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Soldiers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division salute the American flag as the United States anthem is being played during their departure ceremony at historic Fort Snelling May 22, 2011.  1st BCT will be deploying to Kuwait in support of Operation New Dawn.

Demons of War: Recovery from Moral Injury

Colonel Theodore Westhusing had a highly successful military career. He was a professor of philosophy and English at West Point. At 43 years old with a wife and three young children, Westhusing felt morally dutybound to re-enlist as a soldier in the Iraq War. As a philosopher of war, Westhusing received his military training in moral decision making. His doctoral dissertation emphasized the morality, ethical values, and virtues of American wars.

Despite his success, his life had a tragic ending that was the result of moral injury to his soul.

In 2004, Westhusing was honored with the very long military title, “Director, Counter Terrorism/Special Operations, Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.” He was to supervise Iraqis who were being trained as civilian police officers. A few months into his deployment, General David Petraeus praised his extraordinary ability to work with U.S. contractors and Iraqi leaders.

The Moral Injury of a Soldier

But in 2005, Westhusing faced a moral crisis. Based on an anonymous tip, he discovered enormous moral failures within the U.S. military. Those moral failures called into question his trust in the moral authority of an organization that was asking soldiers to kill and die for a perceived moral good. Those moral failures included illegal activity – for example, contractor’s severe mismanagement of resources, forged resumes that claimed background with elite forces, equipment theft, inadequate training, and employees bragging about murdering Iraqis.

Westhusing was morally compelled to report his findings to General Petraeus, who pressured him to deny the truth behind the anonymous tip. Westhusing initially complied, but continued to feel a moral obligation to report his findings. After a heated argument with Petraeus about the morality of the situation, Westhusing’s personal crisis came to a boiling point as he struggled with the demons of war. He committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the head. In his suicide note to his commanding officer he wrote,

I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored…I don’t know who to trust anymore…Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support, and selfishness?

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini tell Westhusing’s story of moral injury in their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Moral injury is described by Brock and Lettini as resulting, “when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”

Like the other personal stories of soldiers in Soul Repair, Westhusing was trained by the military to be a moral agent for good in the world. Among other things, this meant standing up for justice and discerning between innocent civilians and non-civilian combatants.

But as soldiers are trained on morality, they are also put through “reflexive fire training.” This training conditions soldiers to shoot before making any moral decisions. The goal of “reflexive fire training” is to literally bypass the moral decision making of a soldier so that they are enslaved to an immoral ability to shoot to kill anyone.

Following the work of Gregory Bateson, mimetic theory calls the message to “be moral, but don’t be moral” a double bind. It’s a situation in which we are told to do something, and then told not to do that very thing. Brock and Lettin point to this double bind when they write,

Few major social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives of others better than the armed services. And none works so thoroughly to compromise, deny, dismantle, and destroy the very values it teaches. This is the paradox of war.

Sadly, Westhusing isn’t alone in suffering from the paradox of this double bind. Soul Repair reports that the demons of war have caused more harm than many of us have imagined – Brock and Lettin claim, “Veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes, an unprecedented eighteen a day or six thousand a year. They are 20 percent of all U.S. suicides, though veterans of all wars are only about 7 percent of the U.S. population … Veterans are also disproportionately homeless, unemployed, poor, divorced, and imprisoned.”

The Moral Injury of the U.S.

Mimetic theory also teaches us about scapegoating. Many in the U.S. demonize soldiers, labeling them as killers fighting an unjust war. Others valorize soldiers, honoring them as heroes. Both are methods of scapegoating soldiers. They are convenient ways for us to avoid our own moral injury. Dealing with the burden of immoral and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not just the responsibility of soldiers – it’s our responsibility as a society. America’s very soul is morally injured by these wars and by the fact that we turned a blind eye to the suffering of veterans after they go through the hell of war. The way to heal from moral injury is not to conveniently scapegoat soldiers or ignore the suffering of veterans, but to take responsibility for the harm that we as a nation have caused soldiers by sending them to war.

Soldiers know on a deep moral level that in committing great harm to others, they have committed great harm to themselves. They don’t need our society to project our demons of war – our own moral injury – upon them as we point the finger of accusation against them. Soldiers have suffered enough moral injury. We need to take responsibility for our own.

We begin to take responsibility for our collective moral injury by listening with a non-judgmental presence to soldiers as they tell their stories. Even saying thank you to soldiers implies a judgement that stops a soldier from talking about the pain of moral injury. Brock and Lettini claim that soldiers “need the civilians in their lives, those of us with whom they must learn to live again.

They continue,

To listen to veterans requires patience with their silence and with the confusion, grief, anger, and shame it carries…We must be willing to engage their moral and theological questions with openness and to journey with them as we are mutually transformed in the process.

Mutual transformation from moral injury to healing should be our goal. As individuals and as a nation, the only way we will heal from the demons of war is to stop scapegoating one another and take responsibility to love to our neighbors, especially our neighbors who have fought in immoral wars, as we love ourselves.

Photo: Flickr, The National Guard, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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We Do Not Hit!

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

Children are like sponges, always soaking up the world around them. Every little detail is noticed, especially when you least expect it. I have noticed this, for better or worse, with my daughter. From little mannerisms, to phrases of speech, my daughter imitates “mommy” and “daddy” more than anyone else in her life. This forces me to be on top of my game at all times—always vigilant so as to not model some horrific behavior that will only bring trouble for her. The interaction I witnessed between a mother and child today tells me not everyone is this aware of the impact their behavior will have on their children’s.

The topic of my last entry was on positive mimesis—this one will cover the negative side of imitation.

This particular encounter played out as follows:

A 3-year-old girl begins to “act out” and in doing so, hits her mother across the face. Her mother grabs the little girl’s wrist and smacks her on the hand—while at the same time saying “we do not hit!”

(While the negative effects of spanking [euphemism for hitting] are not the primary topic of this article, I would like to mention how opposed I am to the practice. Please look up as much data as you can prior to deciding “to spank or not to spank.”)

In the scenario above, the mother is not in fact teaching her child not to hit. Instead, she is teaching her child two things—both unintentional consequences of her actions. First, she is modeling for the child “how” to hit others. In this instance, she showed how to grab someone’s wrist, control it, and smack the back of the hand. Second, she is displaying her brute, physical force; now modeling “when” to hit someone. When her child gets bigger and is strong enough to control someone who is smaller and probably younger, she will more than likely use her own physical force to control and hit that smaller and younger person. More than likely, this will be a younger sibling and/or peer at school. The little girl may have heard, “We do not hit”; but she will more than likely copy her mother and do so anyway.

Rene Girard, in The One Whom Scandal Comes, writes:

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.”

In this particular case, the mother probably viewed her 3 year-old’s violence as “bad” because it was the “original” act of aggression. The mother’s violence—her “eye for an eye”—was good because it would “teach her daughter a lesson”. The reality, however, is that the 3 year-old girl learned the act of hitting from somewhere…and, more often than not, it is from one or both parents. So, who is responsible for the first stone, the child or the parent? Who will be responsible when the child copies her mother while at school, the child or the parent? Who is responsible when two siblings hit each other, the children or the parents who “spank” them for it?

There may not always be a direct correlation, but if I may use one piece of anecdotal evidence—my daughter, who is not spanked, never uses violence when dealing with adults, peers, or those younger than her. As much as I notice her imitation of me, I cannot help but think if I hit her in order to “teach her a lesson”; she would also imitate that at some point. I have no evidence to believe otherwise.

Where I used to see the most extreme examples this type of negative mimesis is when I worked in youth group homes. Part of my job was to monitor visits between parents and residents of the home. Inevitably, I would learn back-stories, histories, and, all too often, tragedies. There were stories of abuse and neglect—violence and madness—all manners of evil. Not to minimize spanking, but we are talking much more than spanking here! The kids I worked with for 8 years were the most abused of victims. And yet, they often became victimizers themselves. It was on one hand tragic, but on the other, all too predictable. In their situation, who is responsible? Given the dire circumstances many were in, and given that we are not autonomous beings but interdividuals (Girard’s term), I cannot conclude the youth were 100% responsible for all their actions all the time. As Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NRSV). I am certain the abused children I worked with for so many years felt like that many times in their lives.

My point in this entry is not to point out people’s behavior so I can then judge them—far from it. I am, however, dead set on pointing out behaviors that model “how to commit violence against others”. In doing so, my hope is that more and more people will acknowledge that all of us have this potential violence in us; all of us imitate each other and enter into mimetic conflicts. And all of us imitate self-destructive behavior from time to time. If we can acknowledge this, I believe we can then focus our energy onto positive imitation. When energy is focused on positive imitation of others, namely forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and love, real change can occur.

So, my goal is for those who engage in any form of violence—intentional or unintentional—to recognize the slavery it causes and progress toward a more peaceful “self”. In modeling peace, we free ourselves to experience true relationship with others. We discover our true humanness when we serve others wholeheartedly. Let’s start modeling that type of behavior. The sky is the limit as to how far humanity can go if we all begin to model peace.

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.

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.”

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Tony Campolo: The Christian Morality Of Gay And Lesbian Inclusion

There is a new movement happening among Evangelicals.

“Behold,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, “I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

The old movement was based on excluding gays and lesbians from the church, using the Bible in an idolatrous way that demeaned and rejected them. But now Evangelicals are waking up to the new thing that God is doing in the world. Fortunately, more Evangelicals are perceiving that God is making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the dry desert heat for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Tony Campolo is the latest Evangelical to come out of the closet to support full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He posted a statement on his website yesterday that created quite a stir among Evangelicals.

He ends his statement by saying, “I hope what I have written here will help my fellow Christians to lovingly welcome all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the Church.”

Tony Campolo is a major voice in American Evangelicalism and he is pointing to the new thing that God is doing within the Evangelical movement. But there are those who want to hold onto the old way of exclusion.

One critic claims that Campolo’s acceptance of gays and lesbians “is significant as another prominent leader moves away from the faith once for all delivered by the saints.” And that American Christianity is going through a winnowing process that “is going to reveal whose consciences are bound by the authority of scripture and whose aren’t.”

This critic hits the nail on the head. Unwittingly, he reveals the very thing that’s wrong with the old version of Evangelicalism. To claim that accepting gays and lesbians into the church is to move “away from the faith once for all delivered by the saints” is ludicrous.

Do you know how many of the saints talked explicitly about gays and lesbians? Zero. In all of Scripture, in all the writing of the ancient church fathers, the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heck, not even the word homosexuality appears in the Hebrew or Greek. Any modern translation of the Bible or an ancient church writing that uses those words is not a literal translation. It’s an interpretation.

And I’m all for interpretations. We have to interpret the Bible. In fact, there is no literal interpretation of the text, which is why people of faith have always debating the meaning behind scripture.

The point is that we need to take responsibility for our interpretation of scripture, which is what Campolo is doing. After all, we know that the devil can quote scripture just as much as anyone else. And what’s the devil’s role in scripture? As Rene Girard has taught us, the name Satan means Accuser. Satan’s role is to divide humanity through the principle of accusation. Any time someone points the finger at another person, or group of people, to exclude them, you can be sure that they are being influenced by the satanic principle of accusation. For many of us, it’s getting old.

Which is why I’m grateful for the new thing God is doing. The new thing is summed up by Jesus when he talked about the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, the word Paraclete means “called to one’s side” and has connotations of “advocate or helper.”

The distinction between Satan and the Holy Spirit couldn’t be more evident. Satan’s role is to accuse people of being evil. Satan will use any resource available to make that accusation, including the Bible. When we use the Bible as a means to accuse others of immorality, we have turned the Bible into a satanic idol. The Holy Spirit on the other hand, stands with those who are accused by the satanic principle of accusation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t use the Bible to accuse or exclude people; that’s Satan’s job. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to lead us away from accusing our neighbors and toward loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

But I don’t want to do away with morals. Evangelicals are right to be concerned about them. But we should be concerned about morals in the way Jesus was concerned about morals. Jesus didn’t use morality or religious principles to accuse those whom the religious elite deemed immoral. Rather, Jesus flipped morality on its head. For Jesus, morals was about standing alongside those who were accused of being sinners. He fellowshipped with them, not in order to change them, but in order to love them just as they were. Loving others just as they are. That is the essence Christian morality.

Tony Campolo is being moved by the Holy Spirit. He is showing us how to be a moral Christian. He will continue to take heat for doing it. And that’s okay. He will, I hope, continue to love even his enemies.

I’m grateful that other Evangelicals have already discovered the new thing God is doing. I pray that many more will do the same.

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Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.

Conclusion

The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

The Theology of a Biker Gang

 

Five rival biker gangs descended upon a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas on Sunday. Hundreds of gang members began stabbing, beating, and shooting each other. Weapons included chains, knives, clubs, and guns. When the fight ended, 9 people were dead, 18 were sent to the hospital, and more than 170 people were arrested.

Waco police Sargent W. Patrick Swanton stated, “In my nearly 35 years of law enforcement experience, this is the most violent and gruesome scene that I have dealt with.”

One of the biker gangs is called the “Bandidos.” They originated in Texas during the 1960s. In 2013, federal law enforcement produced a national gang report that identified the Bandidos as one of the five most dangerous biker gang threats in the US.

And they have a theology and an anthropology that you should know about. They’re summed up in one of their slogans:

God forgives. Bandidos don’t.

We can easily dismiss that slogan as a biker gangs attempt to intimidate, but do not dismiss it. That pithy statement tells a profound truth about both God and humanity.

Anthropology of a Biker Gang: Bandidos Don’t Forgive

Let’s start with the anthropology. When it comes to forgiveness, we are all much more like a biker gang than we’d like to admit. Take what happened in Waco, for example. A group of rival gangs come together to fight because they have a relationship based on hostility. They refuse to forgive because biker gangs respond to violence with violence. That’s the pattern that they have developed.

It’s not just biker gangs who have that violent pattern. We all do. Violence is a human problem. For example, our political and judicial systems are based on that pattern. The same principle of retaliation that consumes biker gangs also consumes our culture.

Biker gangs such as the Bandidos are a violent and evil menace to society precisely because they refuse to forgive. And whenever we refuse to forgive, we become just like a violent and evil biker gang that is a menace to society.

Bandidos don’t forgive because we don’t forgive. Whenever someone insults us, we tend to insult back. When someone hits us, we tend to hit back. When someone attacks our country, we attack back. That’s the reciprocal pattern we tend to fall into when it comes to violence. For example, will our society respond to Sunday’s biker gang violence with forgiveness? No, we will respond with violent punishment of our own – maybe even the death penalty. Which leads me to ask some question:

How would the biker gang situation be different if one of the gangs decided to respond with forgiveness?

How would my life be different if I responded to insults with forgiveness?

How would the world situation be different if on 9/11 the United States decided to respond with forgiveness?

We will never know the answer to that last question. But what we do know is that our violent response didn’t solve the problem of violence that we face; in fact, it may only have perpetuated it.

Theology of a Biker Gang: God Forgives

And here’s the good news: God forgives. The theological truth of the Bandidos slogan is that God isn’t like us. God doesn’t hold on to grudges. God forgives.

But please understand that God’s forgiveness doesn’t make violence okay. Rather, it stops the cycle of violence by refusing to play the game. The best example of God’s radical forgiveness is on the cross. Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

God forgives.

That’s true. But the truth that the Bandidos biker gang doesn’t understand, and what we so often fail to understand as well, is that God calls us to participate in a culture of divine forgiveness, as opposed to a culture of human violence. The first step is to realize that we all have a tendency toward violence in thought, word, and deed; and so we are all in need of receiving God’s forgiveness. Then, as we receive from God’s well of abundant forgiveness, we are able to share that forgiveness with others.

There is an urgency in our current situation. What happened between 5 biker gangs in Waco is a microcosm of our world situation. Our hope in the face of violence is in following the God of radical forgiveness. As René Girard prophetically says in his book The Scapegoat, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be enough time.”

Top 10 Ways Mimetic Theory Can Help Create Interfaith Empathy – A Panel Discussion

adam empathy 2I was delighted to be invited to an international discussion about creating more empathy between people of different religions. The panel consisted of a Christian (that was me!), an atheist, and three Muslims.

(You can watch the video by scrolling down.)

The producer of the panel was Edwin Rusch, who is the founding director for the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Edwin’s goal is to create “a worldwide culture of empathy and compassion.” Through articles and videos, the website explores the arts, sciences, religion, and much more.

Sheima Salam Summer brought the panel together. I was introduced to Sheima about a year ago through our mutual friend, Lindsey Paris-Lopez. Lindsey suggested that I read Sheima’s book How to Be a Happy Muslims. As I state in the video, it’s a wonderful book that has taught me to be a happier Christian. I’m grateful for Sheima’s friendship, her book, and her blogging at howtobeahappymuslim.com.

Our other panelists were my new Muslim friends Amal Damaj and Eric Abdulmonaim Merkt. Amal enjoys studying the Quran and discovering connections between some of its verses and modern research findings in science and sociology. Abdulmonaim is a Sufi Muslim. He has a master’s degree in religion and a degree in philosophy.

I brought René Girard and mimetic theory into the discussion. Although not always explicit, I soon discovered that the principles of mimetic theory were permeating our discussion. So, from the conversation, I decided to make a top 10 list of the ways that that mimetic theory can help foster empathy across our religious and atheist traditions:

  1. Girard’s mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, help us better understand empathy as a natural process, but that there are positive and negative aspects to it. For example, in the same way we can imitate a smile, we can imitate a scowl.
  2. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition leads us to empathize in a positive way with the poor, weak, marginalized, and scapegoats of human culture.
  3. Atheism’s empathy comes from underlying values in our common humanity.
  4. Islam’s empathy is based on receiving the abundant mercy of God who has infinite empathy for creation.
  5. Christianity’s empathy is based on God in Jesus walking in human shoes/sandals. Since we recorded the discussion during Holy Week, I discussed Jesus empathizing with our pain and suffering on Good Friday.
  6. Empathy can help us overcome the scapegoat mechanism.
  7. To “know thy self” is to “know thy self” in relationship to others.
  8. The function of Satan the Accuser plays a similar role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – to encourage us to mimic the satanic accusation against our scapegoats.
  9. We can avoid creating an identity “over-and-against” another group by creating an identity that is “with” another group.
  10. Creating interfaith empathy and an identity that is “with” another group can be fostered by bringing people together to work for a common good. This is a form of positive mimesis and empathy. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core is a good example.

We talked about so much more! I’d love to know if this discussion stirred up any comments or questions for you about empathy in relation to mimetic theory or interfaith dialogue. Please leave your comments below!

Ishtar vs. Easter: Pick Your Story

In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.

But this meme also appeared on my feed:

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The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?

The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme. First, she points out that the English word “Easter” isn’t related to an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, but rather to a Germanic goddess named Eostre or Ostara. This was the goddess of the dawn, who brought light to the people. McArdle also observes that other European languages don’t use the word “Easter” at all. Instead, they call the day of the resurrection “Pascha,” which comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” meaning “Passover.”

Second, she claims that there is no evidence that Ishtar’s symbols were eggs and bunnies. In fact, Ishtar’s symbols were ancient symbols of power – a lion and stars.

For argument’s sake, I’m willing to concede that while the meme’s comparison of Ishtar to Easter is problematic, there are some interesting similarities between the goddess Ishtar and the Easter story. But what I find really interesting are the differences.

Since the meme brought it up, let’s compare the Ishtar myth to the Easter story. First, I’d like to tell you about my guide when it comes to understanding ancient myths, René Girard. In his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard claims that the Gospels and ancient myths have a lot in common. They are both structured around what he calls a “mimetic crisis.” For our purpose here, “mimetic crisis” basically means a cycle of violence. Ancient myths and the Gospels are similar in that they both have violence in them. But that similarity only heightens the fact that they deal with that violence in radically different ways. Let’s first take a look at how the Ishtar myth deals with violence.

Ishtar and Violence

Ishtar was the goddess of sexuality, love, fertility, storms, and war. She had many lovers and a violent streak. Don’t mess with Ishtar. This goddess gets her revenge! According to mythologist Felix Guirand, “Woe to him whom Ishtar has honoured! The fickle goddess treated her lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly…Even for the gods Ishtar’s love was fatal. In her youth the goddess had loved Tammuz, god of the harvest,…This love caused the death of Tammuz.”

Ishtar proposed marriage to the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, but he refused, citing the violent faith of her previous lovers. “And why should I marry you?” Gilgamesh asked the goddess. “You have harmed everyone you have ever loved!” Ishtar was enraged by his refusal and sought revenge by asking her Father, the god Anu, for special permission to use the Bull of Heaven as her secret weapon against Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, that great warrior, killed the Bull. In a clear example of a mimetic crisis, Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh, then Gilgamesh cursed Ishtar. After they were done with their playground taunts, (I can hear my children teasing each other, “neener-neener-neener”) Ishtar got her revenge by killing Gilgamesh’s best friend. (Hopefully my children won’t do that!)

Ishtar is a god of violence and Gilgamesh is a man of violence. The ancient myths legitimate violence against women and against men. No one is spared from violence and revenge is taken for granted as a way of life.

Easter and Violence

Easter is an anti-myth. It de-legitimizes violence. As Girard observes, there’s no denying the violence in the story. Just a few days before Easter, Jesus was abandoned by his followers and executed at the hands of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities of his day. But as opposed to Ishtar who asked her Father for revenge, Jesus literally prayed his Father would forgive those who killed him. “Father,” Jesus prayed from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

On Easter, Jesus continued to reveal that mythical violence has no place in the heart of God. Jesus was resurrected to transform our world; to transform us. Because of the resurrection, we no longer have to believe in the mythical ways of violence. Instead, we can believe in the nonviolent love of God.

If Jesus were a myth like Ishtar, he would have come back for revenge. He would have killed his Roman persecutors and their religious allies. He probably would have murdered his cowardly disciples. But Easter is no myth. It’s Gospel. It’s the Good News that God doesn’t seek revenge, but rather offers forgiveness and peace to the world.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What did Jesus teach his disciples? In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught them the anti-myth. He taught them that the true God has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with nonviolent love. He modeled for them an alternative way relating to their fellow human beings, not with mimetic cycles of violence, but with forgiveness and nonviolent love.

Ishtar vs Easter

In the end, the Ishtar and Easter stories do have some things in common. They both offer strategies for dealing with violence. Those strategies are clear. Ishtar legitimizes a life of violence while Easter provides the alternative of forgiveness.

Which story will you pick?

My Biggest Concern for My Gay Son is Religion: On Being Catholic and Gay

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

I recently wrote about a former member of my church youth group. She was everything that a youth pastor could ask for in a student. She was kind, welcoming, smart, funny, and she took following Jesus seriously. And I’ll never forget the day that she told our youth group that she is a lesbian. Fortunately, she continues to be a faithful follower of Christ.

I’m a proud member of the United Church of Christ. We’ve had a long history that dates back to 1972 of being open and affirming of our sisters and brothers who identify as LGBTQ. As far as churches go, it was safe and relatively easy for this young woman to identify herself to our church as a lesbian.

But what about LGBTQ Catholics? What’s the experience like for many of them?

I was pleasantly surprised when Pope Francis stated, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” Well, for one thing, YOU’RE THE POPE! You could judge whomever you want. But you don’t judge. That’s because Pope Francis know it’s not his place to judge. It’s not the Catholic Church’s place to judge. It’s not even God’s place to judge. After all, Jesus, the one in whom the fullness of God rested, didn’t come to judge or condemn the world of sin. Rather, on the cross Jesus reveals how God deals with sin: by forgiving it.

Obviously, there’s much more to Catholicism than Pope Francis. I recently came across Owning our Faith. It tells the inspiring story of LGBTQ Catholics who are owning their faith and their sexuality.

At 8:20, a father talks about his gay Catholic son. He says, “My biggest concern with Matthew being gay is religion.”

That statement, just as much as Pope Francis’ statement, actually gives me hope. Why? Because Christianity, including Catholicism, isn’t really religious. In fact, Christianity is the anti-religion.

What is Religion?

As René Girard has taught us, religion in its archaic form was indeed something to be concerned about. Religion was formed from conflict. As proto-human groups began to emerge, they experienced inner rivalry that threatened to destroy the group. We now know that most of these first human communities experience self-destruction in a war of all against all. But in other groups, the war of all against all turned into a war of all against one. Girard calls this the Scapegoat Mechanism. The group united against a victim, whom Girard calls the scapegoat. From the Scapegoat Mechanism emerged religion, including myth, prohibitions, laws, and ritual. When conflicts re-emerged, the elements of archaic religion marked a future scapegoat. The community’s hostility was channeled toward the scapegoat who was sacrificed and temporary peace and safety were restored.

Catholic theologian James Alison describes the scapegoat mechanism in his book Broken Hearts and New Creations as,

…our tendency to create group unity, togetherness and survival by resolving conflict through an all-against one which brings temporary peace and unity to the group at the expense of someone, or some group, held to be evil.

Religion, in the archaic sense, created a system of laws and prohibitions that marked some people as “in” and others as “out.” Christianity challenged that impulse within archaic religions. Christianity is not religious at all. Christianity is the anti-religion.

Christianity: The Anti-Religion

Whereas the archaic religious tendency is to stand in judgment against a scapegoat, Jesus, God-with-us, actually became a scapegoat. Jesus was the ultimate revelation that God has nothing to do with laws and prohibitions that lead to scapegoating. They are purely human constructs. Rather, God has everything to do with creating a new human community. This community would not be based on religious laws and prohibitions that excluded some people as “other.” Instead, this community would be based on God’s love that embraces the “other.”

This anti-religious element within Christianity has profound implications for Catholicism. As James Alison states,

Please notice what this means: in any seriously ‘religious’ culture, the Catholic faith will, quite properly, be regarded as ‘not religious enough.’ Inevitably, as the Catholic faith permeates, various things will start to become unimportant: there will no longer be any good reason for sacred rules…

So, as a Protestant, I give thanks that the religious tendency to scapegoat is unraveling within all forms of Christianity. The Owning Our Faith  video reveals just that. The more Christians hold onto the ancient religious tendency to live by sacred rules that lead to scapegoating, including the tendency to scapegoat our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, the more we hear Jesus calling us to live an alternative way of being. That alternative is the Church. Whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox or whatever form it may take, the Church is called to form community, not by uniting against a scapegoat, but by uniting in love.

May we all own that faith.

 

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Is God the Biggest Serial Killer of All Time? – A Response to the Friendly Atheist

atheist and religious

Photo: 123rf.com

The Friendly Atheist is one of the most influential atheist blogs on the Internet. The website’s 10 bloggers have contributed to CNN, Fox and Friends, NPR, the Washington Post, and the USA Today.

You may be surprised to read this, but I owe the Friendly Atheist a personal debt. My atheist brother invited me to officiate at his wedding ceremony with this condition, “As long as you don’t say anything about God.” I’m very close with my brother, so of course I agreed. I wrote the majority of the wedding ceremony with no problem. I easily secularized everything else, but was stymied by how to secularize the final blessing.

Since Google has all the answers, I typed the words “secular wedding ceremony blessing” into my search engine. The first link that appeared was the Friendly Atheist’s article “A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish.” The entire transcript for the secular wedding is beautiful. As I spoke the words of the Friendly Atheist’s final blessing, I experienced a profound sense of awe:

May the glory which rests upon all who love you, bless you and keep you, fill you with happiness and a gracious spirit. Despite all changes of fortune and time, may that which is noble and lovely and true remain abundantly in your hearts, giving you strength for all that lies ahead.

My brother and his wife expressed their appreciation for those words. My dad, a devout Christian, said it was the perfect capstone to the wedding. And all I could think were words of gratitude. “Thank God for the Friendly Atheist,” I said to myself.

Because I have great respect for the Friendly Atheist, I was deeply humbled when contributor Terry Firma responded to one of my recent article. My article is titled, “Don’t Tell Me that God is in Control: On Sovereignty, Tragedy, and Sin.” It’s about a horrific tragedy in my community where three children were killed by a car that ran a red light. In response to people saying, “God is in control” and “Everything happens for a reason,” I wrote that God isn’t in control of such tragedies. God isn’t sovereign in the sense that God causes such events to occur. Rather, God is “sovereign” in God’s ability to empathically suffer with us and lead us to suffer with one another.

Terry appreciated my comments about empathy, but couldn’t grasp the concept that God empathizes and suffers with us:

For real? He suffers? The Almighty, the biggest serial killer we’ve ever known, suffers – just like those parents of the three dead children do, you reckon?

An all-powerful, all-knowing entity empathizes? After either causing the accident or not lifting a finger to prevent it? He feels the parents’ pain?

I would more or less understand this if Ericksen were a Deist who thinks God created everything and then permanently retired, leaving his grand experiment to unspool according to the input and interaction of all human players. But Ericksen’s blog frequently refers to prayer, and he believes in the Bible, and he says that God’s greatest goal is to ultimately heal and console all of us.

I’ve had some communication with Terry since he posted his response. Terry is everything I would hope for from someone who blogs at the “Friendly Atheist.” But let me propose a friendly stop to my new atheist friend. For clarification, I don’t “believe in the Bible.” This is one of the biggest misconceptions about Christianity that both Christians and atheists make. Here’s the thing, Christians shouldn’t believe in the Bible. That’s a form of idolatry called bibliolatry. There is an important reason that we are not called “Biblians.” We are called Christians. That’s because we believe in Jesus Christ. Take Jesus’ own words for example, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify on my behalf.”

For Christians, the Bible is important in the sense that it points to Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Who is God? The Christian answer isn’t found in random passages of the Bible. It’s found in Jesus Christ.

In other words, God is not like the Bible. God is like Jesus.

Why does that matter? Because, as Michael Hardin points out, Jesus had an interpretive principle for reading the Bible. In Hardin’s words, Christian need to understand “How Jesus Read His Bible.” It’s important for Christians to know that Jesus was a cherry picker. He did not treat every verse in scripture with equal importance. In fact, he picked one strand of verses over another strand.

Those two strand of verses permeate the Bible. The first strand claims that God desires sacrifice. It claims that God is angry at human sin and that God’s wrath needs to be appeased. Sacrifice then becomes a “pleasing odor to the Lord.” Ahh, God is no longer angry. You do not need to fear God’s divine Hulk Smash after making a sacrifice. In this view, God is violent and humans are victims of his just wrath. If you read violent passages in the Bible with a violent view of God, then sure, you will conclude that God is “the biggest serial killer we’ve ever known.” No one can deny that there is horrendous violence in the Bible that is attributed to God.

But does that violence point to Jesus? After all, if Jesus is the full manifestation of God and God is violent, then why didn’t Jesus kill people? Because Jesus came to change our understanding of God. Jesus didn’t do that by going against the Bible, but emphasizing the second strand within the Bible – the non-sacrificial strand of love. Jesus firmly planted himself within this strand when he quoted the prophet Hosea and stated that God “desires steadfast love and not sacrifice.”

Jesus fulfilled the Jewish tradition that led to the theological statement that “God is love” and that God desires us to live in relationships of steadfast love and not violent sacrifice. Jesus never lifted a violent finger to his enemies because God has nothing to do with violence and everything to do with nonviolent love that offers universal forgiveness.

god is alien to violenceThat love was concretely revealed on the cross. The Atonement is where we see the answer to Terry’s question, “For real? He suffers?” Yes. On the cross we discover what has always been true about God. Rather than inflicting violence and suffering upon us, God absorbs human violence and offers divine forgiveness in return. God can’t prevent human violence. Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink the cup of human wrath and that there would be another way. That other way would have been the same way humans have dealt with violence throughout our history – with more violence. But Jesus revealed that the way of violence is not the way of God. Rather, God stops our cycles of violence by responding with forgiveness. And so in response to the wrath of human violence, Jesus spoke these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus, God-with-us, didn’t use violence to kill anyone. He didn’t pray for God’s vengeance upon his enemies. Instead, he transforms our understanding of God. And so, Terry doesn’t believe in a god who “is the biggest serial killer we’ve ever know.” And frankly, because of Jesus, I don’t believe in that god either.

So, yes. For real. God suffers. God empathizes with us. God has been in human shoes. God weeps with us. And God calls us to weep with one another.

On Wanting A Rocket Launcher (Book Feature Friday)

Raven-YourVoice-9

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Bill Dolan.

Bruce Cockburn is the guy who wished he had a rocket launcher.

The Canadian singer-songwriter wrote “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” in 1983 after visiting a Guatemalan refugee camp. The song viscerally captures his response to watching government helicopters bomb a defenseless village. The chorus of the anthem states, “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.” The sentiment in that song illustrates René Girard’s mimetic theory and our human condition that keeps us stuck in cycles of violence. Our first, most natural feeling and a seemingly satisfying response to injustice is to use the same tools as the oppressors. Our righteous indignation at violence leads us to a violent response.

Cockburn knows this. His autobiography, Rumors of Glory (HarperOne, 2014), is more a chronicle of his spiritual and political journeys than a typical rock star’s life story. He documents his searching for faith, how he came to identify as a Christian and his movement from fundamentalist thinking to a more progressive outlook. His successful music career enabled him to travel to many war-ravaged countries such as Nicaragua, Mozambique and Iraq where he served as a witness to give voice to the voiceless. He wrote about what he saw in his songs. He advocated for the poor, the displaced, and the wounded. He lobbied his government to get Canada to sign a treaty to agree not to use land mines in conflict. His travels led him to the realization that “war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.”

“Rocket Launcher” is still one of the songs he is most known for. It’s not surprising the song has endured. It feels good to vicariously confront a wrong. The chorus feels right. The unfairness of the situation – bombs dropped by helicopters on unarmed civilians – calls for a response. As Girard describes, humans imitate one another. Despite our outrage at the unjust violence, our response is more violence.

We justify that violence by pointing out the evils of others. In this case, the Guatemalan soldiers are so evil they become deserving of bombs themselves. For Girard, this is the process of scapegoating which allows us to conveniently overlook the fact that we have more in common with the violent ones than we would like to admit. Their violence is evil, our violence is just, we say.

Cockburn discusses his uneasiness with the thought that his song seems to endorse violence. It expresses a real sentiment, a genuine feeling and it resonated with his audience. He was trying to express that, not endorse violence. He doesn’t reference mimetic theory in his book, but Cockburn shows an intuitive understanding of the process Girard describes.

“When I wrote it in 1983, I was trying to share the shock I felt in grasping that had the means been at hand, I was willing to kill Guatemalan soldiers who were perpetrating atrocities against new acquaintances with whom I felt empathy. To me, those men in uniform had forfeited any claim to humanity and should be put down like rabid animals. I was wrong, of course. Far from forfeiting their humanity, they were expressing it. And so was I.”

Cockburn’s reflection sums up our challenge when faced with our reflex towards violence. We should hope for the grace to be aware of it and pray that we can see the humanity of the other.

 

Bill 2015Bill Dolan is a graduate of the University of Portland, Multnomah Biblical Seminary and Lewis and Clark Law School.  He is an attorney and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children.

 

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.”