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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how many within “mainstream” Western Christianity believe the LGBT community—more specifically, the recent SCOTUS decision on marriage equality—is to blame for the imminent judgment on America. In this entry, I would like to mention how those in the Muslim faith appear to be included among those charged with causing the “fall of America.”

The hyperbolic rhetoric used to talk about over 1.6 billion Muslims is just as head-scratching as that which is used to describe the roughly 9 million LGBT Americans. Radio host Rick Wiles recently stated that “millions of Americans will die in one day in this country” at the hands of Muslim-Americans, whose only goal is “to slaughter the people who do not convert to Islam.” We hear statements like this over and over, predominantly by those on the Christian right. I do not wish to demonize those who make such claims, but what I do want to do is shed light on the fact that this is nothing more than extreme hyperbole. Sure, there are those for whom that statement would be true. However, as I will point out in the following paragraph, this is not the goal of the Muslim faith. Furthermore, a statement like Wiles’ is a double-edged sword. Given his logic, one could point to recent Lafayette shooter, John Russell Houser, who, in 2013 tweeted, “The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed [sic])” and conclude, “the goal of Christianity is to slaughter the people who do not accept Christ.” Both claims are nonsense.

The goal of any religion, broadly speaking, will depend upon how one interprets matters. Some religions have sacred texts. Some don’t agree on what is supposed to be “sacred text.” Some religions have varying views of God, or gods, if the case may be. The Muslim faith, then, is no different. Sure, on one extreme, is ISIS (and groups similar). They have a specific goal in mind, which involves radical violence. On the other hand, however, you have a group like the Sufi Muslims. One such Sufi is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, whom I mention in my forthcoming book, All Set Free. His understanding of Islam is beautifully summed up in the following:

Peace, unity, equality . . . when we are in one place, when we live in one place, eat in one place, sleep in one place, and when we finally join together in heaven in one place, that is unity. Even when we go to that (final) place, we all live together in freedom as one family, one group. In this world and in the next world we live together in freedom, as one family of peace. This is Islam. If we find this way of peace, this is Islam. – (Muhaiyaddeen, God’s Psychology, 218)

There should be no denying the plain truth that within various faiths, there are debates among adherents as to what constitutes “correct theology.” Just because a Christian makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs a “God-mandated” action, does not mean all Christians are in agreement. Likewise, just because a Muslim makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs an “Allah-mandated” action, does not mean all Muslims are in agreement either. (“Allah,” it must be noted, is an Arabic word simply meaning “the One God,” and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims). There seems to be a more accurate common denominator for the violence.

It does not matter if God is named YHWH or Allah, Zeus or Athena, if s/he is believed to be violent, then those who follow will likely be more tolerant of violence. In fact, in more extreme cases, followers of that god will eagerly engage in violence themselves. One problem with this belief is that when violence is justified—when an eye for an eye is how those religious interpretations operate for individuals and nations—they will, in reality, often ramp up the violence. (See the studies done by the University of Texas—sourced from Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, 142–43).

This leads to all manners of madness!

This also seems to be the case with the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

So, what is the answer to this conflict that seems to never end? Well, I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that question—do not engage in retributive violence. Or, directly in his words: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39).

Although the blame for the violence should be equally shared with all who engage in the violence, the supposed “Christian nation” should at least model what a Christ-like foreign policy looks like. Should it not? Yet, the United States seems to be right in the middle of the violence—not “set apart” from others who are involved. If leaders truly want the United States to be known as a “Christian nation,” should they not “turn the other cheek?” Should the United States not love those labeled “enemy?”

I realize the relationships between nations are not simple. But, shouldn’t nations who claim to desire peace not at least consider that one’s belief in God literally will be a matter of “peace” and “war?” If we can recognize there is a correlation between violence and our theology, shouldn’t we begin to take more seriously the idea that God is not violent? It seems that belief might then lead to more peaceful interactions between nations. I think there is enough experiential evidence that one’s faith dictates one’s ethics. We witness it over and over—history seemingly repeating herself ad infinitum.

One should not blame the entire Muslim faith in the same way one should not blame the entire Christian or Jewish faith for the violence and acts of terrorism. The common link between the violence is the belief in a violent God—one who vanquishes enemies and blesses those willing to die for the cause. At some point, someone is going to have to end the cycle of violence. My hope is that it will be those who claim to have the very model to do just that. Jesus had legions of angels to unleash on the Romans, yet he kept them at bay (Matthew 26:53). A “Christian nation” should follow suit.

Don’t we see where perpetual war has taken us?

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

Image Credit: Stock vector of world religions connected by international peace symbol. By casejustin via 123rf.com.

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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.

 

Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part I)

All cultures scapegoat others. It is just something we do, unfortunately. Our religions are founded on scapegoating—Christianity included. The scapegoating that is currently taking place in America, much of it from within the church, is astounding. Just take a look at some of the recent rhetoric regarding the LGBT community from some self-declared Christians.

You’re going to see gunfire . . . “ Preacher Rick Wiles, comparing the recent SCOTUS decision to the institution of slavery.

When homosexuals begin lining up to adopt those children, they will literally disciple them into an early grave called Hell.” – Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough

Personally, I believe from a perspective of reading Romans 1, that this nation is under judgment from God ( . . . ) The wrath of God revealed against those who rebel against him in Romans 1. And one of the signs of even God judging a nation and withdrawing the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, one of the signs is the sign of homosexual behavior, as it says in Romans 1. And I believe we’re seeing that in this nation, I believe this nation is under judgment.”Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum (I will save my comments on how to exegete Romans 1:18 – 32 for another time.)

So, in the minds of these men and countless others, because of the LGBT community and our compliance with their desire to share in the same rights heterosexual couples enjoy, judgment and wrath will befall this “Christian” nation. I would like to make a few comments regarding this type of thinking.

First, for sake of argument, let’s assume that homosexual behavior is sin (I do not believe that, but hear me out.) Even if the citizens of this nation allow this “rampant sin” to enter her borders, is this the first time? Is this the first instance within the past 50 years where the United States of America enacted laws that many would find immoral? Well, let’s take a look…

“Jim Crow” laws (1890 – 1965) stated that black and white segregation is a mandate when it comes to public schools, transportation, restrooms and water fountains, and even restaurants. And no judgment befell this” great” nation.

Interracial marriage was only legalized in 1967. Prior to that, blacks and whites could not marry. Yet, no judgment came . . .

How about current drug laws? In a piece from July 1, 2015, I discussed the current drug laws in American and how racially biased they are. However, we see no one thumping a bible from a pulpit, warning of some terrible judgment. I know, I know: drugs are bad so God is okay with these laws.

I could drone (pardon the pun) on and on about which laws I find “biblically objectionable” but I think you see my point—and I didn’t even go far back in history. I need not remind anyone of the institution of slavery. The fact is: the laws of this nation have little to do with Christian values. Never have, never will.

My second point is this: if you want to use the bible as an authority on how to enact law, at least begin with Jesus Christ. If someone wants to view homosexual behavior as “sin,” then are they not to view that “sin” as a speck, and their own sin as a “plank”? (Matt. 7:3 – 5) Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be “great,” they must be servants. (Matt. 20: 25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on “biblical values” not “lording over another?” In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

I cannot help but cringe when I hear the justifications for stopping the oft-used pejorative, “homosexual agenda.” All too often, “protecting the sanctity of marriage” seems more important than living “at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18)—“voting for God” more important than being “last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

If the bible makes anything clear, it is that we are called to love—called to serve others as Christ loved and served. Those who take a Christocentric worldview will not wage war with the LGBT community. Rather, we will follow Jesus and treat all with love, kindness, and compassion—just as we want to be treated. Christians who take Jesus seriously will work diligently toward ceasing scapegoating others. The LGBT community will not be to blame for the wars and rumors of wars brought about by an “over and above” foreign policy. They will not be to blame for the blowback due to rampant nationalism. They will not be to blame for future terrorist attacks that are exacerbated by the expanded drone program or our propensity toward “nation building”. The scapegoat never is to blame for the problems of the community, the culture, the nation. Our violence is.

 

Image Credit: The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt. Public Domain. Available through Wikipedia.

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A Whole New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Not to Scapegoat Tom Brady: Reflections on Deflate Gate

Tom Brady discussing Deflate Gate. (Screenshot from YouTube.)

Tom Brady discussing Deflategate. (Screenshot from YouTube.)

I have so many reasons to hate Tom Brady.

As I said after he beat my beloved Seahawks in the Super Bowl, I have one primary reason for hating him. My wife thinks he’s hot.

Yup. I hate Tom Brady.

But there’s another reason to hate Tom Brady. “Deflategate” is back in the news. The controversy centers on Patriot’s footballs being deflated after they were approved by NFL officials prior to the AFC championship game in January.

Brady has asserted his innocence, but an independent investigation found that “it is more probable than not” he was aware that the locker room attendant and equipment manager altered the footballs.

So, not only does my wife think Tom Brady is hot, he’s also a cheater.

I hate him.

Of course, there is some equivocation in the report. “More probable than not” isn’t a definitive answer. It’s actually quite a disappointing answer to those of us who want to hate Brady with a perfect hatred. The report leaves room for doubt. “Maybe he’s innocent,” the report says. “We can’t be sure.”

But my hatred of Brady was recently put into perspective by New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden, who appeared yesterday on CBS This Morning. Even though it’s “more probable than not” that Brady is a dirty cheater, Rhoden reminded me that my hatred of Brady for cheating is an act of scapegoating. Charlie Rose asked Rhoden, “So, what’s the worst thing about this?” Rhoden’s response was illuminating,

The worst thing about this is that a guy who’s on top of the world, who seems to have everything – great family, a legacy, Super Bowl – still feels so much pressure and the need to cheat. That’s what blows everybody away. You didn’t have to do this. Why does someone who seems to have everything need to cheat? And that speaks to a large societal problem. Why do people on Wall Street, why do people who seem to have all the money, need to have even more money?

This isn’t just about Tom Brady. As much as I may hate the guy, he and I have some things in common. Rhoden is pointing to a crisis that all humans face. No matter how successful we appear, we all face the same existential lack of being. I can have all the success and money in the world, but I will still feel an emptiness in my soul.

Why do we experience this lack of being? Because we are constantly comparing ourselves with others. This comparison leads us to believe that we aren’t enough, that we lack something within ourselves, and so we try to obtain something that will fill the void within our soul.

But we don’t just want to obtain “something.” We want something that another person has, or wants to have. The competitive nature of this dynamic means that we easily fall into the trap of lying and cheating our way to the top.

You don’t have to be an NFL quarterback or on Wall Street to be infected by this competitive trap caused by our lack of being. I experience it, and from my years of ministry and counseling, I can tell you that nearly everyone is tempted to fill the void by cheating.

So, Tom Brady isn’t alone. My hatred of him actually comes from my own lack of being. As with all of my scapegoats, I put him down so that I can feel better about myself.

So, how do we stop scapegoating people like Tom Brady? As Rhoden states, Brady’s cheating “speaks to a large societal problem.” This is bigger than Brady. This is about me. This is about you. This is about a society obsessed with success and comparison with others, which leads to a sense that we lack something within ourselves.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the lack of being that we experience. The solution involves a complete change of mind – what the Jesus and the Hebrew prophets called repentance. Instead of relating to others by competitively grasping for success over and against them, we can learn to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

That feels like a death. And it is a kind of death. It’s a death to the old competitive way of life that leads us over and against our scapegoats. But that death leads to new life. It’s a new life based on joy and love. It’s based on living in a community that isn’t over and against one another, but that actually celebrates and mourns with one another. It’s based on the realization that any of us can find ourselves in situations where we are tempted by societal standards of success to cheat, and so we begin to empathize with those who do. We begin to forgive. And our hearts begin to move away from hatred and toward love.

Tale As Old As Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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!

Happily Ever After

Raven-YourVoice-9

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

I believe the film, Cinderella, is the most “Christian” movie to be released in some time. The story follows a fortunate young girl named Ella, whose mother and father are the embodiment of love and compassion. The family lives on a rural farm, living a life of simplicity, rooted not in material goods but in love and kindness. When Ella’s mother becomes ill, prior to her death, she tells Ella to always live by two truths: “have courage” and “be kind.” Ella promises her mother she will always do so. After her mother’s death, Ella’s father remarries the dreadful Lady Tremaine and Ella’s fortunes are, for a time, drastically changed. Along with her daughters, Anastasia and Drisella, the three quickly show they care not for love and kindness, but for material possessions and social status. This is more than likely due to the daughters’ imitation of Lady Tremaine, who models nothing in the way of loving kindness herself. Thus, the stepsisters seem like nothing more than immature and dumbed-down stepmothers. Moreover, because of Lady Tremaine’s awareness of the close bond between Ella and her parents, she, along with Anastasia and Drisella, desired to be in Ella’s position, one in which they could be the object of another’s affection (although for materialistic reasons).

Once tragedy strikes Ella’s father during a business trip, everything in Ella’s life begins to change for the worse. In fact, the first thing out of Lady Tremaine’s mouth is that of ruin—she “knows” the death of her income source will be the cause of her perpetual unhappiness. Because Lady Tremaine and her daughters (the “mob”) cannot directly blame Ella’s deceased father, they turn their attention to Ella (the “scapegoat”) to place all their internal torment onto her, transforming Ella’s life into a living hell.

What Ella endures at the hands of her stepmother is nothing short of hellacious. Assuredly, Ella is not the direct cause of Lady Tremaine’s unhappiness (no scapegoat is), but because of the ever-loving relationship she had with her father (who, at least in the Stepmother’s mind, was to blame for her financial ruin), Ella is the obvious target for Lady Tremaine and the two stepsisters. From forcing Ella to sleep in the drafty attic, to not allowing her to eat with the family, the three wicked women do their best to break Ella’s spirit. However, because of a chance encounter with a stranger in the woods outside the home, Ella, at minimum, finally has something to hope for again.

The stranger, “Kit” (who turned out to be the Prince), is so fascinated by Ella that he calls a royal ball to commence, with everyone in the kingdom invited.[1] While Lady Tremaine finally has a shot at royalty (her plan is for one of her daughters to impress on the Prince in such a manner that he would choose either Anastasia’s or Drisella’s hand in marriage), Ella views this as her chance to see Kit once more. However, Lady Tremaine forbids Ella from attending the ball, fearing profound embarrassment at the sight of her out-of-date “rags”. To ensure Ella will not attend, the three wicked women tear Ella’s dress into pieces.[2] The one thing that Ella looks forward to is ripped from her the moment the Stepmother rips her dress. Now, she must witness her treacherous stepmother and wicked stepsisters head off to the ball in an attempt to deceive the Prince into marrying one of the corrupt women. The only thing she had hoped for, since the death of her parents, is seemingly gone.

What takes place immediately after Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters tear Ella’s dress to pieces is the first of two “wow” moments in the movie. For Ella, there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for. However, when she encounters a poor beggar just outside the home, Ella immediately takes to serving the elderly woman. Through all of the torment, pain, and sorrow—after having everything violently torn from her—Ella remains courageous and kind.[3] As most already know, the “poor beggar” turns out to be Ella’s “Fairy Godmother” and hope is magically restored. That hope will turn into possibility, but as we shortly find out, evil is not so easily quelled.

After the magic of the “royal ball” ends, Ella returns home and before long, is confronted by her stepmother.[4] Lady Tremaine begins a classic monologue, ripe with accusations and finger-pointing. Not only is Ella blamed for sabotaging the stepsisters’ chance with the Prince,[5] but also for causing Lady Tremaine to live “unhappily ever-after.” Under no circumstance is Ella’s stepmother going to take any responsibility for her own misery, for in the minds of “the mob”, the scapegoat is (illogically) the cause of all the sins of the community (or family in this story). She locks Ella attic in hopes that Kit will never find her again. However, because love trumps evil in the end, Ella and Kit are reunited and will go on to live “happily ever after.” However—before they can do so—one last “wow” moment.

Prior to being whisked off, Ella utters three short words to her wicked and treacherous stepmother that, if I may be honest, brought me to tears…“I forgive you.” In doing so, Ella models precisely how the cycle of violence is broken by imitating Christ on the cross. Surely, as the future queen, Ella could have had Lady Tremaine, along with her moronic stepsisters, imprisoned for the rest of their lives. However, like Christ, Ella does not condemn her oppressors—she forgives them. This courageous act of kindness, in spite of oppression that would have destroyed most, is what it means to be truly human. Forgiveness of horrific oppression has the power to transform humanity more than any other human act. Whether Lady Tremaine will ever accept Ella’s act of mercy or not is not what drives Ella to forgive. Rather, it is Ella’s desire to live out what she promised her late mother, namely, to “be kind” and “have courage.” Ella’s “happily ever after” could only truly be possible with the forgiveness of her former oppressors; her act of kindness being that she potentially liberated future generations of Tremaine’s family who would have otherwise been caught up in the cycle of violence and oppression.

I am quite thankful the gospel can be witnessed in such a brilliantly analogous way by so many people around the globe. If humanity can truly appreciate what is going on in this story, then we can move closer to understanding how to end the cycle of retributive violence we continue today. On the cross, Christ gave us the starting point of our theology, and close to two-thousand years later, Disney © has helped spread this message around the world. I pray humanity has the courage to grasp it and collectively put it into practice.

[1] It is not necessarily Ella’s external beauty that charms Kit, but her peculiar understanding of philosophy. Two specific statements Ella made that piqued Kit’s curiosity; namely “Be kind and have courage,” and “Just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.” One could draw the analogy to Jesus, who redefined the Pharisees understanding of what following God looked like. Like Christ, Ella seemed to be teaching an ethic that was contrary to how the principalities understood ethics.

[2] The dress was once Ella’s mothers.

[3] While Ella vocalizes her defeat, her actions toward the homeless beggar suggests she still has the desire to do “good”; to serve others.

[4] Being an insightful and intellectual woman, Lady Tremaine quickly becomes privy to Ella’s “royal secret.”

[5] As noted before, Kit (the Prince) did not become infatuated with Ella because of her external beauty, but because of her kind spirit and her philosophical mind. Obviously, the stepsisters possessed none of the attributes that drew Kit to Ella.

 

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.”

Repent For Lent: Renewing Our Minds With Mimetic Theory – Swords

cross sword

Image from 123rf.com

Apologies, Friends, for the absence of this column last week. If part of Lent is about finding blessings through suffering, then I was given a prodigious opportunity to do just that while recovering from the stomach flu! In the midst of my struggle, I found many reasons for gratitude, including the fact that my family remained well, my husband was able to take care of me and we were both able to care for our children, and I was reminded to pray for those who must deal with pain and illness everyday and still work hard for survival. I am also fortunate to work with wonderfully understanding colleagues and blessed with patient readers who understand the value of forgiveness when it comes to building peace!

After all, making peace is what the Gospel is all about. But there are difficult sayings of Jesus that may, on the surface, make it appear otherwise. In this series, I attempt to wrestle a blessing from those sayings, and today, I’d like to focus on a couple that are especially problematic for peacemakers. I’m referring to the verses in which Jesus mentions “swords.”

Two verses in particular, Matthew 10:34 and Luke 22:36, might be used to justify violence. Though the sayings are very different, as the former refers to a metaphorical sword and the latter refers to a literal one, they have some contextual connections, and both statements have been used to refute pacifism. However, through the lens of mimetic theory, both statements can also be used to show how Jesus’ peace subverts the human understanding of peace founded on the corpses of victims. Jesus’ rejection of the language of peace is ultimately his rejection of the premise on which human cultures build their peace; likewise, his invocation of the “sword” subverts our understanding of and reliance on violence.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—one’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36)

I have already written about a similar statement of Jesus (Luke 14:26) when it comes to the division his call to discipleship brings among families. Two more points must be made. First of all, it must be noted that the divisions Jesus says he will create lie along mimetic fault lines. Man against father, mother against daughter, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; each of these relationships has the potential for rivalry that is likely to erupt when the scapegoat mechanism is taken away. The false unity built on the foundation of an innocent victim disappears when the victim’s innocence is exposed and faith in the scapegoat mechanism is lost. Therefore, father and son will compete for power, wealth and status; mother and daughter will compete for influence and attention, and bonds built on anything weaker than love will unravel at the seams. Jesus will not be the cause of this destruction; the sword of which he speaks is already built into our desires. Our desires are not our own but are always shared, a double-edged blade cutting both us and our rivals when we attempt to hoard or acquire at the other’s expense. Jesus simply unsheathes this sword by removing the victim who once cushioned us from its blow, or, rather, by becoming that victim.

Secondly, it should be noted that Jesus speaks these words about a sword in a larger context of discipleship. He gives this speech when he sends out his followers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and drive out demons, with nothing for protection “as sheep among wolves.” He forbids them to bring money or extra clothing for their journey, or to receive any compensation beyond welcome and lodging (“Freely you have received; freely give.”) He warns them of dangers they will encounter, yet leaves them defenseless except for their wits (“be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”) and their faith, and tells them not to be afraid. (“You will be hated by everyone because of me… When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.”) Thus, as Jesus speaks of the “sword” that he brings, he sends his own disciples out into the midst of persecutions without any weapons at all and forbids retaliation! The healing work he commands his disciples to do will cause them to be hated, because they will re-socialize the scapegoats and victims of the community. Removing the enmity aimed at those scapegoats will redirect it back onto them. With no literal sword for protection, the metaphoric sword that Jesus brings — wrath and rivalry unsheathed from within human hearts — will fall on the disciples just as it will fall on Jesus himself at Calvary.

Therefore the “sword” of which Jesus speaks is not a threat to humanity but a warning to the disciples as followers of Jesus of the fate that will befall them because it will befall Jesus first. The sword of which Jesus speaks is judgment that will fall first against himself. And in sending the disciples out into the midst of persecutions with the words “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus is warning that the sword you unsheathe is the sword that falls against you.

Lest there be any confusion about this, Jesus makes it very clear on the night of his arrest. This is the context he recalls at the last supper when he asks his disciples, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” When his disciples answer that they lacked nothing, Jesus’ bizarre reply is

But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (Luke 22: 35; 36-37)

By itself, this command would seem to contradict all of the nonviolence that has been Jesus’ modus operandi from the beginning. Indeed, nonviolence has been not only Jesus’ tactic, but his very nature. Yet in the context of this verse and Jesus’ larger ministry and mission, it is profoundly fitting with the subversive nature of Jesus’ language and teaching methods.

First, the scripture to which Jesus is referring is Isaiah 53:12, found in the Hymn of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13 – 53:12), the greatest testament to non-retaliation in the Hebrew Bible and the most thorough foreshadowing of the crucifixion found therein. This hymn is an indictment of human judgment and violence, specifically telling us that what we consider to be God’s will is actually a “perversion of justice.” Our justice is a perversion. On a surface level, when Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords, he will be counted among the transgressors by the priests who arrest him. They will see the small band of disciples armed with weapons and arrest Jesus among them as their leader. Thus the scriptures will be fulfilled; he’ll be counted as an insurrectionist. But there is so much more beneath the surface.

As I have expressed elsewhere (see my comment to then-future colleague Adam Ericksen’s review of Reza Aslan’s Zealot), the allusion to the Hymn of the Suffering Servant was never enough for me. One could easily argue that Jesus did not need to tell his disciples to buy swords in order to be counted among the transgressors, seeing as how the plans to arrest him were going into effect that very night. And for what it is worth, what does it matter if Jesus is considered lawless by those who use their own swords to arrest him? When Empire arrests a band of guerrilla warriors for being “lawless” does that vindicate the Empire’s own violence? In our world, we like to think that the moral law is on the side of those who wield violence for good, whether it be the Empire or the rebels. But Jesus is turning our world upside-down.

Jesus is instead showing, in a very concrete, physical way, that the swords we use will fall against us. He refers back to the time he sent his disciples out with nothing, relying on only their faith to carry them from through the towns and spread the ministry of healing. That was also the time that he said he came not to bring peace, but a sword. If he had given his disciples the impression then that they would one day wield actual swords, he is now turning that idea on its head with a real sword rendered completely useless as a prop in his subversive drama. If the hope in a day of real uprising and violence against Rome had sustained them then, they were in for a rude awakening.

Over-eager Peter betrays his trust in violence when he jumps at Jesus’ command. “See, Lord, here are two swords,” he says. In other words, “Way ahead of you, Lord! Let’s do this!” Jesus’ answer, “It is enough,” is not satisfaction that his disciples are sufficiently prepared for violence; it is a cut-off to the conversation because Peter just doesn’t get it. None of the disciples do. Their eagerness to use violence is an abandonment of Jesus in his time of crisis. Jesus knows this must happen, for to be a scapegoat is to be left utterly alone. For him to assume his role as the victim of our perversion of justice, Jesus must be rejected not only by those who arrest and crucify him but also by the disciples who flee his way of nonviolence and then flee him.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the disciples out with no physical swords, but declares that he himself has come to bring a sword to the world. Now in Luke 22, the disciples are armed with swords but Jesus renders them useless, even undoing the little violence that is done with them. Upon Jesus’ arrest, one of his disciples severs the ear of the slave of the high priest. Jesus heals the ear of the slave and, according to Matthew 26, utters the famous words, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  But healing the ear of the slave does not save Jesus. Indeed, it was healing that brought Jesus to this hour of crisis — healing in violation of the law, healing in order to rob society of its outcasts by bringing them into the fold. Healing, casting out demons and raising the dead — this is all Jesus has ever done, and it unsheathes the sword of which he speaks in Matthew 10:34. Jesus is dying on his own “sword.” But the death that he risks and endures to point out the double-edged sword of our own desires, rivalries, and vengeance, the death that comes from exposing the truth and rendering our deceitful safety-nets false, cannot hold his Life.

The physical sword is a perversion of human justice. Those who wield it in the name of Jesus unknowingly wield it against him. Those who project their violence onto others in the name of “taking up the cross” actually turn the cross upside-down and render it a sword (as Emmanuel McCarthy of the Center for Christian Nonviolence would say). This is trying to make peace as the world makes peace, over the dead bodies of victims.

But thanks to Jesus, the victims of human violence can no longer create peace. Jesus has exposed that rotten foundation for what it is and used his “sword” to cut it out from under us. From the cross, Jesus destroyed our fragile “peace” and laid a new foundation — the foundation of forgiveness and love. Only this foundation is everlasting. Peace built upon the sword will perish, but peace built upon forgiveness cannot be conquered by death, as the resurrection has shown. We build upon this foundation whenever we recognize our violence for what it is and ask for forgiveness, and whenever we forgive others. As Jesus and his disciples following after him have shown, this peace isn’t “safe;” it is risky and at times costly. It calls upon us to forgive and perhaps absorb violence without violence of our own, though we must speak and act for peace, welcoming and healing as the Spirit gives us the power to do so. There is no guarantee that it won’t also cost us our lives. But in Jesus Christ we know that building upon this peace will reconcile us and the world to the God of Love in whom there is life everlasting.

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.