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The Iran Deal and American Self-Deception

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the American political divide are debating the merits of President Obama’s deal with Iran. While Obama claims he has forestalled an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least another 10 years with unprecedented weapons inspection, Republicans state that the deal will only encourage the world’s most dangerous sponsor of terrorism.

Only time will tell us about the merits of the deal. For now, I’m interested in the response from our Republican presidential candidates.

The Republican candidates are swirling around, trying to point the finger at the greatest enemy of the United States. Is it the dreaded Mexican immigrants? (Gasp!) Or is it the terrorism that Iran threatens to unleash upon the globe? (Double gasp!)

American Terrorism

Forgive me if it looks like I’m picking on the Republicans. After all, this is American politics per usual. And maybe it’s just human politics. But Republican candidates in particular are trying to convince us that there is an extremely dangerous enemy out there that threatens our freedom. But that’s not all. They are also trying to convince us that the Democrats are enabling our enemies. And so we should vote for Republicans because they will be tough on our enemies.

This response from the Republicans is an act of American self-deception. They, and we the American people, should know better.

The United States has met our greatest enemy that leads the world in global terrorism. And it is us.

To prove my criticism of violent American foreign policy is bipartisan, I’ll point out that the Obama Administration’s indiscriminate drone strikes are terrorist crimes against humanity. While the Obama administration rightly criticizes al-Qaeda’s practice of attacking enemies during a funeral as morally heinous acts of terrorist monsters, nothing stops Obama from using drones to kill our “enemies” as they attend funerals.

I put “enemies” in quotes because they ended being regular civilians, many even children. You know, “casualties of war.” Aka, “Oops!”

And Iran is the most dangerous supporter of state terrorism in the world?

No, we are. And Republicans are trying to gain our vote by criticizing Obama’s terrorist policies and promising that they will be far better terrorists. Which, our politicians claim, will keep us safe.

A Relationship of Fear and Desire for Peace

The fact is that Iran wants to be just like the U.S. We fear Iran and Iran fears us. A relationship of fear is a recipe for disaster. But the U.S. and Iran want the same thing. Iran has a fearful political regime that just wants peace. Iran feels threatened, and it has learned from the U.S. how to respond to threats – by mimicking those violent threats with violent threats of its own.

We are enemy twins, who, even in negotiations, won’t take violence off the table.

The way that the U.S. can free ourselves from this relationship of violence is through honest self-criticism. Instead of accusing Iran of being a great threat to global security, we would do well to have the courage to admit our own terrorist acts of foreign policy.

American Honesty and Genuine Peace

It is the height of American self-deception to claim that we are completely innocent and Iran is completely guilty. Just look at our modern history with Iran. In 1953, the U.S. orchestrated a coup to topple the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Why? So that the U.S. would have “a major ownership in the strategic and highly lucrative trade of Iranian oil … with the additional bonus of a pliable client state in the heart of the Middle East.”

In 1985, the U.S. secretly shipped weapons to Iran and sent profits to Nicaraguan rebels. In 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airplane. The U.S. says it mistook the Airbus A300 for an Iranian fighter jet.

Our greatest enemy is not Iran. It’s not Russia. Nor is it China. Our greatest enemy is ourselves. We have modeled for the world how to gain temporary peace through violence, which is a pattern that will only ensure a future of apocalyptic destruction.

The only alternative is to model a different method to achieve peace. American politicians must have the courage to stop deceiving the American people about our perceived innocence. Rather, we need our politicians to be honest about American involvement in terrorism and lead us in repenting of our violence. Modeling that honesty and repentance to other nations is the only possible way that the U.S. can help foster genuine peace in the world.

Photo Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

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Ted Cruz and God’s Political Subversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s talk God and politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrorists Win: “The Interview,” North Korea, and the Tragic Irony of Christmas

North Korean and United States flag.

North Korean and United States flag.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to watch Kim Jong-un’s assassination on the big screen this Christmas. We will not be able to cheer as the brutal dictator’s helicopter explodes in the air “while Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ plays on the soundtrack.” We will not be able to fulfill this Christmas Day fantasy by watching “The Interview” because the terrorists have won.

The FBI now claims that Kim Jong-un’s government is behind the act of terrorism. In retaliation for the movie, a state-sponsored North Korean cyber-terrorist group called “The Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Pictures and leaked sensitive information, including internal emails, future Sony films, and sensitive employee records. “The Guardians of Peace” also threatened movie goers with a “9/11 style attack” on every cinema that shows the movie.

After the threats were made and many theaters decided to pull the film, Sony Pictures canceled the release of the “The Interview.” Sony said in a statement:

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our costumers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

Washington and Hollywood are also in an uproar:

“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them,” tweeted Rob Lowe. Jimmy Kimmel claimed that pulling the movie was, “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Steve Carell said it was a, “Sad day for creative expression.” Senator John McCain stated that “yielding to aggressive cyber-terrorism by North Korea…sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.”

And White House officials are exploring retaliation, “We have options…you freeze the account at banks and you tell the institutions ‘you’re either going to do business with the United States, or you can do business with North Korea.”

The terrorists may have won the battle, but the United States will win the war!

That’s the way the United States is telling this story. I’m sorry. I just can’t go there.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite my unwavering belief in nonviolence, there’s a part of me that wants to blow Kim Jong-un up into a million pieces. Not because I think we’re his victims. Not because we can’t watch a particular movie on Christmas Day. Not because I think he poses a serious threat to our freedoms. No, I want to blow him up because he’s a brutal dictator who terrorizes his own people in concentration camps where 10,000 people die every year. North Korea has one of the worst human rights record in the world, which includes public executions, forced prostitution, slave labor, forced abortions, religious persecution, and arbitrary detentions. If anything good comes out of this conflict, it is that we will learn more about the atrocities the North Korean regime inflicts upon its own people. They are Kim Jong-un’s true victims.

But alas, Sony and the US Government are claiming to be North Korea’s victim, and North Korea is claiming to be our victim. Each side mirrors each other in playing the fearful victim. Nations who feel like fearful victims respond to threats and violence in one predictable fashion – retaliation.

The United States is retaliating against North Korea, whose “Guardians of Peace” retaliated against us for making a movie that North Korea think is, “an undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

Kim Jong-un is clearly a fearful man who keeps power by bullying his own people, indeed, his own family, but he’s not as crazy as we might think. While Sony doesn’t speak for the US Government, “The Interview” does give expression to a dominant theme running throughout our culture – that the world would be better without this brutal dictator who terrorizes his own people, constantly threatens the US with nuclear warfare, and that the only way to get rid of him is through violence.

We in the US want to emphasize differences between us and them. We claim the mantle of morality because we have freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. So what if that freedom leads to the depiction of the death of a brutal dictator! But let’s not kid ourselves. This conflict isn’t simply about freedom of speech or expression. It’s about politics. “The Interview” asks the question: How should we deal with brutal dictators who pose a nuclear threat in a post 9/11 world?

This conflict is fundamentally about political violence. And the truth about violence is that it puts us all on the same moral level because violence has a certain moral logic. We all believe that our violence is good and defensive, while the other’s violence is an aggressive form of terrorism. North Korea and the United States are enslaved to this logic of violence. Whenever one nation perceives the other as a terror threat, it retaliates with escalating cycles of violence and threats of violence.

As Jean-Michel Oughourlian states in his brilliant book, Psychopolitcs, national rivalries follow this pattern of retaliation and violence. We believe that our enemy is “considered an evil to be eradicated, and of course, the other side’s position is the same, a mirror image.”

In this sense, we are all members of “The Guardians of Peace.” With a sense of tragic irony, we all believe that the best method to eradicate evil and to guard peace is to retaliate with violence.

The tragic irony only continues once we realize that the movie was set to be released on Christmas Day – the day when we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. We don’t need anymore “Guardians of Peace.” We need more people who will follow the path of the Prince of Peace. This path means that instead of guarding peace with violence, we lay down our weapons. It means that instead of participating in a cultural fantasy of killing our enemies, we pray for our enemies. It means instead of being offended by our enemies, we find creative ways to love them. As Oughourlian claims, it means that “Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace.”

Democracy’s Most Cherished Act

Image from www.cafepress.com

Image from www.cafepress.com

Democracy! A word, a way of life, our highest ideal: Everyone is equal; no one is marginal.

I still feel the force of this word, though the middle syllable — “mock” — grows increasingly dominant when I hear it, especially now, as election season rolls around again. The enormity of my indifference to this election is balanced by something that feels like grief. The system we live under is . . .

Words fail me. Pardon me while I quote Nietzsche.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Writing is either an act of hope or an act of cynicism, and I have always committed myself to reaching for the former in my commentary on current events, no matter how disturbing the events may be. But in this moment, I feel myself walking the edge of cynicism: The system we live under is a joke, a farce, a calculated lie. I say this as someone who believed in it deeply, who embraced our history of expanding inclusiveness.

Democracy in the United States of America used to apply only to white property owners, but in my grandparents’ lifetime, in my parents’ lifetime, in my own lifetime, we saw the moral arc of the universe bend toward justice. The right to vote expanded. More and more people mattered and became eligible to participate in the creation of our society. This was human progress, and it was good.

The agendas of various special interests were always in the picture, of course. Racism was always lurking, available for exploitation. Elections could be rigged. With the onset of electronic voting, vigilance was more crucial than ever. I embraced and celebrated the vigilance: Fair elections held society together. I still believed in democracy. I believed that, at its core, it was a positive force.

That belief has been ebbing for the last six years. My reaction to the following sentence made me realize how empty my reservoir of belief has become. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, addressing the spate of voter ID laws and other cynical Republican efforts to keep various unfriendly constituencies away from the polls, wrote:

“The real reason for the laws is to lower turnout, to hold onto power by keeping those who (are) in opposition from exercising their solemn right — to make it hard for minorities, poor folks, and students, among others, to participate in democracy’s most cherished act.”

I felt nothing but a rush of impatience. Voting — “democracy’s most cherished act” — is now a completely empty ritual, or so it seemed for a deeply dispiriting moment. I realized I had given up on it as an instrument of social change, a manifestation of the moral arc of the universe. The cynic’s graffiti felt closer to the truth: “If voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” And the picture accompanying the graffiti was Barack Obama’s.

Following eight years of George Bush and the disastrous war on terror, Obama came in on a cry for peace as deep as I’ve ever heard. His support was global. He had, it seemed, a mandate for profound change. But his performance in office — his embrace of militarism in the Middle East and expansion of drone warfare, his defense of the NSA and domestic mega-spying, among much else — has made it clear this mandate doesn’t matter and was never the point.

Mandate or no mandate, the controlling interests of the American empire command bipartisan homage. They’re not going to be voted out of power.

Coming to terms with the reality of the Obama years has altered my thinking on democracy itself, and beyond that, the concept of the nation, which has emerged from the cauldron of endless war and exists primarily, I fear, as the most efficient form of war’s perpetuation. The nation’s cornerstone is self-defense and a sense of superiority over other nations, values that are summoned continually and never fail to deliver the desired result. We’re organized to go to war, and democracy — voting — doesn’t change this, even if we keep thinking it will.

“The proletariats of each country, growing in numbers and strength, are made to wage war against each other,” Michael Parenti, discussing World War I, wrote recently at Common Dreams. “What better way to confine and misdirect them than with the swirl of mutual destruction. Meanwhile, the nations blame each other for the war.”

And World War I, the war to end all wars, begat World War II, which, William Rivers Pitt writes at Truthout, “never ended, because the manufacture of war materiel made the manufacturers rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and they began to exert influence over American politics . . .

And the Cold War took hold and “. . . O my Lord,” Pitt goes on, “how the money rolled in, because conflict for conflict’s sake became the operational ethos in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and Africa and South America and Central America and especially in the Middle East for decades . . .”

And the situation continues to escalate and Obama can’t and won’t stop it and the next president we “elect” won’t stop it either. Maybe democracy is still a viable concept. I harbor a vestige of hope that it is. But democracy’s most cherished act has got to be something more profound than pulling a lever or making an X in a box.

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.

© 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Why the NFL is Better for Women than the US Senate

Senator Mitch McConnell and NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell (John Shrinkle/Politico and  David Phillips/AP)

Senator Mitch McConnell and NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell (John Shrinkle/Politico and David Phillips/AP)

The NFL has come under severe scrutiny for its handling of domestic violence during the last few months. Rodger Goodell has admitted to fumbling the Ray Rice case, has admitted that the NFL has a problem with abusing women, and he has committed himself to finding a solution.

There are many reasons to be cynical about Goodell. Maybe the only reason he’s attempting to implement changes is because of public pressure, the loss of public sponsorship, and the fact that his job is on the line. But at least Goodell cares enough about something that he will implement changes to in the NFL that will hopefully lead toward better treatment of women.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the US Senate.

The Senate Republicans recently rejected a bill proposed by Senate Democrats aiming to reconcile the pay disparity between men and women. Census data shows that in the United States “women who are employed full time, year round in the United States are paid, on average, 78 cents for every dollar paid to men.” That pay disparity is affecting 15.2 million households that are headed by women and it’s affecting nearly every household supported by a working woman.

The bill is called “The Paycheck Fairness Act.” My Facebook feed was inundated with images and commentary lambasting Senate Republicans for rejecting the bill.

Really?!? I thought. Surely, there must be a good reason for Senate Republicans to reject this bill. After all, realizing that women get paid 78 cents per every dollar a man makes and doing nothing about it would be economic violence against women. They must have a good reason!

So, I went looking for their reasons. The four women in the Republican senate gave various justifications for rejecting the bill. Senator Kelly Ayotte claimed the bill would “prohibit merit-based pay.” Apparently, women across the country lack the male “qualities” that would merit them equal pay.

Senator Susan Collins argues that the 1963 Equal Pay Act is good enough. To her credit, in 1963 women were paid on average just 59 cents for every dollar a man made. That the average has gone up around 20 cents in 50 years is good, but not nearly good enough. More work needs to be done. Collins also argues that women are not paid less because of discrimination but because they are … WOMEN! She claims that the wage disparity “may be due to personal decisions that women make to leave the workforce to raise children for a number of years and then return to the workforce.” This excuse smacks of the demeaning of women by certain women who are, by law, guaranteed to make the same amount as their male colleagues – $174,000 per year.

Senator John McCain said that we have more important things to do than worry about the pay disparity between women and men. After all, “Here we have international crisis, with the defense authorization bill out there, and we refuse to take it up. We continue to take up issue that he (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) thinks may help them in November. And we’ve got the world in turmoil.”

Another justification that Republicans provided for voting down the bill is that it would hurt businesses, even though the bill included assistance to small businesses needing help to implement the new procedures. And others claimed the Democrats were just playing politics.

Notice that none of these justifications claim that the problem doesn’t exist. That’s because the problem is undeniable. Women are treated as second class citizens not just by the NFL, but by our whole culture. Women and families are suffering in turmoil because of unjust pay practices.

Unlike the NFL, the Republican Senate just doesn’t care enough to make changes.

The Republican Senate deserves its fair share of blame, but so do we. A cynical view of the NFL claims that it is making changes solely because of public pressure. And good for us for putting pressure on the NFL to stop demeaning women as second class citizens.

But where’s the public pressure on the Republican Senators? Where’s the public outcry against economic violence committed against women? Maybe the Republican Senators don’t care enough to change the fact that a woman is worth about 78 percent of what a man is worth because we don’t care enough.

Ironically, many Senate Republicans like to extoll the virtues of the Bible. If they are annoyed by Senate Democrats for “playing politics,” they should also be annoyed by the Bible. Thousands of years before our modern concern for equality, the Bible claimed that women and men are both equally created in the image of God. Both women and men are infused with ultimate worth. The same image of God resides in women and in men equally.

That message of equality between the genders was as radical when it was written 2,500 years ago as it is today. But clearly the Bible isn’t enough. The only way to stop the demeaning of women throughout American culture is to create sustained public pressure on organizations like the NFL and Senate Republicans to end all forms of systemic violence against women, including economic violence.

That will only happen if we care enough.

Jesus is at the Border: Immigration, Barriers, and God’s Economy

Courtesy of juicyecumenism.com

Courtesy of juicyecumenism.com

I am not a politician, so I’m not an expert on immigration policies.

I am not an economist, so I’m not an expert on the economic benefits or burdens of immigration.

But I am a public theologian. I try to understand how we can participate with God in setting things right, healing the world, and reconciling human beings with one another, with the world, and with God.

How is God setting things right? Jesus, in one of his most important, if also confusing, prayers, offered these words of unity to the one he called Father. In this prayer, we discover how God is setting things right:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as you and I are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them even as you have loved me.

In order to explain this prayer, Christian tradition resorted to a term that is just as confusing: the hypostatic union. A parishioner in my progressive mainline church scolded me once for using this term. He said that such words belong strictly in the seminary and in the ancient world. I’m sure many progressives would agree. After all, haven’t we progressed beyond these ancient and mythical formulas? But I think progressives need to reclaim such words. The immigration crisis is a prime example why.

The hypostatic union refers to a mystery: the difference and unity between Jesus and the Father. The difference between the divine and the human coexisted within Jesus. There was enough room in Jesus for the divine and the human to unite harmoniously in abundant love.

In the same mysterious way that Jesus and God coexisted in unity, Jesus and his fellow human beings coexist in unity. In his prayer, Jesus says that he is “in them.” There is enough room in each of us for the presence of Jesus. Jesus coexists within everyone, but Jesus constantly reminded his followers that he was particularly one with the weak, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor, the neglected, the stranger, the expelled, and the immigrant – in other words, the victims of human violence.

In fact, Jesus was an immigrant. Jesus prayed to his Father, “…that the world may know that you have sent me…”Jesus immigrated from the Father to the world. And what did we humans do to him? We told him that he wasn’t welcome. We expelled him as a victim of our own violence. By being expelled to the cross, Jesus identifies himself with all victims of violence. Jesus became an immigrant who was expelled from this world so that we might stop expelling immigrants.

Jesus is at the border of the United States and we expelling him.

So, why do we keep expelling Jesus? Because we don’t actually believe in him. We don’t believe that in Jesus God is setting the world right by showing us that there is a divine unity of love that unites “us” and “them.” We actually think Jesus was wrong when he revealed that in God’s economy there is enough love and bread and fish and water and housing and money and food and healing and forgiveness and reconciliation for everyone.

We don’t believe in Jesus and we don’t trust his way of unity. Rather, we form unity by being against an “other.” We form artificial barriers between us and them, which allow us to claim that we are good and they are bad. These barriers are artificial because they can be anything: political, economic, racial, and national identities all provide barriers that we use to unite “us” against “them.”

Christians should know better. Rather than using differences to unite us against them, differences provide an opportunity to unite us with them by sharing in God’s economy of abundant love. But instead of believing in the economy Jesus taught, we believe in an economy of scarcity. We are constantly told that there is not enough for everyone, so we need to keep all we can for ourselves. Under the spell of scarcity, we are told that “they” are a threat to “us,” which means “we” need to kick “them” out.

But we know that Jesus is one with immigrants. So when Christian politicians demand that we send Jesus, who comes to us in immigrants, back to their countries plagued by violence, they show their utter lack of faith in Jesus. That’s not Christian. That’s anti-Christian. Jesus breaks down the barriers of hostility between “us” and “them.” In Jesus, differences become opportunities for us to love them as if we were one with them because in Jesus we are one with them. Jesus was fully within his Jewish tradition when he broke down these barriers. For example, if conservative Christians really believe that the Bible is “the inerrant Word of God,” then they would abide by the words of Leviticus,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Biblical faith, like the hypostatic union, sets a trajectory that ultimately breaks down the national, racial, and economic barriers that separate “us” from “them.” It claims that there is enough room for all in God’s economy that cares for everyone, but especially for those we label “them.” Differences remain, but those differences should not to be used as justification for setting up barriers of oppression and scapegoating. Rather, those differences are opportunities to show God’s economy of love and hospitality for all people, but especially for those that Leviticus calls “the alien” among us.

The glory that the Father gave to Jesus, and that Jesus gives to us, is the glory of uniting love. It’s the glory that embraces and makes room for the “other” – in this case, the immigrant other – and makes us one.

The good news is that it’s not too late to change. We can repent. We can change our hearts and minds so that we following Jesus in breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them.” We can embrace our differences and become one with God and our fellow human beings. We can join in God’s economy of abundant love and set things right by healing the world and trusting that there is enough room, enough wealth, enough food, and enough housing for “us” and for “them.”

Jesus is at the border. He is “in them.” How will we respond to his presence among us?

Two Things the Hobby Lobby Case Tells Us about Politics and Being Christian

batman and obamaSince the Hobby Lobby case, I have learned two things about being Christian.

First, being Christian means that you are right and that the other side is not only wrong, but a detriment to American freedom. Conservatives are boasting that their victory over liberals is a “welcoming gesture not only toward religious freedom, but also freedom of conscience.” The blog Seasons of Grace asks that we join the author “in a prayer of thanks at this ruling.” Joining in prayer is all well and good, but apparently it’s not a season of grace. Rather, it’s a season of violence. Immediately after her call for prayer, the blogger posted a meme of Batman slapping Barack Obama.

Prayer and violence, apparently, go hand in hand – or hand across the face, as the case may be. And isn’t that what we want? Our Superhero God to sweep in and defeat our enemies through political rule. Ahh, thanks be to our God for the sweet taste of victory over our political enemies! But don’t let up! Conservatives know that in the culture wars, the battle is far from over. In fact, the case should have been voted 9-0! The 5-4 vote shows just how awful and incomprehensibly far American culture has fallen. And damn that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her “overwrought dissenting opinion”! So batten down the hatches! Prepare the ammunition! Conservative Christians are bringing the fight to their liberal counterparts.

Let’s all pray in a moment of thanks…

Lady libertyBut if you are a liberal, you think that you are right and that the Supreme Court’s ruling is “a travesty of justice grounded in the same brutish sexism and classism that has always informed the most egregious and shameful rulings of the highest court in our land.”  What the conservative judges on the court wrought on American society is such a travesty to freedom that even Lady Liberty holds her head in shame.

You also know that many women use contraception not for pregnancy prevention, but for help with serious health problems. You know that corporations aren’t religious, that this ruling is a sign of the corporate takeover of the world, that birth control pills are scientifically not an abortifacient, that this decision is actually bad for religious freedom, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is your hero, and that if Hobby Lobby were a religious corporation its practices would be hypocritical because its retirement plan invests in contraception and it does business with China where workplace conditions are so bad that “Seventy thousand Chinese employees die every year due to workplace conditions” and where 13 million abortions are performed each year. But there is hope! Liberal Christians only lost 4-5. So batten down the hatches! Prepare the ammunition! Liberal Christians are bringing the fight to their conservative counterparts.

Is this what Christian politics is all about? Are we stuck in an endless political rivalry with our fellow Christians? Or, rather than fantasizing about slapping the other side across the face, can we choose a more gracious way to respond?

Those questions lead me to the second thing I’ve learned about being Christian. Being Christian, whether conservative or liberal, means being called to a different kind of politics. We have an incredibly important opportunity before us. We can either be known for the way we fight these political battles, or for the way we seek to understand the other’s position. Understanding our political enemies is, after all, part of what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ meant when he called us to love our enemies.

Our determination to defeat our opponents is a distraction from Jesus’ call to love our enemies. It’s important for Christians to participate in politics, but it’s even more important to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is an entirely different kind of politics.

Churches have an important opportunity to practice this different kind of politics. Its politics, its way of life, shouldn’t get distracted by rivalries and blame, but rather it should fulfill the mission God gave to Abraham to “be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” The church’s political goals should not be to defeat our political enemies, but to find ways to bless all the families of the earth.

Your political enemies? Find ways to bless them.

Women who, for any reason, need contraception and can’t afford it? Find ways to bless them.

Women who have chosen to have abortions? Find ways to bless them.

Women who have chosen to not have abortions and struggle to provide for their children? Find ways to bless them.

The Hobby Lobby case presents us with a choice. Will we choose to be a blessing or a curse to the other side? In this case, Christians are becoming known for the way we curse one another. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to bless and to love our enemies.

One thing that Christians can objectively agree upon is that our Lord and Savior calls us to do just that.

The Politics of Palm Sunday

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

Painting by Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842

Make no mistake: the Gospel is political.

Politics refers to “the affairs of the city” and “influencing other people on a civic or individual level.”

Throughout his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is political. He influences people to live into the Kingdom of Heaven. For Jesus, Heaven is not essentially some place off in the distance where you go after you die. No, Heaven is a way of life to be lived right here, right now. We see this clearly in the prayer he taught his disciples:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, he was performing a political act. But it was a political act unlike any other.

Let’s contrast the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Rome spread its Gospel, its “good news,” in a very deliberate way. As Fr. John Dear points out,

We’re so used to that word “Gospel,” that it’s lost its original meaning. But in those days, when the Roman empire went off and conquered another land in the name of their god Caesar, and killed all the men, raped all the women, and destroyed all the homes, the soldiers would come back parading through the land announcing “the Gospel according to Caesar,” the Good News of the latest victory of Caesar, that another land has been conquered for their god Caesar, and that Caesar’s enemies have been killed.

The Gospel is political. I don’t want to pick on ancient Rome because ancient Roman politics was essentially like the politics of every other nation. We influence other people through power, coercion, and violence.

In spreading its Gospel, Rome was spreading the Pax Romana. Rome genuinely believed that it was spreading peace and its method for spreading peace was violence. They praised their gods that the enemies of Roman Peace had been killed.

That’s the politics of Rome.

But that’s not the politics of Jesus.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus revealed an alternative way of being political. A political ruler’s entry into a city was of great importance in the ancient world. Roman rulers would enter a city on a war horse to show power and domination. Jesus rode on a donkey. Indeed, this was to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes:

Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The large crowd spread their cloaks on the ground and waved their palm branches as they shouted “Hossana to the Son of David.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament states that the cloaks and palm branches were meant “to connect Jesus to the kingship of Israel.” The term “Son of David” was also a clear messianic reference that hoped for a new political ruler, but just what kind of king was Jesus? Matthew gives a hint. Many today might accuse Matthew of playing fast and loose with his quote from Zechariah 9:9-10:

Shout aloud, O daughter Zion!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Notice that Matthew omits that the king will be “triumphant and victorious.” Was Matthew lazy? Did he just forget?

No, Matthew was deliberate. He knew that Jesus was a different kind of king and that the Kingdom of Heaven is a different kind of politics. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was revealing that the reign of God is in stark contrast to the reign of Rome and every other political system that seeks triumphant victory by influencing people through violence and coercion.

The Gospel of Jesus is different. This Gospel is the politics of humility, service, forgiveness, and a nonviolent love that embraces all people, but especially those we call our enemies.

Tragically, we tend to live by the politics of Rome, not the politics of Jesus. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, American or Russian, whenever we seek to influence others through coercion and violence, we are following the politics of Rome.

Fortunately, Jesus revealed the alternative. He called it “The Kingdom of God.” It’s a political way of life based not on triumphant violence, but rather humble service. The politics of Jesus makes sure everyone has daily bread, it seeks to forgive debts and sins, it avoids the temptation to commit evil against our neighbors, and it calls us into a life of forgiveness.

But this is risky. We know that the politics of Jesus led him to Good Friday, where he suffered and died. And yet he stayed true to the Kingdom of God, speaking words of forgiveness even as he was murdered. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

This is not just a call to a personal ethic; this is a political ethic. Indeed, the politics of Jesus seeks to influence our personal lives, but it also seeks to influence our political lives. Wherever personal or political systems use violence, power, and coercion to be triumphant and victorious, Jesus beckons us to follow him into a different kind of politics – into the Kingdom of God that lives and dies by love, service, and forgiveness.

For the Common Good: From the Politics of Blame to the Politics of Blessing

Can politics serve the common good?

Politics and the blame game in Jim Wallis's book, On God's SideThat’s one of the big questions in Jim Wallis’s latest book On God’s Side. It is the right question to ask because American politics seems irredeemably mired in the blame game. I, along with many other young people, was hoping for a new kind of politics five years ago when we helped to elect Barack Obama. We thought we were making that change for a new kind of politics. Yet, here we are, five years later and American politics is just as entrenched in the blame game as it was before.

Wallis speaks to my growing cynicism in a refreshing way in a chapter titled “Redeeming Democracy.” In it, he writes, “The cynicism around politics has reached a historic high. Democracy is the result of the steady expansion of human rights and opportunities, and yet we seem to have lost our belief in it or our ambition to take it to the next level” (181).

That’s exactly how I feel. I’m losing my belief in American politics and I have little motivation to take it to any level at all because I fear we will only go down. Yes, I’m cynical because we are in a fight for the common good and everyone thinks they are its biggest champions. We all think that our wants, needs, and desires are the most moral and true – that our policies are the best for the common good. So, who is getting in the way of the common good? When it comes to politics, we always blame the other.

In his book Psychopolitics, professor of clinical psychopathology Jean-Michel Oughourlian explores the psychology of politics. He writes, “The essence of politics is to identify the adversary/enemy and to ensure that this choice brings in its wake the adherence of the entire nation” (30).

This leads us to a very important question: Is there another way to be political?

Wallis points to the answer in his book by referring to G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a brilliant author, philosopher, journalist, poet, debater, literary critic, and Christian apologetic. After writing about many of the problems facing American politics and economics, Wallis states, “But I am reminded of what … G.K. Chesterton once said when asked what was wrong with the world. He reportedly replied, ‘I am.’” (208)

It is this self-critical and humble approach to politics that is missing in our cultural debate, but make no mistake: this is bigger than politics. It would be easy for us to blame those politicians for playing the blame game. But we will never solve the problem of blame by blaming. What we need is a different way of being human.

I’m convinced that Oughoulian is right. Politics is based on uniting against a common enemy. There is no way out of this trap. The key is found in Chesteron’s answer. We can no longer unite behind an external enemy. The enemy is within each one of us. Oughourlian states, “Politics must…clearly designate a precise, known, clearly designated enemy that is obvious to each of us and that underlies all of these problems: ourselves.” (81)

Throughout On God’s Side, Wallis states, “I have never seen the real changes we need come from inside politics. Instead, they come from outside social movements.” (295) I pray for the day when a major politician will model the self-critical humility it takes to genuinely lead us into a future where each of us examines the enemy within. I pray for that day, but we must not simply wait for that day. Yes, we desperately need to work for the common good, but as we work for the common good, let’s stop the blame game in our personal, social, and political lives. Blaming others is a form of scapegoating that blinds us to solving the very real problems that we face – it especially blinds us to our responsibility for those problems.

Can politics serve the common good? I’m still cynical. I worry about Wallis’s emphasis on fighting for rights – even if we “fight for the rights of all people.” (5) Fighting for rights makes us adversaries and leads us back into blaming one another. But there is another political vision that comes from the Bible. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to do something political. It wasn’t to fight for his rights. Rather, God said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Biblical politics is not about fighting for political rights. It’s about being a blessing to all the families of the earth. American politics will only be redeemed when we, as a people, critically examine the ways in which we haven’t been a blessing to our brothers and sisters on this earth. We must admit the many ways in which we have become a curse and an enemy to many families on this earth.

The Bible knows us better than we know ourselves. The Bible knows that only with self-critical reflection can our politics be redeemed. Only then can we repent and take the necessary steps to live into the biblical mandate of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Bible Matters: The Prophet Isaiah’s Politics

Isaiah‘s political message is not good for national defense! But it’s the only message that will lead to God’s plan for the reconciliation of the nations. Here are a few questions to think about from this video:

Can you be a light to the nations and fight darkness with darkness?

What would you say about Isaiah’s national defense strategy?

How do you respond to Isaiah’s vision in chapter 25 that all the nations will be gathered on God’s mountain for a banquet?

 

For more in the Bible Matters series, click here.