Posts

Happy Presidents Day! – On Mimetic Theory and How I Lost Political Ambition

Like many children growing up in the US, I had dreams of becoming the President. My political career got off to a pretty good start. In high school, I was Freshman Class President, Junior Class President, and then Student Body President my senior year. During college, I was involved in the Student Senate and my senior year I was the Vice President of the Student Body.

I was well on my way to becoming President of the United, don’t you think? And when I turned 35 last year, I made it Facebook official and announced my candidacy for the President of the United States.

#EricksenClinton2016

It’s a hashtag, so it’s gotta be true.

But then I read this passage about political leaders from René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred,

The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.

So, I’m rethinking my political ambitions…

Girard was specifically talking about ancient kings, who were paradoxically revered and demonized. Girard claims that all human institutions, including political institutions, emerge from the “scapegoat mechanism.” To summarize, Girard postulates that whenever conflicts began to threaten ancient peoples, they would find cohesion by uniting against a sacrificial victim. This victim was the group’s scapegoat. He or she was blamed for all the group’s conflicts and was then sacrificed. The violent sacrifice created a temporary sense of peace, but conflicts would soon re-emerge and the scapegoat mechanism was re-enacted.

The sacrificial victim was demonized as the cause of conflict, but after the sacrifice, the victim was venerated at the cause of peace. Hence the paradox of the scapegoat being revered and demonized. As Wolfgang Palaver writes in his book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory,

The sacrificial victim…is marked by double transference; it is viewed initially as absolutely evil, that is, as responsible for the plight that has descended on the given society, and retroactively as absolutely benevolent, i.e, as a harbinger of peace that has rescued the community from its plight.

Ancient kingship emerged from the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism. Palaver states that the group’s future sacrificial victim was infused with prestige as a “harbinger of peace” and that “It is not uncommon in primitive cultures that the victim chosen for ritual sacrifice is granted the highest social privileges before its impending murder.”

The highest social privilege involved political rule, but that privilege came with a cost. Our ancient ancestors weren’t stupid; they knew the sacrificial cost kingship. Palaver points out that many ancient people were unwilling to take political roles and that many kings were “forced with violence to take on the position.” Why? Because kings were blamed for any problems that plagued the community and thus were always potential, if not nearly always, sacrificial victims. “This fear of being appointed a king is not unfounded,” states Palaver, “in many cultures, kings were simply killed if they were unable to overcome crises such as droughts or bad harvests.”

Fortunately, we moderns don’t tend to kill our political rulers, which is good progress, but we are moved by the same scapegoating dynamic as our ancestors. Presidents act as cultural lightning rods for adoration during times of prosperity and hatred during times of crisis.

During those times of cultural crisis, we can find cohesion if there is one person we can blame, let’s say…a president. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew this. Thus, they made sure that the executive branch was occupied by one person. Palaver highlights Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the US and one of the most important original interpreters of the US Constitution. Hamilton believed that executive power must remain, as much as possible, with one person “so that the people can attribute the mistakes of the government to a single responsible individual.” Hamilton argued that this would make it possible, “to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or a series of measures, ought really to fall.”

So, thanks to my friends René Girard and Wolfgang Palaver, I no longer dream of being president. I do, however, have greater respect for anyone who takes on the role of future scapegoat president.

So, Hillary, you can have it.

The Shooting Death of Michael Brown: A Necessary Evil or Just Plain Murder?

dupuyI want to discuss something fundamental, disturbing and largely invisible about human society that the ongoing events in Ferguson, MO are bringing into view. As you know, a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a uniformed police officer this past August and a Grand Jury decided not to indict him for murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. They decided that Brown’s death was a regrettable but justified killing while Brown’s family and supporters insist that it was just plain murder. Of course, Michael Brown is dead no matter how you classify what happened to him and so the persistent arguing about whether or not his death was caused by criminal behavior is a sideshow to the main event: all human societies since the beginning have used “good” violence to control “bad” violence. The effort to maintain the illusion of this false difference is unraveling before our eyes and with it the very foundation of human community. If you think there’s a lot at stake in this case, you are more right than you know.

Taking Sides? Don’t Get Sucked Into a Sideshow

Good people began taking sides on Michael Brown’s death within minutes, perhaps even as the events unfolded. Was Mr. Brown crazed and aggressive, “a demon” threatening Officer Darrin Wilson’s life as Wilson described in Grand Jury testimony? Or is Wilson the aggressor, blinded by racism into seeing a threat where none existed? Look, it’s easy to make a case for either side. The release of all the Grand Jury evidence by the prosecutor is an empty gesture. Each side will find ample evidence to support their view of what happened, so let’s move to a deeper analysis. The very act of taking sides is a sideshow, if you’ll excuse the pun, to the more fundamental issue here: the way human communities dress up violence as necessary and good in order to protect ourselves against, well, against our own violence.

In a work of breathtaking clarity, philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy uses the mimetic theory of his mentor and colleague René Girard to make a startling claim about humanity’s dependence on violence to establish and maintain order. In his book The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explains that human civilization was made possible by creating a category of “good” violence and attributing it to the gods. What Dupuy and Girard call the realm of the sacred is a ritualized mechanism in which violence is used to contain or limit itself. You see, then as now, the biggest threat to the survival of human community is not some outside danger, but our own tendency to turn on each other in self-destructive violence. As we see in Ferguson, MO now, the threat of violence is everywhere exposed and it is one that arises from within. The “good” violence of the state in the form of the National Guard is attempting to re-assert itself to contain the “bad” violence of looting and rioting. No outside enemies are to be found here. Just a community at war with itself.

In the ancient world when human sacrifice was the heart and soul of civic life, the sacred realm was ruled over by priests. By cloaking human sacrifice in the sacred, sacrificial rituals galvanized communities around the altar and blinded them to what we can so clearly see: that the act of sacrificing a victim to the gods is not sacred but murder, plain and simple. Today we would call the victim a scapegoat, made to take the blame for all the ills of the community and sentenced to death. As Dupuy explains, “sacrifice contains the outbreak and spread of murder; though it is in one sense just another murder, it promises to put an end to violence.” (5)

In discussing this “disconcerting kinship of violence and the sacred,” Dupuy makes two observations:

It is easy to mistake two things here. The first error consists in not seeing that sacrifice rests upon murder – a relationship that all religious thought works to conceal. The second, and converse, error consists in simply asserting the identity of sacrifice and murder… without taking into account the difference between the two acts – a difference that lies at the very source of civilization. (101)

The difference, of course, is that the killing of a sacrificial victim is cloaked in the aura of the sacred while murder is not. It is the ability to turn plain and simple murder into a divinely sanctioned act that transforms violence itself from something evil and destructive into something good and constructive of everything we know as civilization today. What we cannot see when we are in the thrall of the sacred, is that the one we believe is irredeemably evil and deserving of our violence is in fact a scapegoat, falsely accused and underserving of our wrath. In the case of Ferguson, sides are aligning around accusations of blame against either Brown or Wilson. In so doing, they are creating a sense of purpose and community over and against their adversaries. It may be that Brown and Wilson are each deserving of both blame and mercy, though there is little room now to contemplate such a paradox. In other words, by “taking sides” we are choosing scapegoats rather than honestly engaging with the complexities of humanity’s  addiction to violence.

Appeasing Anger, Averting Violence

How does this difference between ancient sacrifice and murder become the “very source of civilization”? Well, sacrifices were thought to appease the anger of the gods and keep their violence at bay so as to protect human communities from their destructive fury. The truth, however, is that it was not the gods’ anger that needed appeasing, but the anger of community’s members toward one another. It was not the gods’ violence that threatened to destroy a community but the real risk was from human anger turning violent and destroying the community from within.

Rituals of sacrificial violence successfully projected the anger and violence outside the community, packaged it as a public good, and so managed to use the sacrificial violence to cathartic effect. A small dose of controlled, sacred violence protected the community from its own tendency to erupt into uncontrollable spasms of violence.

In our day, the new priests are the bureaucrats of our political/ legal/ judicial system. Their job is to shroud violence with a sacred aura, package it as a public good and maintain the utterly false distinction between a justified killing and murder. The announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision by the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch was an exemplary performance of this sacred duty. Our new high priests have offered many statements condemning the violent protestors as a threat to the public good while defending state (i.e. sacred) violence. I offer one particularly vexing example. In Chicago, President Obama recently denounced the riots as “criminal acts that should be prosecuted.” How glibly he condemns one kind of violence while justifying others; without any moral qualms he calls the destruction of property in Ferguson a criminal act but the destruction of property in Iraq and Syria by U.S. bombs regrettable but justified. What is becoming harder to deny is that despite promises to the contrary, the use of “good” violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is an exercise in futility.

Unfortunately for our world, our leaders, the media, and the general public are all caught up in the self-defeating paradigm of sacred violence. All we seem able to do is to channel our violence into a condemnation of our adversary’s violence, shroud our violence as a sacred good, and hope that peace can be restored. As we are seeing in Ferguson and throughout the Middle East, the peace bought through violence is doomed to repeated failures requiring ever more infusions of “good” violence until the distinction crumbles in hypocrisy.

Violence is Not the Answer

Just as the ancient world lost their faith in the goodness of human sacrifice, so today we are losing our faith in justified violence. The false difference between murder and justified killing is evaporating and no amount of appeals from our modern priests can re-convince us that the difference is real. We need to find another way to create and maintain the peace of our communities that condemns all violence for what it is: violence. We must not only condemn the violence of our adversaries, but realize that we fall under the same condemnation. All violence is evil, all killings are murder, and the realm of the sacred is nothing more than a delusion shared by all of humanity.

Predictably, the realm of the sacred will not go down easily and will thrash violently against any attempt to destroy it. Which is why we see increasing uses of violence both domestically and abroad even as the futility of violence is becoming harder to deny. As we persist in using sacred violence to achieve peace, despite evidence that it only yields more violence, we begin to resemble the definition of insanity offered by Albert Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. As I said, the events in Ferguson reveal that we are in more dire straights than we realize.

I’d like to close with a few voices from outside the realm of the sacred from those who are calling for an end to the use of violence under any circumstances. Poignantly, Michael Brown’s family issued this statement after the Grand Jury verdict:

We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen… We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.

The Brown family is pleading with us to find another way to live peaceably together that does not involve us justifying our violence. Of course, they are echoing another victim of violence, Jesus Christ, who, from the cross, pleaded with his Father for the forgiveness of his persecutors. He returned with the marks of his persecution on his body, offering mercy not vengeance. His was not an attempt to excuse or justify violence, but simply a statement of truth: justifying violence will never end violence. It only perpetuates it perhaps to the point of apocalyptic self-annihilation. Only when good people stop justifying their violence as “good” will we be able to end the scourge of violence once and for all.

I’d also like to offer you the words of my dear friend and colleague, Adam Ericksen, who is engaged with his own effort to resist the despair that has overtaken him in the face of the violence in Ferguson. I hope we can find the courage to resist taking sides and instead examine our own complicity in a world addicted to scapegoating and sacred violence.

Ending the cycle of blame is the hope for our future. But will we stop that cycle and replace it with sacrificial love and forgiveness?

As I take a bird’s eye view and look into the pit of despair, I have my doubts. The ultimate prophetic warning that Christianity has to offer is that if we keep scapegoating one another, we will destroy ourselves in Apocalyptic violence to which the only alternative is nonviolent love and forgiveness.

René Girard put that prophetic warning best in his book Battling to the End, “Saying that chaos is near is not incompatible with hope, quite to the contrary. However, hope has to be seen in relation to an alternative that leaves only the choice between total destruction and the realization of the Kingdom” (119).

The realization of the Kingdom of God will only happen when we stop blaming one another. It will only happen when we realize that God loves all people, whether we think they deserve it or not. And it will only happen when we begin to take responsibility to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that God is not a god of power and might. I’m thankful that the one true God is a God who meets us in our despair, who empowers us to stop scapegoating, and who is loving us with reckless abandon.

Violence Nevermore!

Image from winteriscoming.net

Image from winteriscoming.net

Happy Halloween, Dear Friends! Tonight, for a spooky edition of Book Feature Friday, I decided to do things a little differently. As it is Halloween, my article tonight is going out in costume — disguised as a parody of the original Raven by model-obstacle  famous master of poetic horror, Edgar Allen Poe. Just have fun with it friends; it’s my “treat” for you this Halloween!

Once upon a midnight dreary
I woke pondr’ing mimetic theory –
How we imitate each other and role models gone before –
Patterns of human behavior,
And our deep need for a savior
From the violence we savor
That consumes us all the more.
As we compete for our desires with each other more and more
Are we doomed forevermore?

From infancy we form obsessions
With our parents’ prized possessions,
Such that it’s my phone and kindle, more than toys, my girls adore.
My actions for them will inspire
Their own acts, so I aspire
To make sure that I desire
Things and goals worth striving for
My kids are watching all the while, of this one thing I am sure:
I’m their model evermore.

And this human form of learning
From each other has us yearning,
Coveting the things of others, on TV or in the store
More than just for things, we’re aching
For identity, mistaking
Goods and wealth for self, forsaking
What we should be living for:
To love and serve each other should be all that we are living for,
Be our mission evermore.

Yet we find ourselves competing
On and on without retreating
‘Til in anger self-defeating, we find ourselves in all-out war.
Coveting in our hearts creates
Violence that escalates
In cycles that perpetuate
Evermore and evermore
Violence keeps coming back round through that e’re revolving door
Evermore and evermore.

From Cain and Abel, rival brothers,
The virus quickly spreads to others
Jealousy turns lethal, righteous anger ends in gore.
Violent acts keep on compounding
Til the whole wide world is drowning,
Can mercy, too, be so abounding?
Can we hope to find a cure?
From our brutal, warring madness, surely we must find a cure
Or keep searching evermore.

Yet our violence seems abated
When we unify our hatred
Against a single victim we find easy to abhor.
We’re not at each others’ throats
As long as we have our scapegoats
But this short-lived antidote
Just hides our sickness all the more
When we think that we are righteous, we’re deluded all the more
And no better than before.

Whole societies and cultures
Feed off sacrifice like vultures
Never seeing human beings in the ones whom we deplore.
Mob-like, gathering in alliance
To pour out our wrath and violence
On some victim whom we silence,
To be heard from nevermore
Victim purged, we find catharsis; fragile peace has been restored,
Truth is sacrificed once more.

Scripture tells the bloody story,
How we think we see God’s glory
In the sacrifice of others and the victories of war.
Though we’re caught up in believing
In our violence so deceiving,
Looking down, Our Father’s grieving,
Pitying us all the more.
When time was ripe He came among us, His good image to restore,
Reconcile us evermore.

Seeing violence in God’s name and
Grieving for us, Jesus came and
In the form of humble servant, took his place among the poor.
Joining prostitutes for dinner,
Healing lepers, calling sinners,
He stood not among the winners,
But our outcasts he restored.
‘Til authorities and powers couldn’t take him any more.
Vowing vengeance swift and sure.

Against him former foes united
Herod the King and Pontius Pilate
Whipped and stripped and body broken, thorns upon his head so sore
Mob and leaders vilified him,
Followers betrayed, denied him
Human malice crucified him,
But God raised him up once more!
In the Vindicated Victim, we see God as ne’er before
Off’ring mercy evermore!

When the words of peace were spoken,
Then the curse of hate was broken
Sins are healed by forgiveness, not by sacrifice and gore
What a friend we have in Jesus
Seeing others as he sees us
From our violence he frees us
From our senseless rush to war
Only love can break the cycle that leads us on and on to war
On and on forevermore.

In Jesus Christ we fin’ly see that
God could never ever be that
Genocidal tyrant once more dreaded than adored.
By death and hate no longer blind,
We put on Jesus’ heart and mind
And guided by his grace we find
New life, new love, new hope restored.
Freed from jealousy and greed, at last to God we are restored.
Ever and forevermore.

This mimetic theory tells us:
When fickle desire compels us
To fight each other for the things our culture tells us to fight for,
If we live instead for others
Give to sisters and to brothers
And be not fighters, no, but lovers
The world can be whole once more
With Jesus as our human model, our world can be whole once more.
Of this truth we can be sure.

Who coined this theory? Why Girard did
And that’s why he is regarded
As one who makes us see our world, our faith, ourselves, as never before
The insights we gain from his reading
Of the scriptures has us pleading,
“Stop the sacrificial bleeding
For we can afford no more!”
No more sacrifice and violence, there cannot be any more!
This we must work to ensure.

This nonviolent hermeneutic
That we find so therapeutic
Applies not only to our scripture, but to our lives all the more.
From politics to parenting
We keep on finding the same thing:
The insight from Girard can bring
Us closer, closer to the cure
From our bitter warring madness, God’s love is our only cure
Girard just helps us see it more.

Here at the Raven Foundation
We work on proliferation
Of mimetic insights, to spread peace from shore to shore
Exposing violent tendencies,
Reducing our dependencies
On scapegoats and enemies;
Won’t you join us, we implore?
Take Christ as your mimetic model, we emphatically implore
To make violence nevermore!

The Courage To Disarm

Knotted Gun in front of UN building, NYC. Image from worldmomsblog.com

Knotted Gun in front of UN building, NYC. Image from worldmomsblog.com

The Ferguson tragedy, like all those that preceded it and all that will follow — involving the trivial and panicky use of lethal force, by the police or anyone else — stirs up questions the social status quo doesn’t dare face.

 

My sister, Sue Melcher, put it this way: “I find myself also nauseated that another issue never seems to enter the discussion: the issue that a highly trained officer could make such a mistake with a gun demonstrates that just having the weapon present increased the danger of the situation. Had the citizens been armed, how many more casualties could there have been? None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely — and is that even possible?”

 

The “wise” use of lethal force . . .

 

We’ve wrapped our global civilization around the certainty that we understand and revere life in all its vastness and mystery so completely that we know when to cut it short, indeed, that we — those of us who are officially sanctioned good guys — have a right to cut it short in, it would seem, an ever-widening array of circumstances. In so doing, we allegedly make life better for the social whole. This is called militarism. To keep this profitable lie going, we refuse to look deeply at its consequences.

 

When we inflict death on distant cultures, at the sterile remove that modern weapons grant us, we can avoid all but the most cursory awareness of the consequences of our actions. But when we do it at home, it’s not always so easy.

 

Ferguson, Ferguson. A community — and a nation — erupted in agony at the hellish absurdity of Michael Brown’s killing. One of the deeper, darker questions concealed in the maelstrom of rage and grief of Ferguson is this one: What if Officer Darren Wilson had not been armed when he told the two teenagers to get out of the street? What if the police force that employed him knew of, and practiced, effective, nonlethal forms of keeping order in the community (and did not regard the people it was “protecting” as the enemy)? This is not a simple question, but it has a simple answer. Michael Brown would be alive and Darren Wilson would not be in hiding.

 

But no one is asking it because the popular imagination doesn’t even entertain the possibility that such methods exist — or can be created.

 

I ask this question now not to toss a superficial answer or two at the national and global violence epidemic we’re caught in but to establish, first of all, the idea that violence has consequences and, furthermore, that having lethal force at one’s fingertips also has consequences. “None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely,” Sue wrote. This is true if only because such power can always be wrested away from us, and knowing this is bound to bring an intensified level of panic into someone’s decision-making process — even a trained professional’s.

 

The demand for police accountability that the Ferguson tragedy has unleashed is a demand for public scrutiny of an officer’s state of mind when he makes the decision to use lethal force. At present, such accountability is murky, contained as it is within the police and legal community. Most likely, these communities will protect their own and cut officers slack for acting out of panic.

 

Consider what Michael Bell learned during his campaign for police accountability. Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force whose 21-year-old son was killed by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., in 2004, eventually won a wrongful death lawsuit in the incident and used the $1.75 million settlement to pursue a campaign for stricter police accountability in Wisconsin.

 

Writing recently in Politico, Bell noted the results of the campaign’s research: “In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.”

 

What concerns me about this isn’t so much the protection of police officers who use lethal force unnecessarily as the protection of lethal force itself. This is what gets off scot free time and again, in shooting after shooting, and therefore remains unquestioned as a necessary part of social order. If the consequences of lethal force were subjected to objective scrutiny, I believe we’d be looking for alternatives with far more seriousness.

 

Bell’s son, for instance, was killed in the course of a routine traffic stop. According to the police report, one officer screamed that his gun had been grabbed and a second officer shot the young man in the head, “sticking the gun so close against his temple that he left a muzzle imprint.”

 

Because the Bell family hired a private investigator, they learned details of their son’s killing independently of the legal system, e.g., “that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror,” Bell wrote. In other words, a minor misperception escalated instantly into a fatal shooting, ending a young man’s life and inflicting a lifetime of grief on those who loved him. Not only that, it shattered the life of at least one of the officers involved. The officer who screamed that his gun had been grabbed committed suicide six years later.

 

Violence explodes in every direction. According to the Badge ofLife website, U.S. police officers commit suicide at a rate of 17 per 100,000 officers, well above the rate of the general public and close to that of the U.S. military. It’s also well above the rate of officers who are killed in the line of duty.

 

“Particularly startling in the study was the finding that not a single suicide in 2008 (or 2009) was ever attributed to police work,” the site notes. “While police departments announce that law enforcement is a ‘highly stressful, traumatic job,’ they prefer to place the blame for a suicide on the family or on the officer for having some kind of ‘personal problem.’”

 

Lethal force gets off scot free.

 

As militarization of the police escalates and our brutal wars for profit come home to haunt us, the time has come to face the violence we bring on one another in the name of social order. The time has come to find the courage to disarm.

 

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.

Deep Justice In Ferguson

Ferguson

Image from www.nbcnews.com

Black ’hood, white cops. “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”

And so it begins, and begins, and begins. An African-American boy dies for walking in the street — for yet one more insanely small transgression. Protesters cry for justice. The legal bureaucracy hunkers down, defends itself, does what it can to paint the deceased 18-year-old, Michael Brown, as a bad guy. Sides harden in the media. Once more it’s us vs. them. Nobody talks about making things right; nobody talks about healing.

But we can’t talk about healing — yet. We can’t talk about Ferguson, Mo., and the standoff between angry residents and the heavily militarized police, now two weeks old, without talking about institutional racism. In a healthy, free society, the idea of a “standoff” like this would be absurd, because the police aren’t a separate entity, controlling that society on outside orders, like an occupying army. In a healthy society, police serve the community; they’re part of it.

What has happened, and is happening, in Ferguson is sufficiently preposterous and cruel that the mainstream media coverage hasn’t completely surrendered its sympathy to the police and portrayed all the protesters as rioters. A young man, walking in the street with a friend, was shot six times — twice in the head — by a police officer. Even if the police version of events (he was defiant, there was a struggle) is true, the shooting was an act of breathtaking aggression and should never have happened. And so many witnesses dispute this story, the reality looks a lot more like cold-blooded murder; thus the residents of Ferguson have a right to demand answers, and justice.

What they also have a right to demand, though most of the coverage hardly acknowledges as much, is control over their own community and complete assurance that they are not regarded by their “protectors” as the enemy. They have a right to demand deep justice — and deep change. Michael Brown’s shooting was not an isolated incident; it’s part of the legacy of manifest destiny, a.k.a., racism that has shaped the United States of America.

“Michael Brown’s tragic death,” writes Nadia Prupis at Common Dreams, “is part of a much more pervasive trend of police brutality on large and small scales that is strengthened and perpetuated by militarization — one that encourages the police to see the people as an enemy, and vice versa.”

The enemy, in particular, are people of color. Prupis quotes Eastern Kentucky University professor Victor E. Kappeler: “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities . . . were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.”

Slavery, of course, is “history.” The conventional understanding is that we’re long past that regrettable era. Human enslavement occurred so long ago it might as well be part of some other national history — some other universe. Bringing it up, at least in the media, is in poor taste, apparently, guaranteed to summon groans and eyeball rolls. This is the case even though it’s been barely a generation since the civil rights movement curtailed slavery’s direct descendant, the Jim Crow laws and vicious racial discrimination on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Confederate flags still decorate public space and private consciousness. No matter. Slavery is history. Let’s move on.

But, as Kappeler, who is in the School of Justice Studies, goes on to say: “The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.

“The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War,” he adds. “In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction.”

One phrase lingers: “control of minorities.” Could it be that such an imperative is part of our social DNA? This is institutional racism. It would put the Ferguson killing into an all-too-graspable context, beginning with Officer Darren Wilson’s command — “Get the fuck on the sidewalk” — to Michael Brown and his friend. The officer wasn’t keeping order in Ferguson; he was controlling the movement of two young African-American males, who are “minorities” despite the fact that Ferguson is mostly black.

I have no doubt that the standoff in Ferguson — the demand for change — goes this deep. I also have no doubt that teargas won’t pacify the protesters and replace their anger with fear of authority. Neither will all the military hardware the Defense Department can supply.

Fascinatingly, the standoff between police and protesters all but ended for one evening a week ago, when the governor pulled the local police force off the front lines and gave control of the situation to Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Instead of confronting the protesters as the enemy, Johnson, who is black and grew up in Ferguson, joined them. There were no gas masks, no armored vehicles — and, suddenly, no standoff.

At Michael Brown’s memorial service, Johnson said: “I will protect your right to protest.” Turning to the boy’s family, he added: “My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry.”

This was a mirage, of course. The tear gas and confrontation — the occupying army — returned soon enough, and the community split apart again.

But deep change is coming. The events in Ferguson have forced our history out of hiding.

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.

The Water of Life

Image from michigancitizen.com

Image from michigancitizen.com

I’m thirsty. Indeed, I’m overwhelmed by thirst, thinking about those who lack access to clean water. I’m thirsty for a different world.

“In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lack water, including those living in hospitals and refugee camps,” Sarah Kendzior wrote in Al-Jazeera last week. “On July 15, citizens of Detroit held a rally in solidarity, holding signs that said ‘Water for all, from Detroit to Palestine.’ A basic resource has become a distant dream, a longing for a transformation of politics aimed at ending suffering instead of extending it.”

Water is our common need, our common source of being. In bankrupt Detroit (city of my birth), as the world now knows, the poor and struggling segment of the population — the people whose overdue water bills exceed $150 — face water shutoff. The United Nations, for God’s sake, has condemned the action by the city’s emergency manager as a human rights violation. Thousands of residences — housing as many as 100,000 people — have had their water shut off so far, out of a total city population of 700,000.

Ironically, Detroit is surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Michigan license plates used to proclaim: “Water Wonderland.”

Austerity, austerity, God shed his grace on thee . . .

As with draconian austerity measures elsewhere, those who bear the greatest burden are the poor, the ones who are barely making it anyway and face the daily and weekly choices of paying for food, paying their rent or taking care of utility and other bills. Alas, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is owed millions of dollars and has to collect. With the city reeling in bankruptcy, it has no choice. Sorry, poor people.

Except, here’s the thing. Many commercial entities also owe money to the DWSD: “Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, Palmer Park Golf Club and half of the commercial and industrial buildings in the city . . . owe roughly $30 million in overdue water fees,” Drew Gibson writes at TruthOut. And the State of Michigan itself, according to the Daily Beast, owes $5 million.

The big players may also owe money but they can contest it. They have clout, so they’re left alone. Implementing a regime of austerity means squeezing the powerless. And seldom mentioned is the fact that squeezing them costs money. The city’s emergency manager has hired a private contractor, Homrich — for over $5 million, according to The Progressive — to turn off Detroiters’ water.

Last week’s Progressive article, by Ruth Conniff, also notes: “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a public asset valued at $6.4 billion. Forty-five percent of the utility’s annual budget goes to Wall Street banks to service its debt — a debt the emergency manager has the power to renegotiate.”

But water shutoffs for the poor apparently come first. Austerity is in no way meant to interfere with the rich getting richer. Detroit’s troubles are framed as straightforward and financial, but that’s just part of the game of power and dominance being played here. To the political and corporate sharks in charge of the Motor City right now, the human right to water is not much of a value, not when the possibility of privatizing public resources looms so seductively.

I thirst for a different sort of world, one in which water is not just another commodity, something to be controlled, to one’s own advantage and another’s detriment.

Image from www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4218

Image from www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4218

“There’s more blood than water today in Gaza,” Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso wrote this week at Electronic Intifada as the bombardments continued.

And just as the powerful play at austerity, so they also play at war. Brent Patterson, political director at the Council of Canadians, who quoted Bseiso, also cited the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in a recent essay:

“After two and a half weeks of bombardments from the air and ground, roughly two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants — 1.2 million people — are suffering from severe disruptions to the water and sewage systems, according to Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene, a coalition of around 40 humanitarian groups operating in the occupied territories. In addition to the damage of the central pipeline and the reservoirs — which affects cities and villages throughout Gaza — home pipes and water containers on roofs have been damaged by the bombardments.”

And an early July article in The Guardian by John Vidal is headlined thus: “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn.”

While the article focuses primarily on the tactics of the rebel group ISIS, Vidal notes that getting a stranglehold on the water supply is a primary goal of all sides in this desperate conflict — more important than controlling the oil refineries.

He writes: “Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of ISIS forces. Were the dam to fall, say analysts, ISIS would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.

“Securing the Haditha Dam was one of the first objectives of the American Special Forces invading Iraq in 2003.”

These are the reckless tactics of war — every kind of war. Revering and protecting our water supply, not merely “controlling” it, is a far better use of our blood, sweat and tears.

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.

Strange Fire: John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, the Holy Spirit, and the Satan

macarthurI first heard about the Strange Fire controversy when my Twitter feed started tweeting up a storm on Monday. The drama centered on a confrontation between two conservative mega church pastors, John MacArthur and Mark Driscoll. Most of my Twitter friends are theological liberals, and we liberals love it when our conservative brethren get in fights.

Woo-hoo! A scandal!

This scandal, like most scandals, was overblown. Driscoll says that MacArthur and his people were “gracious that they let me on campus at all.” What was Driscoll doing “on campus”? He crashed MacArthur’s conference on the Holy Spirit called Strange Fire to meet with people and hand out free copies of his upcoming book, A Call to Resurgence, which has a chapter on the Holy Spirit. Conference officials told Driscoll he had to stop, and so he did. Driscoll’s books ended up in the hands of conference officials. The drama between the two has to do with whether Driscoll gave the books as a gift to the conference or if conference officials confiscated them.

Like all scandals, the drama distracts us from what really matters, which is the conference theme. The work of the Holy Spirit is vitally important for Christians, yet the Holy Spirit is usually treated like the ugly stepchild of Christian doctrine. (No offence to ugly stepchildren.) I think MacArthur radically misunderstands the Holy Spirit. The conference website provides an overview of its mission, which will help me explain his misunderstanding:

The sons of Aaron…offered strange fire before
the LORD…and fire came out from the
presence of the LORD and consumed them
Leviticus 10:1-2

The Lord calls His people to honor Him, to treat Him as holy. Leviticus 10 pictures the consequences of not doing so—of offering Him strange fire.

For the last hundred years, the charismatic movement has been offering a strange fire of sorts to the third Person of the Godhead—the Holy Spirit. And evangelical churches have chosen to be silent or indifferent on the matter. This hasn’t served the church or the Spirit of the church with honor.

So, what should be our response?

Strange Fire is a conference that will set forth what the Bible really says about the Holy Spirit, and how that squares with the charismatic movement. We’re going to address in a biblical, straightforward manner what many today see as a peripheral issue. On the contrary, your view of the Holy Spirit influences your relationship with God, your personal holiness, and your commitment to the church and evangelism.

MacArthur begins his description of the conference, and thus of the work of the Holy Spirit, by quoting Leviticus, apparently in a “biblical, straightforward manner.” The problem is that the Bible is anything but straight forward. MacArthur is under the illusion of biblical inerrancy, which means he thinks every verse of the Bible is internally consistent with every other verse of the Bible. This creates many problems, especially when it comes to sacrifice. If he thinks the “strange fire” that killed Aaron’s sons came from God, he dramatically misunderstands the work of the Holy Spirit. If you’ve ever read Leviticus (good on you, there) you will have noticed that it’s a bit like a slasher horror flick, with animal blood and guts flying everywhere. Three chapters into Leviticus can make anyone feel a bit queasy. Yet, Liberals would do well to reclaim Leviticus. It marks a huge step forward in human history, because Leviticus documents the move the ancient Jews were making away from human sacrifice toward animal sacrifice.

reneThe anthropologist René Girard calls ancient human sacrifice the “archaic sacred.” It’s true that ancient sacrificial cultures thought they were appeasing an angry god through the bloody sacrifice of another human being. But the reason our ancestors believed this is because sacrificial violence had a social impact: it united a community in conflict against a scapegoat. Thus, conflicts that threatened the community’s survival were washed away by the blood of their sacrificial victim. There was a sense of peace that was perceived to be a miraculous gift from the gods, but peace through violence is always temporary. Whenever new conflicts arose, archaic sacrificial violence returned. Another victim was sacrificed, bringing temporary peace, and continuing the cycle of peace through violence. What’s essential to know is that archaic sacrificial violence had nothing to do with the gods or God. Archaic sacrificial violence was purely human violence projected onto the gods.

Why the Bible Is the Most Important Book Ever Written

The Bible is, in my opinion, the most important book ever written, but not because of the claim that conservative evangelicals like MacArthur assert. The Bible isn’t “inerrant,” if by that you mean everything in it is a perfect description of God. The Bible is the most important book ever written because it reveals the trajectory of the Holy Spirit; it reveals that the Holy Spirit is moving us from the archaic sacred of human violence into a new form of sacredness: the sacredness of God’s nonviolent, all embracing love.

For the Holy Spirit to reveal this trajectory, there must be a tension in the Bible between the violent archaic sacred and nonviolent love of God. We see this tension in the book of Leviticus. While Leviticus is pulling us away from human sacrifice and toward animal sacrifice, it still has a strong element of the archaic sacred that unites a community against those who offered “strange fire.” Leviticus seems to project that violence onto God. But, once we are aware of the trajectory the Bible is making away from sacrificial violence, we begin to understand that Aaron’s sons weren’t killed by a violent god’s strange fire. Aaron’s sons were killed by a violent community that united in sacrificial violence against them.

Satan: The Accuser

Satan isn’t referred to in Leviticus, but the function of the satanic principle is obvious in the story. Satan is commonly translated as Adversary, but a more accurate translation is found in the book of Job. When Job refers to Satan, the word is usually translated as Accuser. Thus, Satan refers to the human principle of accusation that unites “us” against “them.” The principle that killed Aaron’s sons wasn’t from God; it was the satanic principle of accusation that united the community in archaic sacrificial violence against them.

Some will think this interpretation of Leviticus is a stretch. Someone might protest, “But Leviticus actually says…” Leviticus is part of the overall trajectory of the Bible that teases out strands of archaic sacred violence that unites “us” against “them” from strands that finally reveal God’s nonviolent love and forgiveness that includes everyone. For example, the prophet Hosea critiqued all the sacrificial elements found in Leviticus, even animal sacrifice, when God said through him, “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (6:6). Psalm 40:6 continues this critique of sacrifice by stating, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Jesus lived by this non-sacrificial strand and even quoted Hosea when he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). Hosea, the Psalmist, and Jesus position themselves within a strand of the Bible that critiques archaic sacrificial violence that is found in other strands of the Bible, such as Leviticus 10:1-2.

The Holy Spirit: The Defender of the Accused

The Holy Spirit is the main actor in this move away from archaic sacrificial violence that unites “us” against “them.” Jesus, in fact, refers to the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, as the Paraclete. This word usually translates as “Advocate,” which gives a good sense for the work of the Holy Spirit, but there’s a better translation. Girard writes in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning that, “The principal meaning of parakletos is ‘lawyer for the defense,’ ‘defender of the accused.’ … We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens the persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’ We should also think of the God whom Job calls ‘my defender’” (189-190).
If Satan is the Accuser then Jesus does an incredibly helpful thing by calling the Holy Spirit the Defender of the Accused. The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, has nothing to do with uniting in violent sacrifice against a scapegoat. Rather, the Holy Spirit stands with our scapegoats. Jesus is the primary revelation of this. Was the Holy Spirit with the crowd when it united against Jesus, yelling “crucify him”? Or was the Holy Spirit with Jesus, the crowd’s scapegoat?

We can know for sure that when we start accusing people of evil that we are caught up in the satanic principle of accusation that unites “us” against “them.” The Holy Spirit enlightens us to our complicity in making satanic accusations and converts us to stand with the victims of human violence – not against them.

That’s Some Really Strange Fire

strange fireThis leads us back to MacArthur’s conference Strange Fire. I agree with MacArthur that “your view of the Holy Spirit influences your relationship with God, your personal holiness, and your commitment to the church and evangelism.” But if he is using the Holy Spirit to unite those attending his conference against people in the charismatic movement, then he has confused the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of the Satan. If this is the case, then MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference doesn’t refer to the Holy Spirit; rather, it refers to Satan the Accuser, whose accusations and violence spread like wildfire. If Jesus was right, then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, puts an end to Satan’s fires of accusation and leads us to stand with those being accused.

If you think I’m caught up in satanic accusations against MacArthur for satanically accusing the charismatic movement, you might be right. As Girard says, there is a literal truth to Jesus’ statement on the cross that “They don’t know what they are doing.” When it comes to satanic accusations, I’m not much different than MacArthur. I do it all the time, without knowing that I’m doing it. I stand in need of forgiveness. Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who not only enlightens us to our acts of persecution, but also enlightens us to the first part of the literal truth to Jesus’ statement on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

July 4th and the Table of Demons

patriot at grillOn July 4th I will be attending the annual party at my son and daughter-in-law’s home. They will be serving up smoked chicken and spare ribs while fireworks from neighboring towns inscribe a nearly 360° circle around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, one member of my family will not be with us: my sister the Jehovah’s Witness. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the trouble with patriotism is twofold: 1) it tempts us to equate God and nation and 2) it provides a sacred cover for violence.

God and nation are not the same, my sister believes. When a government’s demands come into conflict with God’s, Witnesses obey God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service to others and that the early Christians refused to become soldiers and fight in wars. In emulation of that dedication to serve God and not governments, Witnesses not only refuse to celebrate national holidays but they are conscientious objectors to military service.

Patriotism and Public Sacrifice

By not accepting our invitation, my sister appears to be taking Paul’s advice to the Corinthians quite seriously when he counsels them against participating in the patriotic acts of their day: public sacrifices.

I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20-21)

Paul’s counsel continues with wise advice to accept invitations to dine at the homes of others and “eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” Then he warns:

But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Corinthians 10:28-30)

Our gathering will be an eclectic mix – among the guests will be conservatives and liberals, church going Christians, lapsed Catholics, agnostics, flag-waving patriots, libertarians, and past and present armed service members. All of us will be giving thanks (or not) for various reasons and, as I said, we agree with Paul here – we do not think we should be denounced for our own exercise of conscience.

A Trick Invitation?

And yet, what if our annual invitation to my sister is some sort of trick to win her endorsement of our ritual table? Like the ancient host testing the allegiance of his guest by openly declaring the sacrificial source of the meat he is serving, are we testing my sister? roasted meatWould her presence ease our consciences a little bit, assuring us that we can participate in patriotic rituals without it having an impact on our allegiance to God? If that is case, she must refuse to eat for the sake of our consciences and I would be disappointed if she acted any other way.

As a proponent of mimetic theory, I argue constantly that we exist in relationships with the world around us and that those relationships form, mold, and impact us in ways we are rarely conscious of. Though we make constant appeals to our personal liberty and strength of character, we are nevertheless shaped by everything around us including violent movies, misogynistic song lyrics, sports rivalries, political divisions, fan obsessions, scandals and gossip, and reality TV shows that encourage us to derive pleasure from the misfortune of others. In all these things we are schooled to the ideas that violence is justified, hating others is how good people have fun, and success consists primarily of being sure someone else is voted off the island. Patriotism adds a sacred gloss to our violence, boosts our feelings of moral superiority over others, and encourages our vision of success as keeping everyone else off our island. Is our Fourth of July barbecue not the modern equivalent of Paul’s table of demons? Nourished only at the Lord’s table, the commemoration of the state execution of an innocent victim, would we not be schooled in a different perspective?

We Are What We Eat and Where We Eat It

Some in my family take umbrage at being compared to demons just because we are eating smoked meats in the context of a ritual remembrance of founding violence. I will try my best to keep my conscience clear by participating with a spirit of thankfulness, but the question remains whether a deeper witness is called for. My sister long ago gave up the pleasure of a lip-smacking barbecue as part of her commitment to peace. Perhaps this Fourth of July, it would be good for all of us to wonder if we are partaking of the wrong table.

Same Sex Marriage, the Supreme Court, and Three Reasons Christians Should Not Marry

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week on same sex marriage has created a firestorm in Christian circles. Some protested while others thankfully praised the decision. But, whether a Christian is LGBTQ or not, I’d like to point out 3 reasons why Christians should not get married. And, since I am married and my dear Wife whom-I-love-so-much-and-would-do-anything-for (I love you baba!) will likely read this, I will offer one reason why Christians should marry.

Three Reasons Christians Should Not Marry

1. Jesus said very little that was positive about marriage. Despite everything you’ve heard from Dan Brown, Jesus never married. This, in and of itself, should cause Christians to question marriage. Now, I’m not going to say that Jesus was anti-marriage, but he did criticize the institution. For example, see Luke 20: 34-35:

Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age (the age to come) and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

2. Paul, arguably our most important interpreter of the Christian life, actually encouraged people to not marry. According to Paul, marriage is a concession for those followers of Christ who are too weak to control themselves. (Yikes!) In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul wrote:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passions … But if you do marry, you do not sin … Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life and I would spare you that … from now on, let even those who have wives be as thought they had none … For the present form of this world is passing away.

3. The institution of marriage creates an exclusive club of “us” and “them.” René Girard has argued that the way humans form identity is by creating differences to show who is in and who is out. For many Christians, marriage has become one of those key differences. Despite what Jesus and Paul said, if you are in your mid 30s and not married, many Christians will assume that there’s something “wrong” with you, because for these Christians marriage and family have become an inseparable part of Christian identity. Clearly, for Jesus and Paul, that was not the case, but here’s the point: if Christians use marriage as an identity marker that separates “us” from “them,” then marriage has become a source of conflict dividing the community of believers into “us” and “them” and perhaps the most Christian thing to do is to not get married. This is incredibly important when it comes to last week’s Supreme Court decision, because this is not just about who is married and who isn’t married; it’s about who can married and who can’t. Christians who seek to exclude the LGBTQ community from marriage must ask if they are participating in a sacrificial worldview of inclusion and exclusion. When Paul said that the present form of this world is passing away, he meant that the sacrificial tendency to form identity by excluding the “other” is passing away. After all, in Galatians 3:28 he claimed that the major identity markers of his day that excluded people from full participation in the community no longer applied. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When Christians use marriage to create another category of difference to determine who is included and who is excluded, we undermine the oneness of Christ Jesus who breaks down the barriers separating “us” from “them.”

One Reason Christians Should Marry

Okay. That being said, there is at least one reason that Christians should get married.

1. God is making all things new, including the institution of marriage. When God makes all things new the present form of this world that is based on the sacrificial formula of inclusion and exclusion passes away. What do we have left? The Kingdom of God, where everyone is invited to participate in relationships that are based on giving and receiving in God’s Holy Spirit of nonviolent love. Marriage, at its best, is a sign of God’s love for the world and so who are we to exclude people from participating in it? The Holy Spirit worked through the Supreme Court last week by inviting everyone to participate in this institution.

Conclusion

To my LGBTQ friends: What Paul said is true, “those who marry will experience distress,” but those who marry will also experience great joy. Christian marriage is about two people reflecting the unconditional love of God to the world. We need more people doing that. The Supreme Court’s decision last week was a sign that God is making this institution new. And I say thanks be to God.