Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

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Jonah, Ishmael, And Moby Dick: Finding Mercy in Melville’s Maritime Masterpiece

Avast! There Be Spoilers Ahead!

Aboard The Pequod

“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Herman Melville’s maritime masterpiece. So too began my journey aboard the Pequod as I set sail from the harbor of the Lookingglass Theater this past Sunday, swept away in their matinee performance of Moby Dick. The whole of the theater enveloped the audience in the eerie depths of the haunting tale, taking us into the bowels of the ship or the whale himself; it was impossible to distinguish which. The formidable sea came to life, and the brilliant cast lured the audience like a siren into the seafaring adventure. It was a faithful rendering of Melville’s classic, interpreted not only through masterful acting but also through fluid acrobatics conveying the motions of sailors on – and under – the sea. The play sails for another month before docking for good, and for those in the Chicago area, I highly recommend climbing aboard!

After the curtain call, I continued to plumb the transcendent depths of this nautical literary treasure as a panelist for the Reflect post-show discussion on religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. The fathoms of meaning beneath the myriad symbols of Biblical allusion are as deep as the ocean itself, and I can but faintly skim the surface in this article. However, I would here like to touch on themes of the human understanding of God, vengeance, and mercy by contrasting two Biblical outcasts alluded to in the novel and play: Jonah and Ishmael.

Jonah and Vengeance

 “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator extolls, implying that he has chosen such a name for himself. Ishmael calls to mind the outcast son of Abraham alone in the desert, and from the beginning our narrator expresses the loneliness of one with nothing to cling to and the freedom of one with nothing to lose. One might ask why he has chosen this Biblical outcast as his identity when a more obvious choice, for a seafarer, might be Jonah, who is cast out onto the open sea. Indeed, Biblical Jonah features prominently at the beginning of the story, but a look at his story in scripture reveals that there is another sailor aboard the Pequod who more closely identifies with this nautical prophet than does our narrator.

Before Ishmael sets sail, he ducks into the sailor’s chapel on Nantucket Island and hears Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah. In the sermon, God is depicted as a harsh taskmaster demanding obedience and chasing a foolish, sinful Jonah – who tried to escape his commandments and his wrath – to the ends of the earth! As Fr. Mapple says in his sermon:

But what is the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God – Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade.

So Fr. Mapple goes on to chastise fleeing, cowardly Jonah, upbraiding him as a miserable man “contemptible and worthy of all scorn.” In the process, he implies that God is vengeful, demanding the sacrifice of Jonah’s life for his disobedience and sending a storm to drown him and all who would come to his aid. Those aboard with Jonah only escape death when Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a great monster of the deep. Only when Jonah prays from within the belly of the whale does God’s heart soften, because, Fr. Mapple tells us, Jonah prays not for his life to be spared, but for his soul. “He feels that his dreadful punishment is just.”

I must take exception to many of Fr. Mapple’s implications in this sermon, starting with the notion that it does not matter what commandment God gave to Jonah, but only that Jonah disobeyed. It makes all the difference in the world that God called upon Jonah to deliver a word of warning to the people of Nineveh, and that Jonah fled not on account of God’s vengeance, but on account of his own. Even being delivered from the belly of the whale and experiencing salvation from his own doom could not soften Jonah’s heart toward his enemies, the Ninevites whom he despised. When they repent and are spared, Jonah cries out to God in rage:

O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4: 2-3)

The story of Jonah shows a transition in the understanding of God by the Hebrew people who told the story. On the one hand, God relentlessly pursues Jonah, and it is implied that God will destroy Nineveh – and Jonah too – if they do not repent. Yet a reading through the lens of mimetic theory shows that Nineveh was in a mimetic crisis, a crisis in which the people, lashing out to prove themselves over and against one another, were blending together in a frenzy of violence. While traditionally a crisis of violence is resolved by a sacrifice, in which the mutual hatred of the populace converges on an unfortunate and innocent scapegoat, this story is different. Jonah has already been sacrificed, cast out, and he comes to Nineveh with an exhortation of repentance, counseling of God’s mercy. Receiving the message, the Ninevites turn from their violence and the crisis is resolved without bloodshed. Although the scripture says that God “changes his mind” and does not visit wrath upon Nineveh, it is clear that Nineveh was on the brink of self-destruction without God’s wrath. Taking the trajectory begun in Jonah further, one can surmise that God never intended wrath toward the city, and sent Jonah to preach a message of repentance not so that God could forgive (for God’s forgiveness is free and unconditional), but so that the people could receive a change of heart and not destroy themselves.

The one who is cast out into the utter doom comes with a message of mercy. Could this be the “sign of Jonah” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 12 and Luke 11?

Fr. Mapple appears to miss this trajectory and overlook God’s mercy in his focus on God’s power and wrath. And this focus on God’s outrageous might and unquenchable fury — an understanding of God that is turned upside-down by the Gospels – still tends to dominate the minds of many people today, and appears to be the dominant view of God at the time of our tale. This dominant theology plays a subliminal role, I believe, in the psyches of our characters. Believing in a vengeful God can reinforce an engrained human propensity toward vengeance.

But even belief in a merciful God does not necessarily incline one toward mercy, especially if one is hellbent on running from that mercy to sustain one’s own merciless desires. Such was the case with Jonah, who fled not for the sake of God’s wrath, but for his own.

Who aboard the Pequod most resembled Jonah? Captain Ahab himself! Unrelenting, unrepenting Ahab, following his relentless bitter fury to the ends of the earth. In pursuit of the monstrous white whale Moby Dick, who devoured his leg and his pride upon his last voyage, Captain Ahab is ready to sacrifice not only himself, but all he holds dear. All traces of mercy, all tenderness and affection, Love itself, must be forsaken to his madness and rage. Like Jonah, Ahab fled from Love into the jaws of death, though unlike Jonah he was never delivered out. The white whale consumed Ahab long before the fatal battle that swallowed up his crew.

Ishmael and Mercy

Our narrator, by contrast, experiences the mercy of God in the most unexpected manner. The name Ishmael is apt, for Ishmael means “God hears.” God indeed hears Ishmael in his loneliness, and I would venture to suggest that Ishmael’s “salvation,” his deliverance from the dejection he apparently feels when he describes the restless state of mind that drove him to the sea, begins before he even climbs aboard the ship. God mercy comes to Ishmael in a form many might miss, yet Ishmael, attuned to God’s compassion, receives it as a blessing, even if unconsciously. For I believe that the mercy of God is made manifest to Ishmael in the person of his pagan friend, Queequeg.

Queequeg is described as a cannibal, one with whom Ishmael would probably not choose to associate but for a circumstance that brought them together in a most intimate manner just before they set sail together aboard the Pequod. Unable to find an empty room at any inn near the Nantucket harbor from which he would depart, Ishmael must share a room and bed with this strange stranger from a remote (fictional) island in the South Pacific sea. Dark skinned, tattooed, unbaptized and “savage,” Queequeg first frightens Ishmael, but soon proves not only innocuous, but kindhearted and eager for Ishmael’s friendship. (Their relationship, taken from the book but enhanced by the play, is one of the most delightful aspects of the performance.)

In a passage of the novel that will scandalize some but endear others, Ishmael explains how, to honor the will of God, he joined Queequeg in prayer to an idol, rationalizing thusly:

But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.

Many in Melville’s time and today might balk at Ishmael’s logic and accuse him of blasphemy for taking the Golden Rule too far. (Oh, the irony!) Yet through the lens of mimetic theory, it is clear that the idolatry most blasphemous to God is the worship of violence, the nurturing of enmity, the judgment of one human being over and against another. Ishmael’s intuitive recognition of God’s mercy helped him to discard the prejudices that had seeped into him through his culture and extend humility and grace to Queequeg, who mirrored it back to him. The mimetic logic of the Golden Rule is that, as we imitate one-another’s kindness, we reorient ourselves toward the all-embracing love of God and better magnify God’s image. So in humbling himself, though he knelt before a wooden idol, Ishmael offers true worship to God, cultivating a friendship with a fellow image-bearer of the Divine.

Ishmael recognizes Queequeg as a fellow bearer of God’s image, though many of his time, and even now, would not. I would even go so far as to say that if any character could be interpreted as a Christ figure, it would be Queequeg, salvation in an unlikely package, subverting all expectations of where God is to be found!

Queequeg even proves to be Ishmael’s salvation in a far more literal way. At one point in the novel, Queequeg falls ill, and, believing himself to be dying, has a coffin fashioned. He goes so far as to lie down in the coffin, but, recognizing he is needed, arises and shakes off his fever. In the end, it is Queequeg’s coffin, floating as a life buoy, to which Ishmael clings to escape from drowning! One might then say that Queequeg’s death (and the death of so many others) was a sacrifice that ultimately allowed Ishmael to live, since the life-vessel to which he clung was only big enough for one. And yet, like Jesus, it was not so much the death as the empty coffin itself that saved! Queequeg climbed out of his coffin, and the empty tomb became the saving grace of Ishmael! He lived not because Queequeg died, but because he lived, and their friendship saved him first from depression and then from death!

Conclusion

It would be easy to look at Moby Dick and see the wrath and abandonment of God. Yet as in the story of Jonah, the fury and vengeance of Moby Dick is human in origin, residing in Captain Ahab, “an ungodly, god-like man.” God-like was Ahab in terms of our perception of God – vengeful and formidable. Yet God subverts our expectations of vengeance with mercy, mercy personified in the most unlikely of persons, where those who have an exclusive, harsh perception of God would never think to look. Such it is with Jesus; such it is too with Queequeg. God comes to the cast out in the form of an outcast.

Jonah, sailing the seas to nurse his vengeance, is embodied by Ahab. Our narrator, the outcast who found mercy, is aptly called Ishmael. Jonah is the outcast who refuses to hear God; Ishmael is the outcast whom God hears.

Yet, one might ask, where is the mercy for the crew of the Pequod who fall pray to the heartless sea? It is a worthy question, and there may not be a satisfying answer. But as God’s love is stronger than death, I wish to conclude with the words of the Psalmist:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)

Image: Queequeg, from the playbill for the Lookingglass Theater production of Moby Dick.

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Taking Down The Flag

The flag in front of Home Depot was at half-mast and I felt myself wondering why in an awkward, despairing way.

The nation and the news cycle were still thrashing in the wake of the Chattanooga killings and I figured, oh, it’s for the soldiers — but all that realization did was intensity the troubled feelings the spectacle had aroused. This is America, where you can shop and mourn . . . but it wasn’t just that.

I suddenly thought about Sandra Bland’s apparent suicide in a Texas jail cell and, from there, I thought about a year’s worth of video footage of racism-scarred arrests and violence and, beyond that, the brutal stupidity of the wars we wage and two dozen or more vet suicides every day — this was all in the space about 20 seconds, while I was parking my car — and by the time I reached the entrance of the big box, I found myself asking: Why should the flag ever NOT be at half-mast?

And that was just the beginning. The flag, the flag . . .

Maybe it’s part of the problem.

Reflecting on the recent controversy that erupted in South Carolina over the flying of the Confederate flag in front of the state capitol, following white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of nine people there, GeorgePayne, writing at the website The Deconstructed Globe, asked:

“But why not take down the United States flag as well? After all, the two atomic bombs that eviscerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not dropped in the name of the Confederate flag. Nor were the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Afghanistan and Iraq fought to preserve the national security of the ‘Stars and Bars.’”

Could it be that we’re forcing schoolchildren to pledge their allegiance to a divisive — poisonous — symbol? Could it be that honoring it, waving it, saluting it holds together an allegiance to moral superiority and unending global conflict?

Lee Drutman, writing some years ago about the psychology behind the American flag, discussed several studies which concluded that viewing the flag primarily invoked in participants feelings of nationalism — aggressive national superiority — rather than an inclusive patriotism.

The flag “makes people think that some people and some countries are better than others, a mode of thinking,” he wrote, quoting one of the studies, “that makes people ‘feel more entitled to express prejudice.’”

Thinking about lowering such a flag to half-staff to honor someone who has died makes all this even more troubling. It takes the focus away from the honoree and places mourning and grief in a context of aggression and the common enemy. This is war. And for a nation at war, step one everlasting is the dehumanization of the enemy of the moment.

“Our thoughts and prayers as a Nation are with the service members killed last week in Chattanooga.”

So begins President Obama’s recent proclamation mandating that American flags be lowered for four days.

“We honor their service. We offer our gratitude to the police officers and first responders who stopped the rampage and saved lives. We draw strength from yet another American community that has come together with an unmistakable message to those who would try and do us harm: We do not give in to fear. You cannot divide us. . . .”

It goes on, but what I feel is that these words already begin to divide us. Indeed, they slice an “us” out of all humanity and reduce mourning to rage. And this mixture of mourning and rage is a toxic, addictive brew, keeping a nation ever-prepared for war. Nations are born of war. Certainly this nation is.

“When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians,” historian Howard Zinn wrote for the Progressive some years ago. “The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. . . .

“When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: ‘It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.’”

And speaking of the birth of a nation, consider that this year marks the 100th anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s silent movie classic, The Birth of a Nation, once an icon of Americana. It tells the story of how the Ku Klux Klan saved the South from the predatory ambitions of emancipated slaves.

“The critics were raving,” author Dick Lehr told NPR in an interview earlier this year. “People were on their feet cheering at the climax of the film, when the Klan is seen as a healing force — restoring order to the chaos of the South during Reconstruction.”

This movie wasn’t merely a fabulous recruiting tool for the KKK, which underwent a huge membership surge after the movie came out; it was an emblem of national greatness, revered by mainstream white America which, for at least 50 years after the movie’s release — and certainly throughout my childhood and youth — remained clueless about the toxicity of the movie’s racism. Its central place in American culture, its cohesive power, rivaled that of the flag itself.

Over the course of American history, the flag has been far, far too tolerant of genocide, slavery and war. It has defined a nation by its hatreds and waves proudly over the military-industrial complex. Let’s lower it slowly and look to a different future.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

 

Image Credit: Photo by Kahunapule Michael Johnson via Flickr. Creative Commons License 

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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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Why I’m Glad Sally Jenkins Wasn’t President In 1865

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie concludes his study of the history of the Confederate battle flag by pointing out that neither the North nor the South could claim moral high ground in the Civil War. History is far more complex than the self-justifying myths we create to help us understand and live with our past… and our present. 

 

Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here,here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image: Photograph of Lincoln less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Frozen

Love Will Thaw A Frozen Heart

Disney’s Frozen is unlike other “princess” movie in that it is not as much a tale about courtship, but of sisterly love. Sure, intertwined within the main plot is a somewhat predictable triangle of romance, but the primary theme is not like most enchanted fairy tales. There is much more going on here.

The story begins by introducing two young sisters. Elsa, the eldest, possesses the power to create magical ice. This magic has the potential to create many beautiful shared memories with her younger sister, Anna. However, it also has the potential to do great harm. The girls discover this one fateful evening.

After Anna is struck in the head by Elsa’s ice, the royal parents rush the girls off to a magical troll—a shaman of sorts. The elder gives the family the advice that Elsa must A) Control her powers as they will certainly grow and B) Fear will be her biggest enemy. So what do Elsa’s parents do? They instill paralyzing fear in her, hiding her from everything she once loved, including Anna. Talk about an adventure in missing the point.

Tragedy strikes the girls when their parents are lost at sea. The two sisters are left with only each other, which is a relationship that has become merely a shell of its former self. Elsa’s powers have indeed grown, but fear, loss, and heartache are the driving force. Inevitably, everything will come to a head during Elsa’s coronation.

As the masses gather for the coronation of the new queen, we are introduced to an underlying theme that will remain throughout the film. Arendelle, the locale where the story takes place, is a quaint and bustling town. There seems to be no blight, no poverty (a la Aladdin’s Agrabah), and no crime. Because of this however, there seems to be a growing interest from the Duke of Weselton, who appears to be an oligarchist.[1] The stage will soon be set: either Arendelle will continue in her peaceful and prosperous ways or her riches will be exploited by the powerful elite who desire such things. Either Arendelle will resemble the kingdom of God or yet another kingdom of man—New Jerusalem or Babylon.

During this time, Anna, who has been desperate for relationship for years, falls in “love” the moment she meets a handsome and charming prince named Hans. This news becomes too much to bear for Elsa, who, because of her deep-rooted fear, could barely make it through her own coronation. This sets off a chain of events that will forever change the sisters and the kingdom. Years of pain, suffering, and torment explode from Elsa the minute Anna demands an explanation as to why she and Hans cannot marry. A fury of ice covers the great dance hall and in an instant, Elsa is seen not as a beautiful queen, but as a monster—a sorceress. In a very real way, she resembles the many scapegoats throughout history—those whom society fears, but knows not quite why. Surely, she must flee for her life. (Luke 4:30)

Nearly every American parent knows what happens when Queen Elsa ascends to the top of the North Mountain. (I don’t need to point to how many plays “Let it Go” has on YouTube.) There are two themes this epically famous song has. First, Elsa recognizes that she is being scapegoated by the community when she sings the lyric, “A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen.” Yes, she is the queen of Arendelle. But this is a play on words—she is the queen of a kingdom of isolation—a kingdom of one. She is the one the “all” are against. Second, when she sings the lyric, “be the good girl you always have to be”, she is displaying the impossibility of living under the system she was placed, which was a rigid system of rules and regulations forced upon her by her parents. She was forced to withdraw from all loving relationships, and it drove her to the most extreme fringes of society. The end-game of this unfortunate lifestyle was her lonely climb up the mountain.

When Anna goes after her sister Elsa, she puts her own life on the line. That is what true love does; or as Olaf, a magical snowman from Elsa and Anna’s youth, will later say: “love is putting the needs of others before yourself.” Anna models just what one will go through to find that which was once lost.[2] Neither wolves nor near hypothermia was going to stop her from finding Elsa. When she and new friends, Kristoff and Olaf, reach Elsa’s new ice castle, they are not met with the kindness Anna had hoped. Elsa’s magic—manifested again as fear—strikes Anna’s heart and again, any relationship with Elsa seems hopeless. The three friends are evicted from the “kingdom of isolation” by an enchanted snow monster and forced back down the mountain. Because of Anna’s icy injury, Kristoff rushes her to his “family,” which happens to be the very same troll from Anna’s youth.

The wise old troll who once cured Anna teaches that because fear, Elsa’s great enemy, was what caused Elsa to strike Anna, only love then can reverse the effects to Anna’s heart. Anna knows what she must do: find Hans for a “true love’s kiss.” The friends rush back to Arendelle and Anna finds herself in the arms of Hans just in time. However, Hans had other plans all along. Like many before him, he had been seduced by power. His goal was to lord over the wealthy kingdom of Arendelle and saw Anna as his way to the crown. He betrays Anna and leaves her to freeze to death, charging her sister Elsa—who had been captured while Anna was with the trolls—with her murder in the process.

In the final dramatic scene of the movie, all major characters are present. While Kristoff rushes back to Arendelle after realizing how much he loves Anna, both Elsa and Anna escape their respective captivity. Hans, however, is there to meet Elsa to in hopes that he can deliver a fatal blow. In the midst of the ever-growing blizzard, Anna, who is nearly dead at this point, has one final choice to make. Kristoff, her true love, is within her grasp, but so too is Hans and his deadly blade. Anna, in an act of self-sacrificial love, offers her life for Elsa’s and jumps in front of Hans. In doing so, she finally freezes solid, deflecting Hans’ sword. When Anna does this, time seems to nearly stand still as she takes what appears to be her final breath.

Just when Anna seems lost, she begins to thaw and life begins flowing through her again. In her act of true love, all fear is cast out. (1 John 4:18) For years, Elsa lived in perpetual fear, but in one act of righteousness (Romans 5:18), all fear dissolves. Or, as Olaf would put it: “true love will thaw a frozen heart.” When Elsa’s revelation takes hold; the blizzard that engulfed the kingdom lifts and life returns. The two great evils, Hans and the Duke of Weselton, are banished from the city. Instead of falling into the hands of those who would see her resemble Babylon, Arendelle falls back into the care of the two sisters who would have her resemble New Jerusalem. The love Anna showed her sister Elsa was the greatest gift one could possibly give; or, as Jesus would say: “Greater love hath no woman than this, that a woman lay down her life for her friends.” Amen to that.

[1] Oligarchy: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.

[2] The Greek verb apollumi translates to “to destroy or perish” and is the verb used to describe the prodigal son who perished but was found (Luke 15:11–32) and the lost sheep who perished but then was found (15:1–7).

Image Credit: Available through Jorge Figueroa on Flickr via Creative Commons License.

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Pushing Up

[Two weekends ago], about 100 U.S. Veterans for Peace gathered in Red Wing, Minnesota, for a statewide annual meeting. In my experience, Veterans for Peace chapters hold “no-nonsense” events. Whether coming together for local, statewide, regional or national work, the Veterans project a strong sense of purpose. They want to dismantle war economies and work to end all wars. The Minnesotans, many of them old friends, convened in the spacious loft of a rural barn. After organizers extended friendly welcomes, participants settled in to tackle this year’s theme: “The War on Our Climate.”

They invited Dr. James Hansen, an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to speak via Skype about minimizing the impacts of climate change. Sometimes called the “father of global warming,” Dr. Hansen has sounded alarms for several decades with accurate predictions about the effects of fossil fuel emissions. He now campaigns for an economically efficient phase out of fossil fuel emissions by imposing carbon fees on emission sources with dividends equitably returned to the public.

Dr. Hansen envisions the creation of serious market incentives for entrepreneurs to develop energy and products that are low-carbon and no-carbon. “Those who achieve the greatest reductions in carbon use would reap the greatest profit. Projections show that such an approach could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by more than half within 20 years — and create 3 million new jobs in the process.”

Steadily calling on adults to care about young people and future generations, Dr. Hansen chides proponents of what he terms “the fruitless cap-and-trade-with-offsets approach.” This method fails to make fossil fuels pay their costs to society, “thus allowing fossil fuel addiction to continue and encouraging ‘drill, baby, drill’ policies to extract every fossil fuel that can be found.”

Making fossil fuels “pay their full costs” would mean imposing fees to cover costs that polluters impose on communities through burning of coal, oil and gas. When local populations are sickened and killed by air pollution, and starved by droughts or battered or drowned by climate-change-driven storms, costs accrue for governments that businesses should repay.

What are the true costs to society of fossil fuels?   According to a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) study, fossil fuel companies are benefiting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, $10 million per minute, every minute, each and every day.

The Guardian reports that the $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

Dr. Hansen began his presentation by noting that, historically, energy figured importantly in avoiding slave labor. He believes some energy from nuclear power is now necessary for countries such as China and India to lift masses of their populations out of poverty. Many critics strenuously object to Dr. Hansen’s call for reliance on nuclear power, citing dangers of radiation, accidents, and problems with storage of nuclear waste, particularly when the radioactive waste is stored in communities where people have little control or influence over elites that decide where to ship the nuclear waste.

Other critics argue that “nuclear power is simply too risky, and more practically speaking, too costly to be considered a significant part of the post-carbon energy portfolio.”

Journalist and activist George Monbiot, author of a book-length climate change proposal, Heat, notes that nuclear power tends to endanger “haves” and “have-nots” equally. Coal power’s deadliest immediate effects, with historic casualties clearly outpacing those of nuclear, are linked to mining and industrial areas populated by people more likely to be economically disadvantaged or impoverished.

Climate-driven societal collapse may be all the more deadly and final with grid-dependent nuclear plants ready to melt down in lockstep with our economies. But it’s crucial to remember that our direst weapons – many of them also nuclear – are stockpiled precisely to help elites manage the sort of political unrest into which poverty and desperation drive societies. Climate change, if we cannot slow it, does not merely promise poverty and despair on an unprecedented scale, but also war – on a scale, and with weapons, that may be far worse than dangers resulting from our energy choices. Earth’s military crisis, its climate crisis, and the paralyzing economic inequalities that burden impoverished people are linked.

Dr. Hansen thinks that the Chinese government and Chinese scientists might marshal the resources to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear powered energy. He notes that China faces the dire possibility of losing coastal cities to global warming and accelerated disintegration of ice sheets.

The greatest barriers to solution of fossil fuel addiction in most nations are the influence of the fossil fuel industry on politicians and the media and the short-term view of politicians. Thus it is possible that leadership moving the world to sustainable energy policies may arise in China, where the leaders are rich in technical and scientific training and rule a nation that has a history of taking the long view. Although China’s CO emissions have skyrocketed above those of other nations, China has reasons to move off the fossil fuel track as rapidly as practical. China has several hundred million people living within a 25-meter elevation of sea level, and the country stands to suffer grievously from intensification of droughts, floods, and storms that will accompany continued global warming. China also recognizes the merits of avoiding a fossil fuel addiction comparable to that of the United States. Thus China has already become the global leader in development of energy efficiency, renewable energies, and nuclear power.

What’s missing from this picture? The Veterans for Peace earnestly believe in ending all wars. Deepening nonviolent resistance to war could radically amend the impact of world militaries, especially the colossal U.S. military, on global climate. In order to protect access to and global control of fossil fuels, the U.S. military burns rivers of oil, wasting the hopes of future generations in the name of killing and maiming the people of regions the U.S. has plunged into destabilizing wars of choice, ending in chaos.

Corruption of the global environment and compulsively frantic destruction of irreplaceable resources is an equally sure, if more delayed, manner of imposing chaos and death on a mass scale.   The misdirection of economic resources, of preciously needed human productive energy, is yet another. Researchers at Oil Change International find that “3 trillion of the dollars spent on war against Iraq would cover all global investments in renewable power generation needed between now and 2030 to reverse global warming.”

John Lawrence writes that “the United States contributes more than 30% of global warming gases to the atmosphere, generated by 5% of the world’s population. At the same time funding for education, energy, environment, social services, housing and new job creation, taken together, is less than the military budget.” I believe that “low carbon” and “no carbon” energy and energy efficiency should be paid for by abolishing war. Lawrence is right to insist that the U.S. should view problems and conflicts created by climate change as “opportunities to work together with other nations to mitigate and adapt to its effects.” But the madness of conquest must end before any such coordinated work will be possible.

Sadly, tragically, many U.S. veterans fully understand the cost of war. I asked a U.S. Veteran for Peace living in Mankato, MN, about the well being of local Iraq War Veterans. He told me that in April, U.S. veteran student leaders at Minnesota State’s Mankato Campus, spent 22 days gathering daily, rain or shine, to perform 22 push-ups in recognition of the 22 combat veterans a day – nearly one an hour – currently committing suicide in the U.S. They invited the Mankato-area community to come to campus and do pushups along with them.

This is an historic time, posing a perfect storm of challenges to the survival of our species, a storm we can’t weather without “all hands on deck.” Whoever arrives to work beside us, and however quickly they arrive, we have heavy burdens to share with many others already lifting as much as they can, some taking theirs up by choice, some burdened beyond endurance by greedy masters. The Veterans for Peace work to save the ship rather than wait for it to sink.

Many of us have not endured the horrors that drive 22 veterans a day, and countless poor in world regions that U.S. empire has touched, to the final act of despair. I would like to think we can lift hopes and perhaps bring comfort to those around us by radically sharing resources, eschewing dominance, and learning to join courageous others in the work at hand.

 

This article was first published on Telesur English.

 

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

 

 

Sandra Bland being arrested (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

My White Dad and Sandra Bland: On “Assaulting” a Police Officer

“I fixed the problem with your car,” the mechanic told my dad. “You can pick it up now.”

It was the mid-1990s. I was a junior in high school. My dad and I drove to the auto shop to pick up my new car. Well, it wasn’t new per se. It was used, very used, but it was new to me.

Needless to say, I was very excited. And my dad was excited for me. I remember him being very proud of me. He has always been a proud, patient, and joyful father. I can only remember him getting angry twice during my childhood. Once at my brother. And once at a police officer.

He had to make a left hand turn across traffic to enter the auto-body shop. There was a median in the road, marked by solid double yellow lines. My dad crossed the lines, entered the median, and when it was safe, he turned into the parking lot so that I could drive home my new car.

That’s when we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights.

The police officer followed us into the parking lot. My dad stopped and the police officer knocked on his window.

“Sir,” the officer began. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“I have no idea,” Dad replied as he shook his head with frustration.

“You crossed the double yellow lines. I’m going to have to give you a ticket.”

“For crossing a double yellow line?!?” My dad asked incredulously.

“Yes sir. It’s against the law,” the officer responded as he walked back to his car. After a few minutes, he returned with the ticket. “Here you go sir. You have a month to pay the fee or contest in court.”

By now my dad had turned into a different person. He was filled with anger like I’ve rarely seen. “This is ridiculous,” he complained. “People make that turn all the time. I can’t believe you gave me a ticket for that!”

“Sorry sir,” the officer impassively replied. Then he simply walked away.

I’ve learned two things since that day. First, I’ve learned that any encounter with a police officer doesn’t define who a person is. My dad thought the police officer was abusing his power, and my dad responded with uncharacteristic, but understandable, anger.

Second, I’ve learned to be grateful that my dad isn’t black. Because if my white father had been born black, the officer may not have simply walked away. Things might have escalated very quickly into a yelling match and my dad might have been arrested for “assaulting” a police officer or for “resisting arrest.” And it would have been my dad’s fault.

For example, take a look at the 52 minute video in the Sandra Bland case. Sandra was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. For the first few minutes of the encounter, Sandra was just like my dad – irritated but compliant. She answered every question the officer asked. Then the officer asked her to put out her cigarette.

“Do you mind putting out your cigarette, please?”

Sandra responded with a natural question, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

The officer didn’t answer Sandra’s question. Instead, he demanded that she step out of the car. “You can step on out now.” Then he threatened her with a taser.

Why? A police officer can demand that someone exit a vehicle when the officer thinks there is a threat. You know, a lit cigarette can be used as a dangerous weapon.

Sandra was subsequently arrested and died in her jail cell.

How could this happen? Ask many white people and they will tell you it was Sandra’s fault. According to CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houk, Sandra was the problem. “The whole thing here is that she was arrogant from the beginning. Very dismissive of the officer. She was uncooperative.”

Once again we find white people blaming a black victim of violence. She’s to blame because she was “irritated.” She’s to blame because she refused to put out her cigarette. She’s to blame because she’s black.

A white response that blames Sandra Bland is a racist response. White people can get away with being irritated at police. We don’t have to be kind to officers. We can express our anger and not fear arrest.

A black person though? If a black person shows any anger, they will likely be arrested or possibly killed. And it will be construed as their fault.

White Americans can no longer live in denial of the racism that infects us. Yes, racism infects police culture, but white America cannot simply blame police culture. Racist attitudes and structures are everywhere – from politics to education to mass incarceration to economics to housing.

Racism is a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating in America. Robert Hammerton-Kelly states in his book The Gospel and the Sacred that, “Scapegoating … is the psychosocial propensity to relieve frustration by lashing out at someone defenseless, or to avoid responsibility by blaming someone…”

The police officer was clearly frustrated that Sandra didn’t bow down to his demands and so he relieved his frustration by lashing out at a defenseless Sandra Bland, who’s only “weapon” was a lit cigarette. Since smoking a cigarette in a car isn’t illegal, Sandra had every right to ask why the officer requested that she put it out. Asking the question isn’t resisting arrest, nor is it a threat to the police officer’s safety.

But no matter. Case after case after case shows that an officer can make up any excuse to accuse a black person of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer and treat them with brutal force. The point is that Sandra’s arrest and subsequent death never should have happened. And those events never would have happened if Sandra was white. That’s because to be black in America is to be America’s national scapegoat. From the very beginning, white America has relieved our collective frustration by uniting against black people, lashing out at them with impunity because the power structures lean heavily in our favor.

White denial of this fact only leads us to avoid taking personal responsibility for the racism that infects each of us. Blaming black victims of police violence is indicative of our denial that we are racists. “It’s her fault,” we say. “She was arrogant.” Well, my dad was “arrogant,” too. He was “irritated.” But he’s still alive. Despite his arrogance and anger, his encounter with the police didn’t escalate into imprisonment or death. That’s because he was born with the privilege of being white in America.

It’s time for white people to stop our personal and collective denial of racism. It’s time for us to recognize that racism and white privilege have infected our country since the beginning of its history. That recognition is the first of many steps we must make to help dismantle the racism that continues to infect America.

Photo: Sandra Bland being arrested (Screenshot from YouTube)

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Holman-Hunt-Scapegoat-(Manchester)

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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Armed Insecurity

“. . . no real security, just powers of retaliation.”

This was Norman Mailer, four-plus decades ago, writing in Miami and the Siege of Chicago about the obsessive security measures – “helicopters riding overhead like roller coasters, state troopers with magnums on their hip and crash helmets, squad cars, motorcycles” – at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which . . . uh, didn’t actually provide security, but sure allowed us to get even afterwards.

This is still the unnoticed insanity haunting the American news cycle, whether the story being reported is domestic or international. As a society, we’re armed and dangerous – and always at war, both collectively and individually. We’re endlessly declaring bad guys (officially and unofficially) and endlessly protecting ourselves from them, in the process guaranteeing that the violence continues. And the parallels between “them” and “us” are unnerving.

Mohammad Abdulazeez opened fire at a naval reserve training facility in Chattanooga and killed five people. He was suffering from depression and possibly radicalized by ISIS. Fox News headlined the story: “Tennessee gunman was armed to the teeth and ready for war with America.” The story pointed out that he was a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait.

A few days later, a gun shop owner in Florida posted a video on YouTube declaring, with the Confederate flag in the background as he spoke – summoning the spirit of Dylann Roof’s murder last month of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C. – that his store, Florida Gun Supply in Inverness, was now a “Muslim-free zone.”

“I will not arm and train those who wish to harm my fellow patriots,” he said, paradoxically espousing a weird, racist form of gun control.

He also said: “We are in battle, patriots, but not only with Islamic extremism. We’re also in battle against extreme political correctness that threatens our lives because if we can’t call evil ‘evil’ for fear of offending people, then we can’t really defeat our enemies.”

Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, spoke of the shootings with less clarity about the nature of the enemy: “While we expect our sailors and Marines to go into harm’s way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable.”

Yet a few days later at least 10 Afghan soldiers – American allies – died “at home, in their community” when the checkpoint they were manning in eastern Afghanistan was taken out in a U.S. helicopter strike, which the Afghan regional commander described as “a very big mistake.” He pointed out to the Washington Post that the strikers should have known they weren’t attacking the enemy because it happened in daylight and “the Afghanistan flag was waving on our post, when we came under attack.”

Well, you know, collateral damage and all. These things happen. But somehow the deaths of these soldiers didn’t cause the same stir the Chattanooga killings did, though the victims’ lives were equally precious and were cut short in an attack that probably seemed, to them, equally unfathomable.

But, whereas the Chattanooga shootings were a “horrific attack,” the friendly fire killings were an “incident” – just like all the other bomb and missile killings, accidental, intentional or whatever, of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade and a half. The Wall Street Journal added that the incident “threatens to strain relations” between the U.S. and its allies in the war that has no prospect of ending, but added that “the airstrike is under investigation,” which is the epitaph of choice for news stories about to be buried for eternity.

All of which leads me back to the Norman Mailer quote, that we have no real security, just a massive power to retaliate. This is the nature of armed self-defense. In order to feel like they have some control over an unfathomably complex world, many, many people – inspired by the governments they either revere or despise – categorize large swaths of the human race as bad guys, who therefore need not be regarded, or treated, as fully human.

As I wrote several years ago, speaking of the “moral injury” that so many vets bring home from their war service: “Killing is not a simple matter. It’s not a joke. The argument can be made that on occasion it’s necessary, but military killing is not about self-defense. Soldiers are trained to kill on command, and this is done not simply through physical preparedness exercises but through dehumanization of the enemy: a cult of dehumanization, you might say. Turns out we can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves.”

And the more that people lose touch with their own humanity, the more, I fear, they will feel the need to be armed – desperately imagining it’s the same thing as being secure. And the news cycle will continue, endlessly bringing us more of the same.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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