that prides itself on diversity and “freedom of speech.”

Thus even the depiction of Jesus on the cross submerged in urine does not evoke the same range of negative emotions in believers as do the vulgar drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, for while the former can certainly offend, the latter not only offend, but also intimidate. They tell an already persecuted minority that they are unwelcome in a way that “Piss Christ” cannot, because “Piss Christ” does not reflect a larger animus against Christianity pervasive throughout our culture the way the cartoons do of Islam.

Nevertheless, I have seen the comparison made between “Piss Christ” and the drawings of the Prophet made several times recently, and they are worth comparing for more reasons than first meet the eye. In both cases, subversive works of art provoke anger and disgust. Yet believers have an opportunity in both cases to transcend their disgust and anger and explore and reveal the truth of their faiths – the God who needs no defense and responds to provocation with mercy, compassion, and love.

In an interview for the Huffington Post, artist Andres Serrano revealed that his infamous photograph was designed to evoke feelings of disgust, but not out of hostility to the Christian faith. Serrano says:

The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning.

A Christian himself, Serrano reminds us that though it has been sanitized and neutralized, disgust and horror are appropriate responses to the cross. They are appropriate responses to the condemnation Jesus received from those who thought they were doing the will of God. They are appropriate responses the human violence that continues to crucify Christ when wielded against anyone else.

Abilene Christian University psychology professor Richard Beck extends the imagery from the crucifixion to the incarnation in a powerful advent meditation. First exploring the psychology behind disgust, Beck explains the attribution of negativity dominance – the understanding that the filthy contaminates the pure. He then meditates on “Piss Christ” as a metaphor for the Incarnation, the descent of God into the shame and wretchedness of our own lives.

[I]n the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively–and blasphemously–believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the “piss” of our lives.

… This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

While Serrano’s art is designed to evoke the horror of the crucifixion, Dr. Beck’s meditation reminds us of the hope of the Incarnation and the resurrection. I want to reflect first on the horror. While there is violence in “Piss Christ,” most people see it as violence by the artist directed toward the faithful. It rarely occurs to believers to use the art to meditate on the actual event of the cross, in which humiliation, brutality and murder are exposed for all to see. We project our disgust outward, onto the artist, rather inward, onto our own violence that “Piss Christ” truly depicts. Our offense at others we whom perceive to be violent or blasphemous blinds us to our own violence. Disgust and horror projected at Serrano perpetuate the judgment that crucified Christ. Disgust and horror at our own violence that actually crucified Christ facilitate repentance.

The protestors in Garland and Phoenix could not recognize their own violence because they could only see the violence of a few extremists who have committed acts of terror in a misguided attempt to defend Islam. The Garland event was (in part) a response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. The Phoenix event was partly a response to the attempted attack on the Garland event. Ridicule and dehumanization, reinforced by open-carry weapons at the Phoenix event, were seen by those who carried them out as defensive tactics. Muslims, harassed and dehumanized and increasingly vulnerable to physical violence as events like these further polarize, are seen as the enemy. As Rene Girard has taught, people never see themselves as the cause of violence. Even the most aggressive fail to recognize themselves as the aggressors while looking to the aggression of someone else.

But there is hope! Violence does not have the last word!

Dr. Beck’s reflection on the Incarnation reveals a new dimension to “Piss Christ,” showing how God comes even in the filth and shame of our violence. Our violence cannot overcome the love of God, who absorbs it, forgives it, and redeems us from it.

That same love and redemptive forgiveness was on display in Phoenix. Immersed in the muck of hatred and vitriol, many people either lash out in vengeance or internalize the anger. Violence could have contaminated the peaceful atmosphere of the mosque, spreading the contagion of hate and fear and division.

Instead, compassion prevailed.

Instead of acting on offense, Muslims of the Phoenix mosque followed the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who endured ridicule with patience and gentility. No stranger to being immersed in filth himself, the Prophet Muhammad, according to tradition, once endured the hatred of one particular woman (among many) who would empty her garbage out the window when he passed by. When one day he passed her window unscathed, he knocked on the door to her home to make sure that she was okay! Moved by this same spirit, the Muslim community in Phoenix invited the protestors into the mosque, offering hospitality, space for dialogue, and, for those moved to listen, the opportunity for a healing of the heart.

In particular, the eyes of Jason Leger and his uncle, Paul Griffith, were opened by their experience. Walking into the mosque wearing profanity-laced anti-Islam t-shirts, they left with a newfound empathy for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Though they insist on the right to even offensive free speech, they have made the choice not to express such hatred. Leger says:

When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.

I feel that me and a few people like my uncle Paul, and the Muslim people, taking the time to talk to each other,  feel that we changed the thoughts of some people, and they changed the thoughts of me. Paul specifically said he would not wear that shirt again.

Love can break down the walls of fear and hatred. Love is stronger than anger and fear, stronger than violence and filth. I stand with my Muslim sisters and brothers in this love in spirit, and should the need arise, I hope to stand with them in body as well.

It is natural to be offended when we see that which we hold sacred mocked and abused and violated. But God’s own children – those whom God holds sacred — are abused and violated and humiliated every day in a cycle of violence perpetuated by those who lash out in anger… to defend God! The filth that surrounds “Piss Christ” is that of our own making. The violence that is projected onto Muslims resides in the hearts of those who project it (although some Muslims do lash out in violence, believing themselves to be defending God and morality, and thus the pattern continues). When we choose to be offended, we keep the cycle of violence turning, churning the muck of hatred and fear that keeps blood flowing.

But the negative need not dominate the positive.

We can follow in the footsteps of those nearest to the heart of God. In the Christian tradition, God came in flesh among the filth of our lives and endured rejection, humiliation, and torture to redeem us. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad endured rejection, humiliation, and expulsion to bring words of compassion and a model of redemption.

Christ need not be protected from the piss. He has been there, and remains there until the least among us are treated with dignity and respect. Muhammad need not be violently defended when caricatures are drawn. Instead, he is honored when such ridicule is met with the same gentle forgiveness he himself modeled, forgiveness that subtly but certainly corrects the offense by modeling respect.

Some things in life are worthy of our offense: brutality, hatred, cruelty. These are the blasphemies that offend God. But harsh judgment, condemnation and violence only perpetuate these offenses. Instead, we are called to respond in the same way that God responds to our offenses, with active mercy and love.

 

 

 

 

Zarghuna with one of her students.

Fear And Learning In Kabul

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world… Shall we say the odds are too great? … the struggle is too hard? … and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity… The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam”

Kabul—I’ve spent a wonderfully calm morning here in Kabul, listening to bird songs and to the call and response between mothers and their children in neighboring homes as families awaken and prepare their children for school. Maya Evans and I arrived here yesterday, and  are just settling into the community quarters of our young hosts, The Afghan Peace Volunteers (APVs). Last night, they told us about the jarring and frightening events that marked the past few months of their lives in Kabul.

They described how they felt when bomb explosions, nearby, awakened them on several mornings. Some said they’d felt almost shell-shocked themselves discovering one recent day that thieves had ransacked their home. They shared their intense feelings of alarm at a notorious warlord’s statement condemning a human rights demonstration in which several community members had participated. And their horror when a few weeks later, in Kabul, a young woman, an Islamic scholar named  Farkhunda, was falsely accused in a street argument of desecrating the Koran, after which, to the roared approval of a frenzied mob of perhaps two thousand men, members of the crowd, with apparent police collusion, beat her to death. Our young friends quietly sort through their emotions in the face of inescapable and often overwhelming violence.

I thought about how to incorporate their stories into a course I’ve been preparing for an international online school that intends to help raise consciousness among people, across borders and share the results. I hope the school will help develop movements  dedicated to simple living, radical sharing, service and, for many, nonviolent direct action on behalf of ending wars and injustices.

Essentially, when Voices members go to Kabul, our “work” is to listen to and learn from our hosts and take back their stories of war to the relatively peaceful lands whose actions had brought that war down upon them. Before we’d even departed, the news from Afghanistan was already quite grim. Several dozen people dead in fighting between armed groups. A Kabul hotel attack on international businessmen the week before. We earnestly wrote our friends with a  last minute offer to stay away, in hopes that we wouldn’t make them targets of the violence. “Please come,” our friends wrote us. So we’re here.

The western presence in Afghanistan has already caused incalculable destruction, suffering and loss. A recently released Physicians for Social Responsibility report calculated that since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. wars have killed at least 1.3 million and quite possibly more than 2 million civilians.

The report chides U.S. political elites for attributing on-going violence in Afghanistan and Iraq to various types of internecine conflicts “as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization caused by decades of military intervention.”

Our young friends have survived the ravages of war, and each of them struggles with trauma, as their parents and grandparents have before them. When we have gone with them to visit refugee camps outside of Kabul, several have told of their own experiences as children, running away when their villages were attacked or occupied. We learn from them about the sorrows their mothers endured when there wasn’t enough food to feed the family or fuel to carry them through heartless winters: when they themselves nearly died from hypothermia. Several of our young friends experience terrifying flashbacks when they hear accounts in the news of Afghans killed by missiles or gunfire within the horrified sight of their own family members and loved ones. They tremble and sometimes cry, recalling similar experiences from their own lives.

The story of Afghanistan in Western accounts is that Afghanistan cannot deal with its traumas, however much we try, with our bullets, bases and token schools and clinics, to help. Yet these young people steadfastly respond to their own traumas not by seeking revenge but by finding ways to help people in Kabul whose circumstances are worse than theirs, particularly 750,000 Afghans living, with their children, in squalid refugee camps.

The APVs are running an alternative school for street kids in Kabul.  Little  children who are the main breadwinners for their families find no time to learn basic math or “the alphabet” when spending  more than eight hours daily working in the streets of Kabul. Some are vendors, some polish shoes, and some carry scales along roadways so that people can weigh themselves. In an economy collapsing under the weight of war and corruption, their hard earned income barely buys enough food for their families.

Children of the poorest families in Kabul will have better chances in life if they become literate. Never mind rising school enrollment figures often cited by the U.S. military as the benefits of occupation. The March 2015 CIA World Fact Book reports that  17.6 % of females over age 14 are literate; overall, in the teen and adult population only 31.7% can read or write.

After getting to know about 20 families whose children work in the streets, the APVs devised a plan through which each family receives a monthly sack of rice and  large container of oil to offset the family’s financial loss for sending their children to informal classes at the APV center and preparing to enroll them in school. Through continued outreach among Afghanistan’s troubled ethnicities, APV members now include 80 children in the school and hope to serve 100 children soon.

Every Friday, the children pour into the center’s courtyard and immediately line up to wash their feet and hands and brush their teeth at a communal faucet. Then they scramble up the stairs to their brightly decorated classroom and readily settle down when their teachers start the lessons. Three extraordinary young teachers, Zarghuna, Hadisa, and Farzana, feel encouraged now because many of the thirty-one street kids who were in the school last year learned to read and write fluently within nine months. Their experimentation with different teaching methods, including individualized learning, is paying off—unlike  government school systems where many seventh graders are unable to read.

While leading a demonstration of street children, Zekerullah, who was once a street kid himself, was asked if he felt any fears. Zekerullah said that he feared that the children would be harmed if a bomb exploded. But his greater fear was that impoverishment would afflict them throughout their lives.

That message of courage and compassion will not — and cannot– always prevail.  But if we take note of it, and even more, if, learning from its example, we take action to exemplify it ourselves, then it offers us a path out of childish fear, out of panicked collusion in war, and out, perhaps, of war’s mad grip. We ourselves arrive  in a notably better world when we determine to build it for others. Our own education, our own victory over fear, and our own arrival as equals in an adult world, can begin or begin again – now.

So let us begin.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Telesur English

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (vcnv.org). 

Image from 123rf.com

The Role of Martial Arts In Raising A Peacemaker

“Kee-yah!” she yells, propelling her arm upward with strength and precision. The soft blue “noodle” (one of those foam pool toys) strikes her arm but fails to reach her head, thanks to her successful block. She is happy and confident, and my heart swells with pride.

My daughter has the friendliest disposition I think I have ever seen in another human being. She is soft-hearted like her mother and charming like her daddy, and somehow she missed either of our genes for introversion. With open arms she greets the world, and it’s beautiful. It is also frightening to send her out, so wide-eyed and innocent and vulnerable, and know that others could easily take advantage of her. My husband and I do all we can to protect her and teach her how to protect herself, and within the last month, that has included enrolling her in martial arts. Thus far, the class has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, for her and her parents. But as a pacifist, I recognize an irony to the situation. I want to teach my children the art of peacemaking, and yet here I am, happily enrolling my firstborn in martial arts?

Do martial arts have a place in raising a peaceful child? I believe they can, but only if the family approaches it intentionally. As I muse on this issue, I have to take a hard look at multiple aspects of my parenting, as well as how my husband and I parent together, and ask some challenging questions.

Her Benefit, Our Benefit

Since enrolling her in martial arts, my husband and I have seen improvement in our daughter’s confidence, focus, discipline, and resilience, and that has pleased both of us immensely. The particular facility we attend puts as much stress on character development as it does on physical training, and I especially appreciate the “village” approach to raising children embedded in their philosophy.

An integral part of the program is weekly character development charts listing jobs for children to perform at home and school. Children are acknowledged for consistently completing their work, but not reprimanded when they fall short. I know this is good for the children, but it is a tremendous benefit to parents as well, providing support and reinforcement for the character traits we strive to teach. In our own house, we have tried chore calendars and charts, but they have inevitably gone unfilled after a short period of time. I know that the martial arts charts, which come partially filled with lists of activities every child should be doing (putting items away, clearing one’s place at the table, taking pride in lessons, treating others with respect) help me develop as a parent by giving me a way to consistently monitor and support my daughter in these essential life skills.

Beyond duties, the weekly job charts and the gently-expressed high standards of the instructors are fostering a sense of responsibility and helping to develop a positive attitude not only for my daughter, but for myself as well. For her, I see positive character development and increasing maturity in her decisions. As conscientious habits become ingrained within her, she is increasingly able to take care of herself without being told. And as her focus improves, she is also more in tune to the needs of others, jumping to help anyone she sees in need. My stress has naturally waned in the wake of her waxing maturity; my frustration level is generally lower and I am somewhat more relaxed. But just as I know that my daughter has made a conscious effort to take on more responsibility, I must make a conscious effort to keep my mind calm and my tone even. My efforts to discipline consistently are an exercise for me in focus, patience, and compassion. And as these traits within me grow stronger, my relationships improve, not only with my daughter, but with everyone I know. As I immerse my daughter into a more disciplined environment that her martial arts class is helping to foster, I am internalizing that gentle discipline in the best of ways, building a mental strength that helps me take control of my ever-increasing responsibilities. Martial arts has helped reinforce the values of respect for self and others that my husband and I have always strived to teach, and even as I strive to be a model for our daughter, her enthusiasm for taking on adult responsibilities and her positive attitude have served as a model for me.

Risks

Yet, when it comes down to it, martial arts teach her how to fight, and I cannot completely reconcile this fact with pacifism. When it comes to the physical, martial aspect of martial arts, I am aware of the risk that she may learn that violence can solve problems. I must be intentional about countering that message, about steering her martial arts education in a direction that will allow her to use the confidence, focus, and perseverance without becoming aggressive or adopting a mentality of being “against an enemy.” I also want to nurture a sense of respect within her without helping to foster an unquestioning acceptance of authority. It is a matter of balance, a balance I must be careful to model and maintain.

The truth is, I do want my daughters to be able to protect themselves. I am happy to give them the opportunity to learn how to block attacks and escape from holds. And although I can’t imagine a situation in which they would need to do more than block and escape, I would want them to be able to do whatever is necessary to stop an aggressor humanely to alleviate danger for themselves and others. I don’t want to limit their toolboxes. But I also do not want to blind them to the other tools in the box.

I tell myself that, should my daughter experience violence, unless she has confidence in herself to escape or stop it, she will internalize and perpetuate it – against herself and possibly against others. That is the nature of violence, to trigger a self-perpetuating cycle. The terrifying truth is that girls are particularly (but by no means exclusively) vulnerable to violence within relationships, which can lead to violent patterns, hurting others, including children later born to them. I tell myself that by enrolling our daughter in martial arts, my husband and I are helping her develop confidence in her own body, mental focus, and the self-esteem necessary to walk away from unhealthy relationships, as well as the strength to escape from physical violence should the need ever arise. And this is true. At the same time, we must be careful that as we prepare our daughters to deal with potential violence, we do not teach them to expect violence and develop an attitude of self-protection against a world onto which they project a motive of hostility.

I am hoping that the self-confidence that my daughter learns from martial arts will give her the strength and courage to use her imagination to diffuse hostility with tools of compassion, humor, logic, or surprise. My hope is that a knowledge of her physical strength will reinforce the mental strength I know she has and keep her from reacting in fear that diminishes self-control. But I am also aware that, should she meet aggression with counter-aggression, even as I want her to be able to use physical force as a last resort if she is ever in real trouble, violence has the potential to escalate. I do not want her to be hurt, and I do not want her to hurt others. Defensive violence feeds into a cycle of violence in which offense and defense cannot be distinguished. I have studied mimetic theory long enough to know this. I know there is a risk to providing her with tools I never want her to have to use, in that simply having them at her disposal could hinder her creativity in finding nonviolent ways to deal with hostility.

Solutions

So how do my husband and I minimize the risks of providing our daughters with tools that could be used for violence, and more importantly, how do we teach them to value nonviolence and peacemaking while immersing them in an environment that may in some ways contradict such a message? In searching my heart and mind, I have come up with a few ideas.

  1. The most important thing we can do to raise peacemakers is show our daughters that they are loved and provide them with a healthy environment. Martial arts help us foster this environment by reinforcing values of respect and providing support as we discipline. My growing confidence in my parenting skills is reflected in a deepening ability to show the compassion I have always felt but have sometimes fallen short of expressing. As my daughter matures, takes on responsibility and develops self-control, I am also maturing, learning the limits of my patience and controlling my actions and reactions so that I can allow those limits to be gently stretched but never broken. I am yelling less, listening more, and managing time better. Comfortable with consistently enforcing limits, I can relax and allow my daughters freedom within boundaries. I can let them set the pace, (as my colleague Suzanne advocates) allow them to be loud or silly or giggly and play along with them, knowing that I can reign them in when necessary. Giving our daughters this kind of security, freedom, and love will reinforce their sense of self-worth and model for them the peaceful and peace-building values that we want them to embody as they make their ways in the world.
  1. We can teach them that there is no such thing as a “bad guy.” One of the most important things we can do to ensure our daughters never develop an overreliance on violence is reinforce, time and again, there are no bad people, only bad actions. When my firstborn was younger, she once claimed to be a superhero with the power to “make bad guys die!” I quickly told her that it would be better to make bad guys nice instead, and ever since, she has used “the power of love” to turn imaginary villains into imaginary friends. As she grows and begins to see the world in deepening shades of gray rather than black and white, I want continually to help her to understand that all people are capable of extraordinary good and terrible harm. Even as she guards herself from the harm of which people are capable, she must remember that even someone who attacks is a person first, also capable of good. Further, I want her to recognize her own mistakes and bad choices, secure in the knowledge that she is loved and that she is much more than her mistakes. Knowing this, she can have sympathy for someone who might lash out in violence even as she does what may be necessary to protect herself. I want to teach her that violence is a destructive way of dealing with a problem, but people who express problems through violence need love and help.
  1. Finally, I want us to teach creative problem-solving skills so that our daughters recognize the tools in their toolboxes beyond fight or flight. Here I am open to any suggestions, resources or ideas readers may have. I know there are stories of conflict resolutions that have come about through friendliness, humor, logic, or the element of surprise. I would like to find these stories at age-appropriate levels and read them to my daughters. Beyond reading about nonviolent conflict resolution, I also want to model it to my daughters. It is easy enough to help them think up creative solutions to made-up problems as I play with them. But I also want to model respectful arguing to show that caring for someone is more important than proving one’s self right. That takes the kind of self-control that is ever-developing, in adults as well as children! I also know that a potentially hostile situation can be instantly diffused if provocation is met with understanding and empathy rather than offense. I am hoping that the focus and self-control my daughter is learning can be put to use to deflect insults not with physical force, but with a self-esteem and confidence that render such force unnecessary. Ultimately, I want our children never to feel the need to fight by giving them the ability to diffuse a conflict before it escalates. Should they ever be in need of physical self-defense, I am hoping they will limit the force they use to just what it takes to get away safely.

Right now, martial arts are helping me to become a more peaceful parent. I believe they can also play a role in helping my daughter to become a more peaceful child and grow into a peacemaking adult, but only if my husband and I commit to balancing her defensive skills with the environment, values, and tools that nurture her in peacemaking. We are making that commitment, but I am asking for your help, gentle readers. If you have ideas for peaceful parenting, please comment! It takes a village, afterall!

 

 

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

A Natural Peace: Evidence for the Abnormality of Violence

Is war an inevitable part of human existence? Is violence woven into the strands of our DNA? Or is it possible that human nature is loving, compassionate, and altruistic? Much ink has been spilled on the question and you can read social science and psychology studies that support the view that civilization is only a thin veneer over a violent natures or that altruism has an evolutionary advantage and is coded into our DNA. Unfortunately, nothing definitive on the question yet, not from the experimental sciences anyway. But I don’t think a definitive answer is all that elusive: If you want to know if humans are violent by nature, look at the face of a child who has been impacted by violence.

I know that mimetic theory (MT), my life’s work, has taken a beating on the subject of human violence. It has been accused of forging an indissoluble link between humanity and violence, though nothing could be further from the truth. Mimetic theory explains how violence became embedded in human culture, indeed how human culture as it is currently constructed relies on a foundation of violence. But MT also clearly illuminates the contingency of our current predicament. In other words, though violence is the beating heart of human culture today, it doesn’t have to be.

The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal”, then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal, in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally, then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.

In her observational studies of young children, Dr. Maria Montessori concluded that normal childhood development was surprisingly peaceful. What she called “normalized” children – children freed from the oppression of adult ideas of what children should be and do – were calm, capable of intense and prolonged periods of concentration, filled with wonder and joy, and overflowed with creativity. They were not violent, angry, anxious or mean. On the contrary, Dr. Montessori explained that “We might say that if love appears, we are within the range of the normal, and if it does not, within the range of the abnormal.”

In fact, I can allow her to interpret the images of children afflicted by violence for us. She called for a “revolution [in childhood education], one in which everything we know today will be transformed. I think of this as the final revolution,” she explained. “Not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.” Faces stricken to death in the presence of violence are not evidence of the normal human condition.

If war is inevitable, as some believe, then human development will forever be abnormal. We will never truly flourish and discover our way into new cultural forms that do not rely on constant infusions of violence to sustain them. We have been too long slogging through what Dr. Montessori called the “adult period” of human evolution, one that is “characterized by constant outbreak of war.” With her revolution in education, she hoped to usher in “the age of the child… the period in which we will begin to build peace.” If adults dedicate themselves to supporting the normal development of children we may be taking the first step to “organizing humanity for peace”. Social peace and harmony have too long relied on winner takes all wars of domination and defeat. True peace must be grounded in its only true foundation: the natural peace of a normalized humanity.

Memorial Day

Raven-YourVoice-9Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest author Andrew Robinson and reprinted by permission from his blog, Musings of a Peaceful Warrior.

The greatest man I’ve ever known was a war hero. It was a part of who he was, but it could not come close to defining him. He was also a lawyer, (one of the best), a storyteller, an amazing husband and father as well as my grandfather. My granddad, in many ways, was sort of the stereotypical patriarch. He loved to sit around and tell stories. He passed a love for storytelling on to the rest of my family. When we get together there is rarely the need for games or television. We tell stories. It is what Robinson’s do. It is our heritage. My granddad loved his country but he also just loved cultures. I know I inherited a love for experiencing different cultures from him. There is no man I have ever looked up to as much as my grandfather.

My grandfather also walked with a limp. He took a bullet in the knee from a sniper while getting his men to safety in one of the Pacific battles of World War Two. I have heard the story many times of him getting shot in the knee, as well as his subsequent time in the hospital and when he awoke to the beautiful sight of his big toe, letting him know his leg was not amputated. I have heard this story so many times that if I close my eyes I can picture the setting. I can picture the sniper in the trees, I can picture my granddad being the last man to safety so as to ensure that his men were safe.

I loved that story as a child. Sometimes I would pretend I had not heard it, just to hear Granddad tell it again. We all need heroes in our lives, my granddad was mine. However, recently I began thinking about the stories my granddad would not tell. As a child wrapped in the cultural ideal of good guys killing bad guys, there were several times I asked my granddad questions like, “how many bad guys did you kill?” or “tell me about when you shot the bad guys!” I remember vividly the look on his face when I would ask him about those things. Now, you need to know that my granddad would always maintain eye contact with me while he was telling stories. He knew that his facial expressions would pull you into his stories. But when I would ask him about killing “bad guys” he would break eye contact, stare off into the distance, and say something to the effect of, “I don’t talk about that.”

You see, there was something in my grandfather that knew that the worst thing he ever experienced was not being shot. The worst thing my grandfather had experienced was ending someone’s life at the end of his own gun. He never told me this obviously. But it can be inferred by the fact that a man who loved to tell stories, held back the stories that he knew would have been most interesting to his grandson.

My granddad knew I was wrong in how I felt about the glory of war. He was proud of the fact that he had saved lives. He was not proud of the fact that he had taken life.

War destroys lives. The evil hand of war reaches far beyond the battlefield, affecting soldiers who have gone home, as well as families of those who have lived and died. When war happens, even the victors lose.

Today is Memorial Day. Today is the day that we remember our soldiers who were lost on the battlefield. I have heard some Christians with a nonviolent stance like my own saying that they will not take part in Memorial Day festivities. I disagree with that sentiment. We should for sure remember every soldier lost in battle.

But our Memorial Day is too shortsighted. We must begin to move beyond remembering only our own people lost to the evils of war. We must think about the Iraqi child who became a victim of “collateral damage,” The Vietnamese child who was coerced into strapping a bomb to their chest, the fatherless Afghani teenager whose dad died fighting for the Taliban, the German soldier who was brainwashed into believing Hitler had the best interest of his country at heart and anyone else we may view as “enemy casualties.”

In Christ, there is no enemy other. Our culture divides everything along the lines of good guys and bad guys. But as followers of Jesus we must learn to look upon the enemy other and pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus beckons us to forgive, our culture beckons us to remember “our boys” who died. There is nothing wrong with remembering our guys, families of the fallen deserve that. The problem comes when we give more importance to our tragedies than we do the tragedies of families in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Japan etc.

This Memorial Day, remember the fallen soldiers you know, remember the goodness in them, but also my friends, remember that had they been born in a different place, they may have been the enemy soldier, and their death would have been no less tragic.

Never forget. Never forget the pain war causes. Always remember those we have lost to our violent ways. Always remember that every human on this planet is intrinsically tied together. When an Iraqi family loses a child, we lose a child.

Hold your children close on this Memorial Day, and remember the children affected by war all over the planet. Let this Memorial Day be one of sober remembrance instead of yet another celebration of our empire’s military might. Pray for peace my friends. Forgive, as we have been forgiven.

Happy Memorial Day.

Andrew Robinson is an advocate for nonviolence, love and peace currently living in Foley, Alabama. By trade he is a pastor, author, substitute teacher and bartender. His favorite roles, however, are being a father to an energetic little boy named Joshua and a newborn named Zayne as well as husband to a beautiful red headed Irish woman named Karen.

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

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

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

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

We need to stop eating that poison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

The Case for Child Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of Silence

Baltimore youth extended peace signs to police Tuesday night, April 28, 2015. Photo by Mark Mekala via Getty Images.  Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/baltimore-peaceful-protes_n_7166866.html

Baltimore youth extended peace signs to police Tuesday night, April 28, 2015. Photo by Mark Mekala via Getty Images. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/baltimore-peaceful-protes_n_7166866.html

This is big. A new civil rights era births itself in terrible pain.

Black men die, over and over. I can only hope that peace is the result, serious peace, bigger than new laws, bigger than better trained police — agape peace, you might say, peace that is, in the words of Martin Luther King, “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”

“‘We’re out here, and this is peaceful,’ Bishop Walter S. Thomas, pastor of the New Psalmist Baptist Church, shouted to the crowd. After a pause, they continued, singing ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Helicopters shined spotlights on the group, the thwack-thwack of their rotors competing with the music.”

This is a moment from a New York Times story on the ongoing Baltimore eruption over the death of Freddy Gray — a rare media moment, highlighting not “rioting” and anger and violence but the anguished seriousness of the protesters, who aren’t simply venting emotion over another black man dying in police custody, but evoking the deep music of civil rights and profound change while armed officialdom hovers overhead, ready to make arrests, ready to shoot.

“The march ended at New Shiloh Baptist Church on North Monroe Street, where people raised their hands in a moment of silence to commemorate Mr. Gray. . . .”

The moment of silence is at the center of the Baltimore eruption — the national eruption — over police violence, which is today’s most overt symptom of unquenched American racism.

As we all know, the media delight in us-vs.-them theatrics, so the aftermath of Freddy Gray’s death is mostly portrayed thus, with the police realigning in America’s collective awareness as the keepers of order, decked out in riot gear, standing in crisp formation as the nation’s first line of defense against . . . angry black teenagers! Shouting moms holding protest signs! Agents of change! People who want to know how a young man’s spine became “mostly severed” while in police custody (in a department with a long, documented history of brutal treatment of African-Americans)! How could such a threat to the social order be contained without helicopters and drones, tear gas grenades and pepper balls?

The moment of silence undoes all of the clamor, all of the reality-TV drama. In such a moment, a young man’s life matters, not just to his family and friends but to all of us, because all human life matters. And as we let the moment expand, so many names and faces begin to fill it: even names such as Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the New York City police officers murdered in cold blood while on duty last December. All human life matters and acts of violence that cut life short are always committed in ignorance of the consequences.

And violence — brute force — is always a pathetically ineffective way to maintain social order or establish authority. Indeed, authority, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, is based on consent and built on functional, positive relationships. Without mutual consent, authority is simply coercion: the violence-backed demands of an occupying army.

“African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority,” Coates writes. “. . . When African American parents give their children ‘The Talk,’ they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.”

And this profound wrong is also part of the moment of silence, as it commingles with prayer and hope. In the silence, the outrage turns into commitment, which the thwack-thwack of the helicopter blades only intensifies. And the deepest commitment, I believe, is nonviolent.

“The nonviolent resister,” King said in 1957, “must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Perhaps the Baltimore Police Department fears choking on tragic bitterness as it continues to ascribe Freddy Gray’s death-by-severed-spinal-cord to his not being properly seatbelted — a regrettable “mistake,” not an act of actual brutality. Yet the Baltimore police have a history of such brutality, with the city having paid out over $5.7 million to settle over 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011. Many of the incidents were documented last fall by the Baltimore Sun.

This is shocking but not exactly surprising. Every police killing that has become national news in the past year seems to emerge from such a context. The fact that the stories keep springing up anew indicates that America’s cellphones are outing a deeply embedded national horror: a shadow Jim Crow justice system. Suddenly it’s news.

But what happens next? A serious movement for political and social change has to cohere around the endemic violence. The changes must include better trained police, an end to racial profiling, the demilitarization of the police and a national embrace of community policing. This is just a start. We need a new civil rights movement. Let it begin with a moment of silence.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Tale As Old As Time

Raven-YourVoice-9

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has all the ingredients needed for a great story–rivalry, conflict, an angry mob, a beautiful woman, and an eventual, yet unpredictable romance. In one “corner”, you have “the Beast” who, at one point was a handsome, yet frigid and egocentric prince. However, due to his selfishness, he has been transformed into a cursed, almost loveless monster. The  narrator even rhetorically asks, “who could ever learn to love a ‘beast?’” The obvious answer to this is, “no one.” In the other “corner” is every woman’s dream; handsome, capable, and patriarchal Gaston. Caught in between is Belle, the most beautiful girl in town. However, where there is beauty, there is also “otherness” (and not in a good way). The women of the town sing, “It’s a pity but a sin, she doesn’t quite fit in…very different from the rest of us is Belle.” The truth is, Belle is an intellectual with her “nose always in a book” as the townspeople say. For a town that worships Gaston’s patriarchy, any woman, no matter how attractive, can become an eventual victim due to her “otherness.” Within the first few minutes of the film, the stage is set for quite the thriller.

Early on, Gaston makes his intentions to Belle clear: he desires her hand in marriage. However, Belle sees right through Gaston’s shallowness, and brushes him aside. After doing so, Belle’s father, Maurice (yet another outsider according to the general consensus of the town’s people), is noticed tinkering around on his latest “invention”. Gaston’s abused and invalidated sidekick, LeFou, even goes-so-far as to label Maurice “crazy”. At this point in the story, three potential scapegoats have been identified: a “beast,” a “sinful” woman, and an “insane” elderly man. Potential will soon become actualization with the semblance of an angry mob. However, before that happens, our eventual scapegoats will meet in a chance encounter that will end up changing their lives forever.

When Maurice stumbles upon the Beast’s castle (under the same “curse” as the Beast himself), he witnesses the horrid psychological truth of what being an “outsider” of society does to someone. The Beast responds to his unannounced “guest” by promptly locking Maurice away, threatening him with “life in prison” for what we would simply deem “trespassing” (a cruel and unusual punishment indeed!). In his inhospitable treatment of Maurice, the Beast lives up to his name. However, when Belle shows up in search of her father (after spurning Gaston‘s advances yet again), the Beast is introduced to self-giving love when she offers herself to the Beast in exchange for her father’s freedom. For the first time in what probably seemed like forever, the Beast witnesses true humanness. Back at home, however, something was taking place that begins to coalesce the community against the very one whom Belle freed, namely, Maurice.

After his release from captivity, Maurice begs for the townspeople to come rescue Belle, which Gaston and the community interpret as nothing more than “crazy Maurice acting like he always does”. This time, however, Gaston sees his chance to use Maurice to manipulate Belle. Gaston hatches a scheme to have Maurice arrested for insanity if Belle does not marry him. Unbeknownst to him, Belle was with the Beast, who would quickly soften his ways.

Although Belle and the Beast’s relationship starts on shaky ground, they eventually begin to grow fond of each other. For the first time, we begin to see the human side of the Beast. Where once there was anger, disdain, and bitterness, now there is love, gentleness, and kindness propagating within him. However, the blossoming relationship gets cut off when Belle learns, through a magic mirror, that her father is lost in the woods and is in serious peril. When the Beast allows Belle to leave to attend to her father, he not only gives up the ability to become human again (as Belle’s kiss would have broken the curse), but discovers what it means to be “human” (in the giving up of one’s “self” for another).

After Belle rescues her father and brings him home, Gaston and the mob show up to unleash his master plan. However, after a third rejection, Gaston has had enough, and along with LeFou, begins to incite a riot. To prove her father’s sanity, Belle shows the image of the Beast in the magic mirror. Belle’s insistence that the Beast is kind incites Gaston’s jealousy as he notes the affection in her tone. He accuses Belle of being “as crazy as the old man.” In discrediting Belle by associating her with her father’s alleged lunacy for defending the Beast, Gaston manages to scapegoat all three at once and harden the mob against them. Once the angry mob witnesses the roaring Beast, all hell breaks loose. The hunt is on and nothing can stop the murderous frenzy. The song they sing while traveling to the Beast’s castle is a classic case of a frenzied mob which, with little modification, could have easily been sung at the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus.

[Gaston:] The Beast will make off with your children.
[Mob:] {gasp}
[Gaston:] He’ll come after them in the night.
[Belle:] No!
[Gaston:] We’re not safe till his head is mounted on my wall! I
Say we kill the Beast!
[Mob:] Kill him!
[Man I:] We’re not safe until he’s dead
[Man II:] He’ll come stalking us at night
[Woman:] Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite
[Man III:] He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free
[Gaston:] So it’s time to take some action, boys
It’s time to follow me!
Through the mist
Through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare but it’s one exciting ride
Say a prayer
Then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside
It’s a beast
He’s got fangs
Razor sharp ones
Massive paws
Killer claws for the feast
Hear him roar
See him foam
But we’re not coming home
‘Til he’s dead
Good and dead
Kill the Beast!
[Belle:] No! I won’t let you do this!
[Gaston:] If you’re not with us, you’re against us!
Bring the old man!
[Maurice:] Get your hands off me!
[Gaston:] We can’t have them running off to warn the creature.
[Belle:] Let us out!
[Gaston:] We’ll rid the village of this Beast. Who’s with me?
[Mob:] I am! I am! I am!)
Light your torch
Mount your horse
[Gaston:] screw your courage to the sticking place
[Mob:] We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way
Through a mist
Through a wood
Where within a haunted castle
Something’s lurking that you don’t see ev’ry day
It’s a beast
One as tall as a mountain
We won’t rest
‘Til he’s good and deceased
Sally forth
Tally ho
Grab your sword
Grab your bow
Praise the Lord and here we go!
[Mob:] We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns
Bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!

Although the mob is thwarted by the enchanted objects of the castle, Gaston is able to slip through the crowd; making his way up to the Beast. What he discovers is a hopeless and defeated Beast. With the loss of Belle, there was a loss of love, and thus, of life. However, once the Beast sees Belle running toward the castle, he is reinvigorated and begins to defend himself from Gaston’s assault. Because of the Beast’s overpowering strength, he is able to control Gaston, and has the opportunity to destroy him. However, the Beast is able to find his humanness and forces the evil within him out: choosing peace. Once mercifully released, Gaston does not return the favor and stabs the Beast in the back. In doing so, Gaston loses his footing and falls to his doom.

The final scene is a beautiful metaphor for the Gospel story. Although the Beast has the opportunity to easily wipe out Gaston (a la Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), he chooses compassion and mercy. Because of this, he is brutally murdered. However, that is not the end of the story as Belle, who is the embodiment of love, resurrects the Beast and restores the castle and her staff (apokatastasis). Because of the Beast’s conversion to grace, he in essence allows his enemy to slay him; but because of love, the curse that had been in place for ages (aionios) is destroyed. As one who holds to the doctrine of universal reconciliation, this is a beautiful ending to the story.

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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