interfaith friends

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

My Friend Sheima

The first face of Islam I ever encountered belonged to a smiling 11-year-old girl who kindly gestured for me to sit next to her on the bus that would take us both to our first day of middle school. I was shy and introverted, but I had been nervously excited to begin a new chapter of my life with all the thrills middle school had to offer – changing classrooms, having my own locker, no longer being just a “little kid” in elementary school. All of my eager anticipation was nearly crushed before the day even began, as many kids on the bus greeted me by making fun of the new perm I had been so eager to show off. But this one girl reached out to me in kindness, and I felt a rush of relief in the midst of my embarrassment as I sat down next to her. We gradually became good friends. Over the years, Sheima would become a sister to me, one of the first people who helped me see the beauty in God and humanity… and the potential within myself.

When we first met, I did not know anything about her religion. But as time went on, I realized that her faith had compelled her thoughtfulness in our first encounter. It is not that she felt obligated by her religion to reach out to me. Rather, in knowing God to be gracious and merciful, in learning from her faith the values of empathy and compassion, her natural inclination toward me and everyone else was one of love. Her love mirrored the love of God to which she opened herself multiple times a day in her prayers and meditations, and love from and for God shaped her understanding of the world.

This is the Islam I first encountered, manifested in one of the best friends I have ever had. Her family welcomed me into their home and hearts as well, and through them I learned not only the doctrines of Islam, but the values of Islam embodied in Muslims who take their faith seriously – values of hospitality, compassion, tolerance, patience, generosity and love.

Religion As A Weapon

I know that there are violent expressions and interpretations of Islam. I know that any religion can be used to marginalize and exclude others. I know that not all Muslims, and not all Christians, interpret their faith in a way that is loving and peaceful. I know that monotheistic faiths in particular can lead people to an exclusive understanding of God that facilitates a dualistic, us-versus-them mentality that treats people of other faiths and no faith with suspicion and hostility, making them easier to dehumanize, oppress, persecute, and kill.

But none of my Muslim friends, none of the Muslims I know, have ever been motivated by their faith towards hostility and violence. The hostile spirit wielded by some Christians toward Muslims in the post 9/11 world, and particularly after the attacks in Paris, however, is unmistakable. When governors shut the doors to Syrian refugees, prominent officials call for religious tests, and presidential candidates seek to score points through ostentatious displays of Christianity and simultaneous fearmongering against Islam, faith is brandished as a cudgel.

But it gets worse.

When President George W. Bush launched the Global War on Terror, he felt compelled by his understanding of the Christian faith to do so. Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath has quoted him as saying:

I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’

While President Barack Obama has not made such appeals to God regarding his administrative decisions, he also identifies as Christian. And he has overseen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a war on Libya, and over 450 drone strikes that have killed predominantly untargeted individuals. A conservative estimate of the deaths from the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone stands at 1.3 million.

While religion should not drive foreign policy, Christianity that does not lead to restraint in warfare, Christianity that does not bear witness to the victims of war, has lost its salt and is worth nothing. And the many who see no contradiction, indeed, see a vital link, between Christian faith and military service, who believe in raining fire and death upon the enemy, do not know what spirit they are from.

At home and abroad, Muslims have experienced Christianity as a weapon. Yet they are constantly compelled by a demanding, suspicious population to counter the image of Islam as a hostile religion of terrorists. Muslims in the United States and around the world have denounced terrorism, hosted interfaith gatherings, written editorials and articles, and continue to live lives of patient compassion, modeling the religion of peace that I have come to know and love. Yet their voices are too often ignored by those who demand accountability for “Islamic” violence.

The truth is, violent expressions of Islam mirror violent expressions of Christianity in a cycle of hostility driven not by God, but by human fear. As mimetic theory shows, vehement religious zeal is driven by a desire to assert one’s self, or one’s religion, over and against another, and any differences are ironically drowned in an overwhelming flood of violence.

A Mutual Dependence on Enmity

The tides of violence are rising as fear and hatred perpetuate one another. The American Empire, ever living up to Dr. King’s apt assessment as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” depends on ISIS to keep the war machine turning and put a noble face of “fighting terror” on a policy of maintaining military dominance and exploiting resources. ISIS, for its part, depends on violence from the United States and her allies to create an atmosphere of desperation, which is their biggest recruitment tool. In a recent article for The Nation, Lydia Wilson interviewed captured ISIS soldiers who confessed to being “terrorized” into fighting. Civil war fueled by American occupation had triggered a desire for vengeance, but more than revenge, fighters were desperate to provide for their families in a broken and impoverished land.

ISIS uses the devastation and hopelessness nurtured by a decade and a half of war to convince Muslims that the world is against them and that they are their only hope. Every gun fired, every drone strike, every parent, child, spouse and sibling killed, every dream obliterated, drives another recruit into their ranks. And with every act of terror they commit, they turn the world against not only them, but against the innocent Muslims who become increasingly isolated. Islamophobic attitudes and policies play directly into the hands of ISIS, who want to force Muslims to choose between them and an increasingly hostile world. Muslims who resist this binary are voices for peace, and they make up the majority of ISIS’s victims.

ISIS uses Islam to bring a veneer of righteousness to their violence, when there is nothing Islamic about it. Seeking to provoke overreaction by Western powers and further isolate fellow Muslims, they target not only soldiers, but civilians of all religions, ignoring the Qur’anic proclamation that to kill an innocent person is to kill all of humanity. (5:32). The United States military, for its part, invokes Christian prayers and employs Christian chaplains, yet throws Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” out the window and demonizes its victims. Both sides are made up of fearful, flawed human beings trying to protect themselves and their families, believing God to be on their side.

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

But there is hope. Religion that excludes and dehumanizes others is a weapon, but faith that recognizes the interconnection of all life can be a healing balm. At their best, Islam and Christianity both show life, the universe, everything to be ordained by the One who is Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Christians and Muslims worldwide are compelled – by hope and faith and love nurtured by prayer and support from their communities – to lives of active kindness, generosity, and a determined struggle for restorative justice. At their best, Islam and Christianity inspire not pride, but humility, not self-righteousness, but empathy, not hostility, but healing.

Worshipping the same God, inspired by ethics of compassion and mercy, and striving for the same goals of restorative justice for victims of exploitation, oppression and violence, Christians and Muslims have great potential to be not merely allies, not simply partners in peacemaking, but true friends. Interfaith dialogue is a good beginning, but the seeds of compassion must be sown deeper. Knowledge can be forgotten, fear can taint information, but friendship is the antidote to hostility that can dispel violence and lay a foundation for reconciliation.

So how do we form these friendships? Muslims around the world are already reaching out, as I have said before. Christians must step up and denounce Islamophobia, in order to dispel the fear that precludes relationship. Hand-in-hand with this task comes recognizing and condemning the violence of our own government. I am convinced that Islamophobia works subconsciously to dehumanize the victims of American aggression overseas as well as implant subtle but damaging views of Muslims at home. How else can we explain our collective complacency with a drone program where up to 90% of the casualties are not targeted and a genocidal ideology that justifies the killing of all military-aged males by deeming them combatants even when their identities are unknown? Friendship cannot grow in hostile soil polluted by fear and self-deception.

With fear dispelled and hearts broken open to the truth of our violence, I believe that more people will be willing to reach out to Muslims in friendship, or receive the friendship Muslims continually offer. Of course, friendships, like the one Sheima and I developed, come about naturally if they come about at all. They cannot be forced. But the current climate marginalizing and isolating Muslims precludes interfaith friendships, whereas reaching out in humility and compassion can facilitate them.

Friendships between Muslims and Christians would go a long way toward sucking the oxygen out of ISIS’ ideology and out of the United States’ war machine. Neither side in this battle is endorsed by God, no matter what leaders and soldiers might say. Yet all who fight are beloved of the same God, who stands with all victims and recognizes the fighters themselves as victims of violence and their own fear. The key to peace is not the elimination of the people who fight the battles, but the elimination of enmity itself. Showing that friendship is possible across boundaries of faith shows that God transcends human limits and can’t be confined to one group or invoked against another. It also draws upon and fuels positive mimesis. Compassion is contagious.

Just as ISIS and the West mirror each other in violence, Muslims and Christians can mirror one another in love, and come together in mutual resolve to end violence and sow seeds of peace. A fragile and dying world is dependent on it. And our souls will be enhanced by letting the expansive and reconciling love of the God we all believe in draw us together. Because I am already blessed with such a wonderful friendship, I can testify that so much joy and hope await if we tear down the divisions of fear and hostility and come together in love. We have everything to lose continuing on our destructive path of violence, and everything to gain in coming together in friendship. If we cannot make peace together, we cannot make peace at all. Only friendship across all human divides can save the world.

Image: Copyright: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz via

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast with Paul Nuechterlein: Thankful for Rene Girard and Creating a Better Future



Show Notes

Paul Nuechterlein is the Contributing Theologian for Theology and Peace, he is the creator of the immensely helpful website “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary,” and Paul has just started a new project called “Discipleship Seminars in Mimetic Theory.”

In this episode, Paul gives thanks for the life of René Girard. Paul credits Girard for changing everything about the way he thinks about life, relationships, faith, and the Bible. Paul explores the mimetic principle of human inter-dividuality and why the concept is so important in our work for justice and peace.

Andrew Marr, a Benedictine monk at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, made a special guest appearance to discuss economic justice in light of mimetic theory. Andrew has written the wonderful book Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and Rene Girard. He also blogs at his website “Imaginary Visions of True Peace.”


An Open Letter to Mr. Trump

Editor’s Note: This letter is primarily written to presidential candidate Donald Trump, but it also expresses what must be said to all who claim the identity of Christian and advocate violence as a credible solution to the world’s problems. Matthew writes for the benefit of all who are affected by the vicious cycle of violence and hostility which is unfortunately being fueled by Islamophobic rhetoric. The victims of this rhetoric are innocent Muslims harassed at home and falsely labeled enemies abroad, but they are also those who perpetuate this dehumanizing rhetoric and lose something of their own humanity in the process. All who profess to follow Jesus should understand that violence is antithetical to his Way, as he came not to take life, but to give life in abundance to all.


Mr. Trump,

Just a few days ago, you stated that your plan for ISIS, should you become the President of the United States of America, would be to “bomb the shit out of them.” My first question regarding this is: how do you reconcile your stance with that of Jesus? As a good Christian, I am sure you are aware of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Matthew’s version of the story (as well as John’s), you will read about a violent disciple, Simon Peter, who attempts to thwart Jesus’ peaceful mission with a sword but is immediately rebuked by the Lord. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Jesus then even says that he has twelve legions of angels at his disposal, should he decide to bomb the shit out of the overwhelmingly powerful Roman soldiers and thus, save his own hide. Is that not essentially the same type of firepower that you will posses should you become the President? So, why then, would you unleash your arsenal when your Master did not? You do claim to be a follower of Jesus, don’t you?

Live by the bomb, die by the bomb.

Now, I am sure that you are also very familiar with the Sermon on the Mount. Even non-Christians like Gandhi, who read the sermon daily, take these teachings seriously. In this sermon, Jesus offers some very radical teachings on non-violence and enemy love. Contrary to Levitical law, Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies (Matt 5:44) and turn the other cheek when violence is committed against us (5:39). We do this because that is what the Father does (5:48). Mr. Trump, how can you honestly reconcile this command of love with your current view of the worldwide crisis, one that is only exacerbated by an ever-escalating cycle of retributive violence? In my opinion, it simply cannot be done, no matter how creatively, or rather, how un-creatively, you read Matthew 5–7.

And speaking of commands of love . . .

Do us all a favor and read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats because it will go a long way in helping you better understand how to properly love the One you claim to follow. In this teaching, Jesus, in a very real way, teaches that what we do to the “least of these,” we do to him. Literally! Paul takes an identical view regarding humanity’s interconnectedness in his letter to the Romans. According to John’s gospel, this is because nobody comes into being without coming into being through Christ (John 1:3). If I may be blunt: this includes Middle Eastern refugees, of which, Jesus was one. When you refuse to feed the hungry, when you refuse to give drink to the thirsty,when you do not welcome a stranger, you do those very things to Jesus Christ, the Lord of your life, nay, the Lord of everything and everyone!

So, after the cameras are turned off, after the microphones are taken from your mouth, after the ego lays itself to bed at night, meditate on this.

I do not say these things to condemn you. Your words and actions are self-condemning (See Romans 2:1). But you are loved and therefore, can be love to others. You must humble yourself and see Christ in even your enemies though. The first and second century followers of the Way—i.e. Christians—had this view and that is why they were decidedly non-violent.

O, how far we have fallen as a church!

Mr. Trump, I implore you to repent. Change your mind regarding this. It is never too late to change your posture to line up with Christ’s, which is decidedly peaceful. Test this with John 20:19–23. If you claim to be a follower of Christ and thus, living in the Spirit, then the manifestations of that will clearly match the Spirit Jesus breathed on the disciples after the resurrection. The public actions I have seen from you in the past few months assuredly do not. Again, in the quiet moments, when you are at your most childlike, meditate on this and repent.

I pray you find the peace of Jesus in your heart.

Matthew J. Distefano


Image: Screenshot from Youtube.


Happy Toddler Thanksgiving: Tips From a Montessori Parent

Thanksgiving can be a toddler parenting nightmare: distant relatives who want hugs and kisses; bowls of nuts and candy within your toddler’s reach; expectations for dinner table etiquette; and of course, all with no nap! What’s a family in search of a happy Thanksgiving to do? That’s just what I discussed with my daughter Emily as she prepares for turkey day with her toddler. Grace is two and a half and attending a Montessori toddler program and Emily is doing a wonderful job implementing Montessori at home. Interestingly for our work at Raven, Dr. Montessori’s theory is founded on the role of imitation in early childhood development – a perfect fit with mimetic theory. I hope this video conversation helps your family to have a Happy Toddler Thanksgiving! And please share your tips for an enjoyable toddler Thanksgiving on The Montessori Project Facebook page.

Image: From Pixabay.


Life Goes On Under the Helicopters and the Terrible Cost of Avoiding the Dangers of Kabul

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Brian Terrell, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

When I arrived at the Kabul International Airport on November 4, I was unaware that the same day the New York Times published an article, “Life Pulls Back in Afghan Capital, as Danger Rises and Troops Recede.” My friends Abdulhai and Ali, 17 years old, young men I have known since my first visit five years ago, greeted me with smiles and hugs and took my bags. Disregarded by soldiers and police armed with automatic weapons, we caught up on old times as we walked past concrete blast walls, sand bag fortifications, check points and razor wire to the public road and hailed a cab.

The sun was just burning through the clouds after an early morning rain and I had never seen Kabul look so bright and clean. Once past the airport, the high way into the city was bustling with rush hour traffic and commerce. I was unaware until I read the New York Times on line a few days later, that this time I was one of only a few US citizens likely to be on that road. “The American Embassy’s not allowed to move by road anymore,” a senior Western official told the Times, which reported further that “after 14 years of war, of training the Afghan Army and the police, it has become too dangerous to drive the mile and a half from the airport to the embassy.”

Helicopters now ferry employees working with the United States and the international military coalition to and from offices in Kabul we are told. The United States Embassy in Kabul is one of the largest in the world and already a largely self-contained community, its personnel are now even more isolated from Afghan people and institutions than before. “No one else,” other than US and coalition facilities, the Times reports, “has a compound with a landing pad.” While proclaiming its mission there “Operation Resolute Support” for Afghanistan, US officials no longer travel on Afghan streets.

We have no helicopters or landing pads, but the security situation in Kabul is also a concern for Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a grass roots peace and human rights organization that I work with, and for our friends in the Kabul-based Afghan Peace Volunteers that I came to visit. I am fortunate with my grey beard and darker complexion to more easily pass for a local and so I can move about a bit more freely on the streets than some other internationals who visit here. Even then, my young friends have me wear a turban when we leave the house.

The security in Kabul does not look so grim to everyone, though. According to an October 29 Newsweek report, the German government will soon deport most of the Afghan asylum seekers who have entered that country. German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere insists that Afghans should “stay in their country” and that those refugees coming from Kabul especially have no claim for asylum, because Kabul is “considered to be a safe area.” The streets of Kabul that are too dangerous for US Embassy workers to travel in their convoys of Humvees and armored cars escorted by heavily armed private contractors, are safe for Afghans to live, work and raise their families, in Herr de Maiziere’s estimation. “Afghans made up more than 20 percent of the 560,000-plus people who have arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the UN Refugee Agency, something de Maziere described as ‘unacceptable.’”

Afghans, especially of the educated middle class, de Maiziere says, “should remain and help build the country up.” Quoted in the New York Times, Hasina Safi, the executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network, a group that works on human rights and gender issues, seems to agree: “It will be very difficult if all the educated people leave,” she said. “These are the people we need in this country; otherwise, who will help the ordinary people?” The same sentiment spoken with stunning courage and moral credibility by a human rights worker in Afghanistan, comes off as a disgraceful and craven obfuscation of responsibility when expressed from a government ministry in Berlin, especially when that government has for 14 years participated in the coalition responsible for much of Afghanistan’s plight.

Ali teaching at Street Kids' School

Ali teaching at Street Kids’ School

On the day after my arrival I was privileged to sit in at a meeting of teachers in the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ Street Kids’ School when this subject was discussed. These young women and men, high school and university students themselves, teach the basics of a primary education to children who must work in the streets of Kabul to help support their families. The parents do not pay tuition, but with the support of Voices, are instead allotted a sack of rice and jug of cooking oil each month to compensate for the hours their children are studying.

While the New York Times proclaims that “Life Pulls Back in Afghan Capital,” these volunteer teachers are a sign that life goes on, sometimes with startling joy and abundance as I have experienced in recent days, even in this place ravaged by war and want. It was heartbreaking, then, to hear these brilliant, resourceful and creative young people who clearly represent Afghanistan’s best hope for the future, discuss frankly whether they have a future there at all and whether they should join so many other Afghans seeking sanctuary elsewhere.

The reasons that any of these young people might leave are many and impelling. There is great fear of suicide bombings in Kabul, air raids in the provinces where anyone might be targeted as a combatant by a US drone, fear of getting caught between various combatant forces fighting battles that are not theirs. All have suffered greatly in the wars that began here before they were born. The institutions charged with the reconstruction of their country are riddled with corruption, from Washington, DC, to Afghan government ministries and NGOs, billions of dollars gone to graft with little to show on the ground. The prospects even for the brightest and most resourceful to pursue an education and then be able to find work in their chosen professions in Afghanistan are not good.

Most of the volunteers admitted that they had given thought to leaving, but even so they expressed a strong sense of responsibility to stay in their county. Some had come to a firm resolution not to leave, others seemed unsure if future developments would allow them to stay. Like young people everywhere, they would love to travel and see the world, but in the end their deepest wish is to “remain and help build the country up” if only they are able.

The vast majority of Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans and others risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy crafts or by land through hostile territory in hopes to find asylum in Europe would stay home if they could. While these asylum seekers should be given the hospitality and shelter that they have a right to, clearly the answer is not the absorption of millions of refugees into Europe and North America. In the longer term, there is no solution except a restructuring of the global political and economic order to allow all people to live and flourish at home or to freely move if that is their choice. In the shorter term, nothing will stem the massive tide of immigrants short of stopping all military intervention in these countries by the United States and its allies and by Russia.

The November 4 New York Times story ends with a cautionary tale, a warning that “even efforts to avoid the dangers in Kabul come at a terrible cost.” Three weeks before, one of the many helicopters that now fill the skies moving embassy personnel around had a tragic accident. “Trying to land, the pilot clipped the tether anchoring the surveillance blimp that scans for infiltrators in central Kabul as it hovers over the Resolute Support base.” Five coalition members died in the crash, including two Americans. The blimp drifted off with more than a million dollars’ worth of surveillance equipment, ultimately crashing into, and presumably destroying, an Afghan house.

The efforts of the US, UK and Germany “to avoid the dangers in Kabul” and other places we have destroyed will inevitably “come at a terrible cost.” It cannot be otherwise. We cannot forever keep ourselves safe from the bloody mess we have made of the world by hopping over it from fortified helipad to fortified helipad in helicopter gunships. Millions of refugees flooding our borders might be the smallest price we will have to pay if we continue to try.

Brian Terrell lives in Maloy, Iowa, and is a co-coordinator with Voices for Creative Nonviolence (, where this article first appeared. 

Images: All images submitted with the original article. Featured image: Helicopter over Kabul.



immigration 3

The Anti-Christ Immigration Response of US Governors and the Kingdom of God

Christians are called to be a light to the nations. The world can’t wait any longer for us to live into that mission.

And make no mistake about it – that mission is political. After all, Jesus preached the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom. Of. God.

This is not simply a personal ethic. I often hear evangelicals and conservatives say, “God wants everything from us” and “God demands our all.” But somehow many also claim that “everything” and “all” doesn’t include our politics because Jesus only gave us a personal ethic.

The fact is that the Kingdom of God is more than personal. It is political, but it is a radically different kind of politics because it subverts the political status quo. From the beginning of human history, the political status quo has been run by the same dynamic – violence.

But the Kingdom of God subverts the politics of violence. Make no mistake: When Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God,” he was being politically subversive. He was charged with high treason, because in using that phrase he was directly confronting the Kingdom of Rome.

These two political realms function in entirely different ways. The Kingdom of Rome functioned with violence, terror, and exclusion. But this point is crucial: Rome wanted peace. In fact, Rome named its project the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, and wanted to spread it throughout the known world. Unfortunately, the only method Rome knew to achieve “peace” was through violence. As Rome conquered new lands in the contradictory name of the Pax Romana, it carried the sword and the crucifix along with it. And if anyone resisted, they would likely be killed.

As all Christians know, that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Why was Jesus killed? It wasn’t because he said, “Hey guys. I’ve got a personal ethic here, let’s all just love each other! Look, bunnies. Yay! Aren’t they cute!”


Jesus resisted the Kingdom of Rome with the Kingdom of God. But let’s be clear: Jesus subverted Rome in the most subversive way possible – he stood up for justice with nonviolent love. Jesus knew that Rome wasn’t the real enemy. As one of his earliest followers stated, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The real enemy wasn’t Rome. The real enemy was the anti-Christ – the forces of evil, hatred, and violence. So here’s the crucial contrast:

Where Rome sought to terrorize, exclude, and kill their enemies, Jesus taught us to love our enemies in the way that Jesus loved his enemies, with self-offering love and nonviolence. Yes, Jesus, along with the prophets before him, stood up to political, economic, and religious injustice. He named it. He confronted it. He resisted it.

But why didn’t Jesus ever kill in the name of peace and justice, like Rome did? Because he knew that violence and exclusion would make him just like his enemies. He would become the enemy twin of those he opposed. On a personal and political level, mimicking the violence, hatred, and exclusion of our enemies makes us exactly like our enemies. And so Jesus offers the only alternative – renounce violence by loving your neighbor, who includes even your enemies.

René Girard makes this point while quoting Jesus on love in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

Since violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result (of peace):

And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35).

In the face of terrorism in France and throughout the world, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist violence with nonviolent love.

In the face of refugees fleeing countries torn to shreds by terrorism, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist the urge to exclude refugees by showing them gracious hospitality that lends without hope of receiving anything in return.

If we choose any other personal or political ethic, we aren’t living by the Kingdom of God. We deny God and worship at the feet of the anti-Christ. And Jesus had harsh words for those who claim to follow him but refuse to live by the love, nonviolence, and radical hospitality of the Kingdom of God:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father. On that day, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

For those of us living in the 21st century, that prophetic warning is as important as ever. If Christians are serious about following Jesus and being a light to the nations, then we must follow Jesus by living into his personal and political ethic. Otherwise we become just like those we call our enemies.

If the governors of the United States exclude refugees who are fleeing from the violence of ISIS, then that act of exclusion by the United States makes us just like ISIS. But it’s actually worse than that. If we are honest with ourselves, we in the United States will admit that ISIS is just like us. We are the violent models that ISIS is imitating. We are the ones who, like ancient Rome, have been spreading “peace” and “justice” through violence. ISIS is simply mimicking our methods. If the United States really wants to lead the world into a more just and peaceful future, then we need to change our methods in fighting for justice from violence to nonviolent love.

Because if we continue down this path, we will ensure ourselves a future of apocalyptic violence. And Jesus will say to us, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

But fortunately there is a clear alternative. Jesus calls us to love. That love is risky and can be scary. That’s because love doesn’t guarantee security, but neither does violence. The point for Christians is to not be run by fear, but by love. To follow him means to trust that as we live into the Kingdom of God we can show hospitality and lend to everyone in need, without expecting anything in return, because we know that there will be enough for everyone.


Image Copyright: adrenalinapura / 123RF Stock Photo

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shock and awe

The Aftermath of Paris

I’m sitting in the aftermath of Paris, feeling emotions tear me apart. One of the emotions is joy. My daughter, who lives there, is safe.

Has “joy” ever felt so troubling?

The aftermath of Paris seems likely to be intensified (“pitiless”) bombing raids in Syria, closed borders, heightened fear-based security and the deletion of “the gray zones of coexistence” across the planet.

Oh, it’s so nice to have an enemy who is truly evil! And the logic of war is so seductive. It simplifies all these complex emotions. Just watch the news.

The news is that terror wins. Indeed, terror is the cornerstone of civilization.

I couldn’t get that notion out of my head. That’s because I couldn’t stop thinking about an act of extraordinary terror that took place just over a dozen years ago, and its relevance to the world’s current state of shock and chaos. Doing so made it impossible to contemplate the raw savagery of the ISIS killings in Paris and Beirut and everywhere else — the “my God!” of it all, as innocent lives are cut short with such indifference — in a simplistic context of us vs. them.

In March of 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq with a bombing campaign called “shock and awe,” consisting of some 1,700 air sorties over the country that killed, according to Iraq Body Count, over 7,400 civilians.

Thinking about that number simply in the context of the 129 confirmed dead and 300-plus injured in Paris, let’s consider, one more time, the words of Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, whose 1996 publication, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, provided the strategic rationale for the 2003 bombing campaign:

The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives. . . .

The employment of this capability against society and its values, called ‘counter-value’ … is massively destructive strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist. . . .

One recalls from old photographs,” they wrote, “. . . the comatose and glazed expressions of survivors of the great bombardments of World War I and the attendant horrors and death of trench warfare. These images and expressions of shock transcend race, culture, and history. Indeed, TV coverage of Desert Storm” — referring to the 1991 U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq — “vividly portrayed Iraqi soldiers registering these effects of battlefield Shock and Awe.

We launched our war on Iraq with the intent to commit terror on a scale ISIS could only dream of. The relevance of this is inescapable, not simply because it makes the United States and NATO brothers in terror with ISIS, but also because the war shattered Iraq and caused the death and displacement of millions more people and, ultimately, created the conditions in which ISIS was able to come to power.

What’s haunting to me is the absence of this shockingly relevant recent history from most mainstream coverage of the Paris killings — or more to the point, the absence of almost any sort of trans-war consciousness, you might say, from the discussion of what we ought to do next.

Considering that bombing campaigns, and war itself, are not only the equivalent of terror (“writ large”), but also wildly ineffective and counterproductive, producing, in the long term, pretty much the opposite of what rational, non-war-mongers crave, the failure of politicians and mainstream media types to reach beyond a riled militarism in their reaction to the medieval terror in which ISIS specializes bodes poorly, I fear, for the future of humanity.

My daughter, who last Friday night had been at a rehearsal for an upcoming poetry event, found herself, at 10 p.m., as she was leaving a tavern called Les Caves St.-Sabin, in the middle of the chaos. As she and her friends stepped into the street, someone came running past warning people to get back inside. They only learned, in bits and pieces, the enormity of what was still happening in their city. She spent the night at the tavern, a decorated basement that felt, she said, like a “medieval fallout shelter.” In the morning, the metro was running again and she returned to her apartment. Only then did the horror hit her with full ferocity. She sat and cried, then got up and went to work.

But the tears continue, if only in silence. These are tears writ large. They swell beyond Paris and beyond Europe and the West to the broken, bombed, war-ravaged nations of the Third and Fourth World, the source of the planet’s 60 million refugees. This is the world of ISIS. Instead of continuing to bomb this world, in our fear and anger, we could try to understand it.

“ISIS is the first group since Al Qaeda to offer these young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

So wrote Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, in a recent piece for The Nation. She and her colleagues, in an attempt to do just that — understand those who have given over their lives to ISIS — recently interviewed ISIS prisoners of war in Iraq and, in the process, found their humanity. Mostly they were young men in their 20s who grew up in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, that is to say, in the midst of brutal civil war.

“The Americans came,” one of them told her. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

Violence begets violence, war begets war. Knowing this is the starting place. It’s time to start over.

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 or visit his website at


Image: Screen Shot from Youtube. “Shock and Awe the initial bombing of Baghdad” by xEngland4Lifex


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Farewell René Girard

It has been a few weeks since the passing of French anthropologist René Girard and I am just now sitting down to write my tribute. To be honest, I simply did not know what to put in writing. Other Girardians seemed able to get something out quickly while I was left processing at a painfully slow pace. But, now I feel ready to say what I would like to say.

So, here it goes . . .

The motivation to write something about the father of mimetic theory came abruptly last Saturday in Palo Alto, California, the city where René’s funeral was held. I made the three hour drive from my home by myself, so it gave me time to reflect on just how important Girard’s contributions to humanity are. When I arrived at the gorgeous Catholic church, I was met by my good friends Michael and Lorri Hardin and together, we witnessed a touching service for the late, great theorist.

After the event, I was invited to head back to René and his wife Martha’s private home at Stanford University. To be frank: it was an extremely surreal experience. Here I am—having never met René but having been so greatly impacted both intellectually and personally—standing in his very bedroom. I perused through his immense library and could barely speak. When I did, it was sparse.

Dinner was next and I was graciously invited to that event as well. It was at one of those restaurants where the prices are left off the menu so you know it’s going to be fantastic. And it did not disappoint. Throughout the night, the Hardins and I spent the evening chatting with some of René’s grandchildren, which was quite touching. We heard stories about who René was as a person; his humility, approachableness, and gentle nature, none of which was a surprise. All in all, it truly was a once in a lifetime experience, as bittersweet as it inevitably was.

Now, I would like to personally explain why René Girard and mimetic theory is so important to me. If I think back just half a decade, I easily recall a Matthew Distefano who was riding the fence of agnosticism. I deconstructed my conservative theology so much so that my house became void of any furniture, so to speak. It was an uncomfortable time for me to say the least. In comes mimetic theory and, as the French would say, voilà! Like Neo in The Matrix, down went the red pill.

Personally, the thing about mimetic theory is that, once I “got it,” the Gospel account then made so much sense. It ends up truly being “good news.” And because it explains human culture and religion so thoroughly, it actually helped the Bible—you know, even those cringe-inducing parts—finally make sense. After years of having a love/hate relationship with the good book, that was a welcomed relief!

Frankly, that was my major issue, even as a (struggling) conservative Christian. I could not, in good conscience, call the God of the Bible, as he was explained to me from a “plain” reading of scripture, good. Regardless of the various ways in which he was described, nothing worked. So when I almost salvifically discovered the work of Girard, my mind immediately became satisfied. Since that discovery—which, if I correctly recall, has been roughly three years—I’ve only delved deeper into the theory, which has in turn deepened my conviction that the theory is indeed correct. My mind has only wanted more. But it has not just been about the mind. There is a “heart” element to of all this too.

For me, it was the mind first, then the heart.

That is why I say René Girard has impacted me not only intellectually, but personally. Once things “made sense,” my heart has only been filled with the joy of that revelation. And so, I’ve discovered a whole new side of myself—a more forgiving side. I can’t help but look at others drastically different than I used to. I can no longer ignorantly scapegoat them for now I should full well know better. It has really been enlightening and actually quite healing because I could finally repent of the correct things.

For that, I must say: “Thank you, René Girard!”

I am not exaggerating this when I say that, in retrospect, I predict that René Girard will one day be viewed as one of the most important figures in human history. His work is that important! To be accepted and understood by the masses, if my personal transformation is worth anything, could have profound implications. To find the cure to any problem, one must first understand the underlying cause. René Girard has done humanity a great service in helping us understand the root cause of some of our greatest problems, those that could even have the potential to threaten humanity itself.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, now is as good a time as any for mimetic theory to be understood by more people. I believe the greatest way we can both honor René Girard and move toward discovering peace in our lifetime, is to spread his work like wildfire. The torch has been passed and so my hope and prayer is that, in community with one another, we carry on and even expand on the work he devoted much of his life to.

Rest in peace, René, and enjoy the comfort and rest in the arms of Papa. Until I join you, I offer thanks and gratitude, and stand in solidarity with all those who yearn for peace.

-Matthew J. Distefano


Image: Screen shot from Youtube. René Girard on Peter’s Denial by Steve Berry.

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 4 – The Politics of Terrorism and the Politics of Jesus

The Discussion:



Show Notes*

How should we respond to terrorist attacks in Paris?

Nearly 90% of people killed in American drone attacks were not targeted. American violence is terrorizing the Middle East, labeling all “unknown people it kills as ‘Enemies Killed in Action,’” but they are often civilians. (The Intercept: The Drone Papers: The Assassination Complex.)

Last Thursday, the United States killed “Jihadi John” in a drone strike, killing the man responsible for beheading Western journalists. (In the discussion, Adam mistakenly said he beheaded monks. That was a different ISIS group.) The Huffington Post wrote, “Britain said the death of the militant would strike at the heart of the Islamic State group.” Tragically, killing Jihadi John didn’t stop ISIS from striking back. The mimetic nature of violence reveals that violence is imitative and it escalates. Jesus gave the prophetic message that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We are experiencing the horrific pattern of escalating violence at work.

The logic of terrorism hopes to get a violent response in return for violence. That way terrorists can continue a narrative that they are actually the victims of Western aggression. In striking back, we give terrorists exactly what they want.

The Politics of Violence and the Politics of Jesus

Our violent political message isn’t working. Francois Hollande, President of France, said, “We are going to lead a war that will be pitiless.” He vowed to show “no mercy.” For Christians, this is in stark contrast to the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites us to living into. In the Beatitudes, Jesus claimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Just as violence is mimetic and will lead to a future of more violence, mercy is also mimetic. In other words, violence only ensures a future of violence. Mercy is our only possibility for a future of mercy and peace.

Negotiations alone won’t work. We also need reparations. So, what is a better solution to terrorism than responding with violence? Girardian Jean Michel-Oughourlian provides the answer in his book Psychopolitics,

Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace. (page 23)

*You may hear sounds in the background. That’s Lindsey’s toddler, which is also the reason for Lindsey’s side-glances.

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Nightmare In Paris: Exorcising Our Demons

When I was working with a Jungian analyst, we spent years interpreting my dreams. They were mostly nightmares in which I was pursued by threatening monsters, carrion birds, or mute zombies. I was sure they wanted to destroy me, and because I felt weak, unable to defend myself, I ran. With an enormous amount of reassurance, my analyst finally coaxed me into a new approach: when my demons pursue me, she urged me to stop running, to turn during my nightmare and bravely face the source of my terror. She convinced me that the reason the demons were chasing me was that I kept running away! If I stopped and listened to what they wanted so desperately to tell me, the nightmares would end.

What I discovered is that the monsters and zombies of my dreams represented various parts of my own psyche that desperately needed my conscious attention. When I was able to listen to their fears, tend to their wounds, and dry their tears, my nightmares faded away. Slowly, I was made whole by the very things that had terrified me.

Terrorized by Our Twin

The terror in Paris may be the latest nightmare of the Western world. The world we are conscious of is being pursued by monsters which, much like my personal demons, may represent parts of ourselves we have banished and exiled. I believe that we are engaged in what the late René Girard called a battle of enemy twins. As much as we want to believe in our complete and utter difference from one another, we are adversaries who believe alike in our chosenness, in our divine favor. And that identity is more crucial than any variation in our cultures, religious or secular. What we share in common is certainly more crucial than the differing reasons we give for justifying violence, reasons which amount to nothing at all at the graveside of a husband, a wife, a child.

What we run away from in fear is the truth of our uncomfortable sameness, which is our shared worship of an identical yet false god. The worship we share is of an idol who conveniently takes our side, who endorses our violence and condemns the violence of our enemy. Political leaders across the warring divide rally their people with the same rhetoric: we are engaged in a battle of good against evil; for the sake of peace we must prevail. The high priests of our secular and religious structures preach that god is on our side and blesses our sacrifice.

Discovering the God Who Pursues Us

There is, thanks be to God, another narrative inspired by the One whom we have expelled with as much vehemence as any zombie of our nightmares. It is a story of the God who longs to be heard, who pursues us with such energy that we can sometimes feel we are being pursued by monsters! But many across the warring divide have stopped running. They have turned to listen to what this divinity of love and peace wants us to hear. You know many of the Christians who preach, teach and witness to what they have heard: Brian Mclaren, James Alison, Ben Corey, Kathy Kelly, Michael Hardin, Richard Rohr, Karen Armstrong, Pope Francis, and René Girard. But because the West does such a poor job of listening to Muslim and Jewish voices for peace, you may not have heard of their names: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Safi Kaskas, Sheima Sumer, Shaiwat Satha-Anand, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Anat Hoffman, Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, and Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

As we learn from this amazing diversity of witnesses to listen to the God who pursues us we discover, to our deepest horror, that we are no different than our enemies. That the accusation of murderer, of inhuman torturer, of someone who has monstrous disregard for human life – those accusations land with surprising accuracy on our heads. Who would not run from such a nightmare?

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, the God of Jesus and Muhammad, begs us to see ourselves in the violence we condemn and fear in others. This God is pleading for us to stop running from him. Nightmares can end. We can sleep the sleep of the innocent, but not before confessing our guilt. “Rest in peace” is not something that is gained only in death, but is the very real promise of new life here and now. Let us join together to worship God who is relentless in love and mercy for us and for our enemies. We are all God’s children, the enemy twins whose return he awaits with open arms.

Image: Paris at Sunset by Moyan Bren. Available on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.