women in draft

Not Our Daughters Or Sons: True Equality Would Abolish Selective Service Registration And War

Yesterday’s approval in the House of Representatives of a bill requiring women ages 18-26 to register for the selective service is forcing a much-needed conversation on gender equality in matters of war and combat.

Our daughters as well as sons have an equal right and responsibility to serve our nation and our world. And now they have an equal opportunity to – potentially – be called out of their lives for the sake of unlearning all we try to teach them about respecting the dignity and humanity of others. They have the chance to be shipped far away to render parents childless and orphan children. With our sons, they will share the prospect of being wounded in mind, body and soul. They will be able to serve – in the form of wreaking devastation and desperation and bringing an already delicate planet closer to the brink of destruction – until they come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and contemplate or succeed in taking their own lives, if they come home at all.

This is not the kind of equality I dreamed for my daughters.

And I admit, it would have been on my radar a lot sooner if I had sons.

I’ve long felt an urgency to end war. Besides being immoral, unconscionable, and deadly, it is also wrecking our world. Our military has the world’s largest carbon footprint, and its damage is compounded by the fact that, in destroying land, lives, and dignity, it also eliminates the trust and good will necessary for all people to come together and save this sinking ship that is our planet. As much as I know this, as much as I center my vocation on this knowledge, it is still hard for me to imagine myself or my family being an immediate victim of climate change or a terrorist attack on US soil… although our war-making abroad makes both of those scenarios a more likely possibility than they would otherwise be. But the urgency has become intensely personal with the specter of the draft looming over my daughters. It was never acceptable for that specter to loom over anyone’s son, either. And as we begin to hold conversations about what it means not only to allow but to potentially force women into combat, we also need to talk about what it means for men.  This legislation brings attention to the need for our nation as a whole to consider what it means to require preparation for war as if war is a necessity, instead of a crime, a burden, and the ultimate evil.

Many women are echoing the sentiment of Rep. Jackie Speier, who lauds this legislation as a crucial step toward equality, arguing, “I actually think that if we want equality in this country, if we want women to be treated precisely like men are treated and that they should not be discriminated against, we should be willing to support a universal conscription.” Yet equality – not only among the genders, but among all distinctions of people, is radically diminished by violence and war. Sending more people into war – women or men — simply undermines the humanity of more people, reduces the compassion of more people, and diverts more resources from food, education, housing, medicine, and aiding the poor, into the pockets of profiteers.

There is a direct connection between violence against those labeled enemy others and violence against one’s own friends and family. How could it be otherwise, when people are trained to hate and be hated, when they are broken down in basic training to make it easier to kill and risk being killed? As David Swanson writes in War Is A Lie, “This is why drill sergeants are pseudo-evil toward trainees. They are inoculating them, conditioning them to face, handle, and believe they can survive the wind of hate.” That wind of hate batters and erodes not only the souls of soldiers, but also their relationships.  Domestic abuse is so common in the military that the Department of Defense treats it with specific concern. The Pentagon estimates that approximately one in three women in the military are sexually assaulted, and while the percentage of women victimized might go down as the number of women serving goes up, the total number of women victimized is sure to increase. The idea that rape in the military might go down as the normalcy of women in the military increases is belied by the fact that more men than women are victims of rape in the military, as well as the fact that violence perpetuates itself not only between people, but in the souls of those who wage it as well. While women must already be vigilant against sexual assault anywhere, the dehumanizing nature of the military can foster sexual as well as mental and physical violence. The notion that conscripting women would improve our treatment is ludicrous. Forcing women into military service would harm women. Of course, it would equally harm men.

Some are quick to say that such a measure is merely symbolic, as the United States has not used a draft in over 40 years. Yet with the United States waging wars designed for perpetuity all over the globe, the reinstatement of the draft is a realistic prospect. Consider the fact that the measure to conscript women was folded into a bill to increase military spending and improve combat readiness, despite the fact that we already spend more on our military than all the other nations and more than the next 8 nations combined. No matter how much war we wage, we seem constantly preparing to wage more, and indeed, the more war we wage, the more aggression against us (and within nations we destabilize) increases, creating a pretext for more war. The idea that we will need more fighters in the future than are willing to volunteer is guaranteed if we continue this trajectory. The de-facto poverty draft may fill the need of a legal draft for a while, but probably not forever.

Perhaps this is why a much better path toward true equality between men and women is hardly ever considered. Instead of conscripting women, why not eliminate required registration for the draft all together? The answer is that though we have an all-volunteer military, we are conditioned to think that a draft might be necessary one day because war is inevitable and sometimes required for the greater good. But this line of thinking is fatally flawed, and the creativity, wisdom and imagination it takes to envision a nation and a world without war is needed in equal measure from women and men. Eliminating preparations for war and war itself is not only necessary for continued life on this planet, it is critical to changing the violent mindset of humanity that keeps not only genders, but also races and classes and nations and ideologies, divided.

Some people consider universal conscription for women as well as men to be a testimony to women’s strength. Yet the strength our world needs right now and evermore is the strength to love, the strength to forgive, the strength to reconcile, and the strength to repair a war-wasted world. Women and men alike have that strength, and the time to draw upon it is now.


Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “New Bill Would Require Women to Register for the Draft” by wochit News

donald and hillary

Trump’s Man Card Is Self-Loathing Hatred

Earlier in the week, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman card.” It’s a bit hypocrital, don’t you think?

I mean, nobody plays the gender card better than Donald Trump. He is the stereotypical male – and he’s loud about it. For Trump, to be male is to win so much that you’ll get sick of winning. He talks down to Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, all while saying, “Oh but the women love me!” Do you remember what he said about Fiorina’s face? “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” He boasts about defeating his male rivals. And do you remember one of the many low points in his campaign when he defended the size of his “hands“? Trump plays the man card more than anyone.

More than anyone except for maybe one group – internet trolls. I recently heard a story on “This American Life” about Lindy West, an author and former columnist for Jezebel. West writes with an honest passion about herself, especially about how she came to accept her body. She’s overweight and has worked through self-esteem issues. She now joyfully accepts herself for who she is.

Men viciously trolled her social media accounts. One man went so far as to create a false Twitter account of West’s recently deceased father. The man googled West’s family and filled the fake Twitter account with information about her father and siblings. Pretending to be her father, this troll tweeted that he was ashamed of Lindy.

Of course, West was hurt by the harmful tweets. She wrote an article about her deceased father’s twitter account and how much pain it caused her. The man who created the false Twitter account read her article and felt a sense of guilt for his actions. He emailed West, apologizing for his harmful tweets. Then they talked over the phone. In their recorded conversation, West asked the man why he trolled her. His response was stunning. He told West that he was overweight, too, but could never accept himself. In fact, he hated himself, and so projected his self-hatred onto her with tweets that seemed strong and aggressive, but stemmed from self-loathing hatred. As René Girard wrote in his book Resurrection from the Underground, “At the source of the hatred of the Other is the hatred of the Self.”

Trump and this troll are essentially the same. They are run by self-hatred. In order to deal with the hatred that plagues their lives, they play their “man card” by demeaning women. They act macho. They claim to be more powerful than they are because deep down they know they lack meaning in their lives. And, like most of us men, they have never been taught how to play the card that will help them manage their self-hatred, so they project their hatred onto women.

There is one difference between Trump and the troll. The troll became more of a man when he apologized for being a jerk. In apologizing, he found a little more self-acceptance.

The humble ability to say I’m sorry. That’s one of the most important cards men need in our deck.

Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton During United States Presidential Elections 2016, Wikimedia Commons.


Opening the Closed Political Culture

Editor’s Note: Chicago-based journalist Robert Koehler’s articles are intuitively Girardian. While he may not write specifically about mimetic theory, his articles demonstrate the contagious nature of violence, and more importantly, inspire hope in the contagious power of compassion. We are honored to feature his articles every Thursday.

The headline, from the Los Angeles Times, hit me like a sucker punch: “Voters’ ‘Bernie or Bust’ efforts persist despite Sanders’ vow not to be another Ralph Nader.”

Actually, it was worse than that. When my brain cleared, I realized I was, once again, caught in a media straitjacket.

In just over a dozen words, the paper managed not only to trivialize everything two presidential candidates stood for, and not only to reference the myth that Nader caused Al Gore to lose an election he didn’t in fact lose, but also, my God, to obliterate the last six months of a presidential campaign that had permanently shaken up the political status quo and return progressive voters to a place of permanent irrelevance to the national future.

In light of his recent primary losses, Sanders will almost certainly lose the Democratic presidential nomination, and he has said he would support Hillary Clinton if that’s the case, the story explains. However: “Some of his supporters remain so steadfast, however, that a #BernieOrBust movement has picked up momentum on Twitter. So has an online pledge for supporters who vow to vote for Sanders as a write-in candidate if he loses the nomination.”

Don’t they know how American democracy works? Real change isn’t part of the game. The mainstream media looks on in fascination at those (mostly young people) who don’t get this yet and seem to think that something more is at stake than which preselected big-money candidate wins the election.

Hamid Dabashi, writing at Al-Jazeera English, described the Democratic and Republican parties as “competing Orwellian Ministries of Truth.” He noted that Clinton’s decisive victory in New York state last week occurred not only amid election chaos (126,000 registered Democrats purged from the voting list in Brooklyn), but that it was a closed primary. Independents were not allowed to vote, neatly stiffing much of the Sanders base.

“Clinton has won every state so far that’s held a closed primary,” he pointed out, adding darkly:

“These ‘closed primaries’ are the bottlenecks of a closed political culture, preventing the possibility of any liberating breakthrough into a foreclosed political system.”

This is serious. The political culture has been in the process of closing throughout my lifetime, locking the American empire into place. Dabashi writes:

At the heart of this imperial republic that effectively rules the world with its military might (not with any moral courage or political legitimacy), we have an electoral process that systematically bars any critical judgment of its own citizens to disrupt its mindless militarism. American citizens are as much trapped inside this corrupt system as people around the globe are at the mercy of its fighter jets and drone attacks.

Money and militarism rule and the American experiment in democracy, at least as defined by the mainstream media, shrugs in acquiescence. The game of meaningless winning and losing is pretty much all that’s left of it. The military budget is not up for discussion, let alone debate. Neither is the political budget.

“At their core,” writes Geoff Gilbert at Truthout, “political parties are fundraising and marketing mechanisms. Over the years, the Democrats and Republicans have achieved fundraising economies of scale that have effectively barred the entry of any would-be competitors. Their collective fundraising monopoly — combined, they spent $7 billion during the 2012 election cycle — has allowed them to dominate the political discourse by financing campaigns, reaping brand recognition from the political advertising that accompanies campaigns, and thereby establishing their legitimacy as the parties who run candidates and do the governing of our country.”

Gilbert goes on to make an extraordinary suggestion. The Sanders campaign has been called a revolution. Maybe there’s a less amorphous term for what it really is, whether he wins or loses the 2016 presidential nomination: the foundation of a new political party, which would bring a progressive voice back into American politics at every level and, at the same time, help unify “our currently fragmented movement cultures.”

Gilbert writes:

By exploiting the Democratic Party’s name recognition, Sanders appears to have escaped the third party catch-22: He has achieved widespread name recognition without first having to raise money from the usual big donor suspects.

He adds that “Sanders’ fundraising throughout the primary process, completely independent of the two-party fundraising channels, has been nothing short of historic. In effect, the campaign has already created the skeletal fundraising infrastructure that is the backbone of any political party.”

Gilbert also suggests that the campaign — that this newly emerging political party — “deliberately bypass the corporate mass media as a mechanism for spreading its ideas” and create its own permanent voice via the Internet, e.g., a 24-hour YouTube channel or something equivalent.

In short, the extraordinary Sanders campaign has demonstrated that small money — affordable donations from millions of people who aren’t simply frustrated by the status quo but envision a future that is environmentally sustainable, compassionate and fair to everyone — is the antidote to Big Money, which cares primarily about perpetuating its own interests.

clinton trump

Let’s Make America Meh

Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again.” Hillary Clinton claims America has never stopped being great. But maybe we should just try to make America meh.

Here’s a question, how do we define American greatness? In politics, American greatness is usually described in comparison with other nations. This comparison is part of human nature. As René Girard states in his masterful book on human social dynamics called Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, to be human is to have a tendency “to compare oneself with others.”

What’s true on the personal level is also true on the national level. Historically, the United States has compared our greatness to other nations – England, France, China, Germany, and Russia, for example. But now we also compare ourselves to terrorist organizations. Our greatness as a nation is being defined by our ability to destroy al-Qaeda and ISIS.

To make America meh would be to stop defining our “greatness” in comparison with other nations. On an individual and national level, comparing ourselves with others leads to relationships of constant and escalating rivalry.

Many of us are addicted to that rivalry. We gain a sense of “greatness” by being against our enemies. But that’s a false sense of greatness. It may give us a temporary high, a sense of meaning in our lives, but we will always need another fix, another enemy to be against.

True greatness isn’t formed in a relationship against our enemies. Rather, true greatness is formed in a relationship with our enemies. Or, as Jesus put it, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

When we are addicted to rivalry with our enemies, loving them might give us a sense of meh. Or, even worse, some may claim that Jesus’ command to love our enemies is naïve. But in an age where weapons of mass destruction can be obtained by almost anyone, it’s naïve to think relationships of escalating rivalry will make us safe.

Girard ends his book The Scapegoat with this apocalyptic warning, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough.”

Love? Forgiveness? They might make us feel pretty meh. But at this point in human history, they are our greatest hope.

Image: Flickr, Donkey Hotey, Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump – Caricatures, Creative Commons License, some changes made.


What’s In A Name? On Building Cooperation Beyond Partisan Barriers

“What’s in a name?”

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot recently, and not just because this past Saturday marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death! It’s a question that comes to mind when I consider today’s political climate and the enmity between the mimetic doubles more commonly known as the Democrat and Republican parties.

To say that the political parties are the same is scandalous according to mainstream culture, and I acknowledge that there are some real and important differences between most members of the two parties. Yet in the quest for power and profit, leaders from each of the major parties have more similarities than differences, with greed, faith in violence, and a desire to “win” or retain power washing away major distinctions.

Corporate profits dictate policy far more than the will of the people that the elected officials are purported to represent. In fact, a recent study has determined that the will of the vast majority of people has no effect at all on policy making. Instead, large corporate donors contribute to both political parties to insure their interests are met. Because people tend to work for those who pay them, representatives are often more beholden to their donors than the will of their voters, making differences between many of the policies of each party more nominal than substantial.

While Republicans may pride themselves on being more responsible with money, decrying “big government spending,” the fact is that more than 50% of every tax dollar goes to the defense department, which Republicans leaders (along with many Democrats) would like to increase. Social welfare programs, meanwhile, are championed by many Democratic voters but are decreased or privatized under both Democratic and Republican leadership. And on the issue that most concerns me, namely, whether the United States will continue her quest for imperial control of the world or humble herself and become a partner in peace, there is near bipartisan consensus among the powerful to continue to wage wars for resources and power. While the Global War on Terror may have begun under a Republican administration, it has been expanded and extended – with drone warfare killing mostly civilians in seven countries — under a Democratic one. The fact is, from the standpoint of most of the world, it is hard to see much difference between the leaders of both parties when both are covered in blood.

With policies that contradict the rhetoric of both parties, partisan identification is increasingly rooted in a sense of “over-and-against” identity rather than actual policy outcomes. Forces of power and greed, wielded by the most wealthy and the politicians who work for them but beyond even their control, find value in keeping partisan warfare alive while ensuring that many of the policies of both parties are financially beneficial to them, to the detriment of the nation and the world. The enmity between the parties, fueled by the media and conventional wisdom, keeps the public divided by labels while unconsciously united in our lack of influence.

But it need not be this way.

Too often, a mental block against a party label keeps us from seeing the good in a politician’s proposals and actions, and likewise prevents us from being critical of those in the party with which we idenitfy. Too often, we interpret the rhetoric of an opposing party in the worst possible light. While we cannot afford to be naïve, we also cannot afford to be overly cynical and hostile. We cannot afford to nurture enmity, no matter how wrong we may think someone is, because we absolutely need to work together in every way possible to change a corrupt political system that is having a devastating effect on the whole world. And when we nurture enmity in ourselves, we inevitably nurture enmity in others, further deepening the chasm between us.

Regardless of political party, most of us would like to live in a democracy rather than an oligarchy. We can come together to demand the reduction of the influence of money in politics, which would be a gateway for leaders to listen and respond to nearly all other concerns, but often other divides keep us from doing so. But people from wide and various perspectives can come together where they agree, building more respect for each other even in disagreements. Non-interventionist fiscal conservatives can join with anti-war social liberals. Pro-life and pro-choice individuals often share a core of compassion for the vulnerable and could unite in helping to make the world safer and healthier for women and children. There are all kinds of unions to be made across the divides of political labels. When enmity no longer divides us, the forces of greed and domination will have to reckon with a nation waking up to a false dichotomy and working to help each other. Compassion and cooperation can have a powerful and lasting impact, awakening the moral conscience even of those who have been ruled by self-interest (which to a degree is all of us).

The spirit of enmity that is destroying the world is also borne out at home in political parties caught up in both corporate control and mimetic rivalry. Our potential to help the world – to replace warfare with reconciliation, reduce our carbon footprint, and build a prosperous peace — is significantly hindered by an inability to let go of the enmity among ourselves. I believe that political labels encourage us to look past each other rather than work together. If we can’t drop them completely, we must at least be willing to look past labels to the people who hold them, and come together where we can to make our voices heard. Our hope lies in each other.

Image: “Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey Icons” by DonkeyHotey via Flickr. Available via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

sharing god

The Truth about God and Interfaith Relationships

Can we share God?

Because for many of us, God is something that we refuse to share. In fact, human history shows that we will fight over God. God, after all, is truth. And we all like to think that we hold the Truth. But what happens when others claim that they hold the Truth about God? We get caught in a rivalry, even killing over who possesses the Truth.

But believing that we hold the truth about God is to turn God into an idol. That’s because we don’t hold the truth about God. None of us hold the truth about God. Rather, God holds the truth about us. And, according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Long Island, NY, the truth is that God holds us in the spirit of love, justice, and service.

Members of these three major world religions come together at Brookville Church to share sacred space. Brookville’s slogan is “Where our doors are always open.” Indeed, the church’s doors are open to Jews and Muslims. But they do much more than simply use the church building as a place of worship. At Brookville Church, Jews, Christians, and Muslims intentionally build friendships with one another. They learn from one another, they serve their community with one another, and they care for one another.

It’s a radical experiment, especially when we consider that leading presidential candidates are proposing to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and they are proposing to force police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Those candidates are the most vocal about their faith in God, but they worship an idol. They worship a god that erects political systems of fear, exclusion, and death.

But the true God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam doesn’t lead to fear, exclusion, and death. The true God leads to relationships like those formed at Brookville Church. The true God subverts the politics of fear, exclusion, and death. The true God transforms our relationships from rivalry into love.

In doing so, they show that they don’t hold the truth, but that the truth holds them.

Image: Flickr, Destination God, Hatim Kaghat, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

beware of god

Atheism and Religious Violence: Should Religion Be Expelled or Redeemed?

Many atheists argue that religion is a massive problem in our world. Since religion is the cause of major conflicts and violence, we would be much better off if we expelled religion from our midst.

As a Christian, it may surprise you that I think there’s a lot of merit to this atheist critique of religion. And René Girard helps us understand why.

Religion and violence have always been connected. “Violence and the sacred are inseparable,” wrote Girard in his book Violence and the Sacred. They are inseparable because religion solved the most urgent problem the facing primitive societies – their own violence.

Girard’s anthropology states that before religion formed in the ancient world, the greatest danger facing our early ancestors was their own violence against each other. Conflictual violence could not be contained and a war of all against all threatened our ancestors with extinction.

For Girard, the disease was violence. Just like modern medicine, the cure was found in the disease. Violence that threatened the community was channeled onto a single victim, who was violently sacrificed. Where there was once conflict that threatened the community, there was now peace that came from violently uniting against a common enemy. Whom Girard calls the scapegoat.

But the peace was only temporary. Conflicts re-emerged, violence threatened the community, and another scapegoat was sacrificed. The sacrifice was ritualized and religion was born.

I want you to notice the human aspect of religion. You don’t need God to explain religion, in fact, theology often gets in the way of understanding archaic religion. Religion didn’t emerge from the gods. They emerged anthropologically – from human violence. Religion in the form of sacrificial rituals solved the problem of human violence that threatened the community. Without sacrificial religion, says Girard, our ancestors never would have survived.

The scapegoat stands as a substitute for the community. Girard calls this the “surrogate victim.” The sacrifice underlies all of human culture. It seeks to expel a common enemy. Girard states that sacrifice is the “mechanism that assures the community’s spontaneous and unanimous outburst of opposition to the surrogate victim” (Violence and the Sacred, 300).

This is the irony – archaic sacrificial religions seek to expel a scapegoat, someone who is blamed for the violent problems facing the community. Archaic religion seeks to expel the scapegoat. But the modern propensity to expel religion is itself a religious act. Again, Girard,

Human beings are soon moved to make religion itself into a new scapegoat, failing to realize once more that the violence is theirs. To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture—as much so today when the sacred is loathed and abhorred as in the past when it was worshipped and adored. (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 32).

We owe a great debt to archaic religions of sacrifice. They saved our ancestors from extinction, but they did so by doing a terrible thing – killing a scapegoat. The community truly believed that their scapegoat was guilty of causing all the problems that it faced. The people believed the sacrifice was good and necessary to protect the community from evil. In this way, modern atheists and secularists who want to expel religion are run by the same scapegoating principle as archaic religions. They scapegoat religion, not realizing that the real threat is not some evil other, be it a person or a religion. The real threat is our own scapegoating violence.

Indeed, to expel religion is just another violent religious act. The question is, can religion help us transform our sacrificial violence into something that will lead to lasting peace?

Girard distinguishes between archaic religions that sacrifice a scapegoat and the revealed religions of Judaism and Christianity. Instead of sacrificing scapegoats, these religions begin a process of caring for scapegoats. The story in Genesis where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac is about this move away from sacrificial violence. Instead of sacrificing humans, the ancient Hebrews moved to sacrificing animals. Sure, PETA would have a fit, but it was a radical move away from sacrificial religions.

In the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, we find the complete reversal of the sacrificial formula. Instead of someone sacrificing another, we find someone who is willing to be sacrificed by his fellow humans to show them the way of peace. The early Christians identified Jesus as the Suffering Servant. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”

The world gives peace by violently sacrificing another, but Jesus gives peace by living a life of nonviolent love. It’s a love that extends even to his enemies. Instead of sacrificing another, Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed. He became the scapegoat of the crowd. He was sacrificed by the political and religious authorities. He took religious violence upon himself so that he could redeem our religions and show us a better way of being religious.

That better way of being religious is defined in the New Testament by the epistle of James as this, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).

If Girard is right, then the world is fueled by the archaic religious impulse to sacrifice a scapegoat in the name of peace. That impulse is what unites all cultures, but it doesn’t lead to lasting peace. In fact, in a world with weapons of mass destruction, that impulse could lead to an apocalyptic destruction of our own making.

Religion that is pure is religion that keeps us unstained by the world’s involvement in scapegoating. Instead of scapegoating, God the Father reveals that pure religion leads us to acts of nonviolent love that seek to care for the scapegoats of our world.

For more on religion and sacrifice, see Patheos’s Public Square conversation – The Sacrifice: Religions and the Role of the Scapegoat.

Photo: Flickr, James Quinn, “Beware of God,” Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The New Enlightenment

Editor’s Note: Chicago-based journalist Robert Koehler’s articles are intuitively Girardian. While he may not write specifically about mimetic theory, his articles demonstrate the contagious nature of violence, and more importantly, inspire hope in the contagious power of compassion. We are honored to feature his articles every Thursday.

What remains endlessly hinted at about the 2016 presidential race, but not fully articulated, is that something enormous — bigger than politics, bigger than America itself, perhaps — is trembling and kicking just below the surface, struggling to emerge.

I have a name to suggest for this hypothetical phenomenon: the New Enlightenment. Nothing less than that seems adequate.

There are millions of midwives at the ready — angry, despairing citizens — desperately hoping to assist in the birthing process . . . by being part of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I say this with full cognizance of the flawed, compromised nature of politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. The political process is a stew of money and competing interests, power, compromise, cynicism and secret deals. But that’s not all it is.

It’s also the opening to our collective future. A failure to acknowledge this leaves the process in the hands of those who think they own it.

The New Enlightenment?

The old Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which began sweeping across the consciousness of Western Civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries, implanted science, democracy and capitalism at our social foundations and fomented the industrial revolution. But the shortcomings of this enlightenment are many. Slavery, for instance, flourished through much of the Age of Reason. So did war. So did genocide. The worst of who we are maintained its grip on power. We have yet to begin implementing our deepest values in the social and political realm.

The political mindset that sees Hillary Clinton as the pragmatic candidate in the Democratic race is unable to see beyond the parameters of a stunted political system. What she has accomplished in her political career is essentially defined by that stunted system, which not only serves (often in secrecy) the interests of those already in power, but fails to envision the implementation of power except in domination over some enemy or other.

This is illustrated with agonizing clarity by the recent controversy over the tough-on-crime and “welfare reform” policies of the Bill Clinton presidency in the 1990s, which, of course, Hillary supported and promoted, and which have begun coming back to haunt her. While the “war on crime,” the backlash against social spending and the implementation — via imprisonment — of what Michelle Alexander has labeled the new Jim Crow, got seriously underway in the Reagan era, Clinton continued and promoted rather than tried to undo these policies.

As Alexander wrote recently in The Nation:

Despite claims that radical changes in crime and welfare policy were driven by a desire to end big government and save taxpayer dollars, the reality is that the Clinton administration didn’t reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine.

She added that: “By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps” and “funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion . . . while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion.”

The result of all this, as Alexander and others have noted — and that Black Lives Matter activists recently brought to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign, confronting Bill Clinton as he campaigned for his wife — is that African-American incarceration rates went through the roof and families and communities were shattered. This phenomenon has resulted in recent, stunning apologies from former supporters of Clinton-era tough-on-crime policies.

For instance, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, a one-time Black Panther, tore his heart out in an MSNBC interview this month over his support of that bill. “I am ashamed of my role. I sincerely apologize to my God, I apologize to my community, to my family,” he said, lamenting that, in his urgent desire to deal with the devastating impact of crime and crack in the black community, he became ensnared in single-focus thinking: “locking them up, keeping them in jail.”

Despite the anguished sincerity of Rush’s apology, I remain pierced by the question: Why?

Why did sheer, vindictive punishment loom in that moment as the solution to crime? Why was Reagan still the de facto president, with the head of his chosen scapegoat still on the altar of American politics? Bill Clinton’s Democrats surrendered to Reaganism: to the pursuit of black “super-predators” and the defunding of “welfare queens.” They surrendered to racism, as American as apple pie. The New Deal was dead and the Old Deal had reclaimed control over American politics and American thought. And it’s still in control today, settled and unquestioned at the level of the political status quo.

“Of course ‘sorry’ isn’t enough, given the magnitude of the harm that has been done,” Alexander wrote, referring to Rush’s apology. “A brand new system of racial and social control has been born again in the United States, one that has functioned as a literal war on poor communities of color.”

The focus, she says, must be on rebuilding these communities that have been so devastated over recent decades. Yes, yes . . . but I would push it further. Social spending must be utterly redirected away from prisons and punishment, away from militarism and war, and toward the construction of real peace. The original New Deal was conceived in coexistence with war, but war eventually consumed it.

The cry of the New Enlightenment must be heard: Do not dehumanize! The only true enemy is the darkness we all share, lodged deeply in the collective human heart. When we try to kill it in “the enemy,” we kill ourselves.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Image: Stock Vector by jtanki via 123rf.com

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Clearing the Confusion about God, Transgender, and Bathrooms

I’m going to be honest with you. I’m confused – and I know that many of my fellow cisgender male friends are confused, too. I even hesitate to use that word … cisgender … it’s so new to me. I think it means someone who identifies with the gender they were given at birth. At any rate, I identify as a male, which aligns with the gender I was assigned at birth, which makes me cisgender.

Now that I’ve cleared that up … let me clear up another part of the confusion for my cisgender friends: We are the ones confused. My transgender and fluid gender friends aren’t confused about their gender. For them, once they claim a transgender or a fluid gender identity, it’s like coming home.

So, what should we do with our confusion? First, let me tell you what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t create legislation that prohibits the transgender community from using bathrooms of the gender they identify with. We shouldn’t go along with that legislation because the logic is demonically flawed. That’s right. I said demonically flawed. As Erin Wathen points out in her brilliant article “10 Things Scarier Than a Trans Person in Your Bathroom,” the logic is that our women and children will be put in danger by transgender women using the woman’s room.

But here’s the thing. Do you know how many times a transgender person has attacked someone in a bathroom? 0. That’s right. It’s never happened. Ever.

The transgender community is being labeled as violent sexual predators. Whatever our confusion about the transgender community might be, we cannot stand by while the transgender community is falsely labeled as sexual predators. Let’s clear the air of any confusion; where the transgender community pees is not a “public safety issue.” If cisgender men want to have a real conversation about the safety of women, then as Erin says, let’s talk about rape at college campuses. “Let’s talk about the military. Let’s talk about football players and domestic violence. Let’s talk about a culture that worships masculinity, objectifies women and glorifies violence—all adding up to a pervading world of male entitlement that is, always and everywhere, a danger to your wives and daughters.”

Some might think this is male bashing. But it’s not. It’s evidence that we are dealing with scapegoating, which is a satanic mechanism that assigns blame onto an innocent victim. The Hebrew word “satan” means “accuser.” The accusation that the transgender community poses a threat is absurdly, satanically, false. The transgender community poses no threat. They are not the violent ones they are being made out to be. In fact, 2015 “set a record number of transgender murders.” I’m not confused about this point – the transgender community doesn’t pose a violent threat to anyone peeing in a bathroom.

Scapegoating protects accusers from the painful task of owning up to their own guilt. Cisgender males don’t know what to do about our violence against women, so we project guilt upon the harmless and largely defenseless transgender community, who tragically have been victimized by others, including cisgender men. They experience constant threats of violence, exclusion from their families and their religious institutions. And now we’re debating about which bathrooms to exclude them from because they are the threat?

But here’s what cisgender people should do with our confusion. Realize that our confusion is about us, not about transgender people.

One of the most shameful parts of this whole debate is that it’s mostly Christians who are leading the crusade against transgender people. As a Christian, I feel compelled to speak up. This is not what Christianity is about.

Jesus destroyed the barriers that divided people so that they could find reconciliation. Gender even played a role in this. The closest we get to our modern concept of transgender in the Bible is the eunuch. There was a religious law that relegated eunuchs to outsider status.

But other aspects of the Hebrew Bible sought to include eunuchs into the religious community. Jesus, as always, stood within the tradition that sought to include those who were marginalized by religious laws. He brought eunuchs into his community, saying, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Someone will protest, “But eunuchs and transgender are not the same thing!” That may be true, but look in the Bible and you will never find the word “transgender.” But you will find gender variant “others” who generated a confused, violent, and scapegoating response from the community. The point is this: What did Jesus do with people who were born with a gender variant? Whereas a religious law excluded them from full participation in the community, Jesus included them as full members into his band of followers, the very people through whom Jesus founded the church.

One of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, baptized an Ethiopian eunuch into the early Christian community. And Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built the church, received the message from God that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean,” saying “I truly know that God shows no partiality.”

Philip may have been confused. Heck, Peter was always confused! But he didn’t let that confusion block him from the truth that – no matter what religious laws said – he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean.

So, to my cisgender friends, we may be confused, but God isn’t. God shows no partiality. God doesn’t care where his beloved transgender children go to the bathroom. And neither should we.

Image: Flickr, Samir Luther, “All Gender Restroom Sign,” Creative Commons License, some changes made.


There’s Nothing New About A Contested Convention

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 installment of his series of articles drawing on the wisdom of the past to reflect on our current election cycle, Dr. McKenzie puts political conventions into historical perspective to show us how the possibility of a contested convention is by no means unprecedented.


Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!—John Quincy Adams

So what would you make of the following scenario?

In a highly charged election year, the Republican Party faces a showdown at its impending national convention.  The field of presidential contenders has been large, and no single candidate will come to the convention with a majority of the delegates behind him.  Candidate A of New York is the clear front runner, and for months his rank-and-file supporters have considered him the presumptive nominee.  But Republican elites are lukewarm about A.  His reputation as an extremist gives them pause, and despite the enthusiasm of A’s followers, they worry that A will fare poorly in the general election.  They fear that A is unelectable, and by nominating him they will not only sacrifice any chance at the presidency but harm Republican candidates for state and federal offices as well.  The future of the party hangs in the balance.

As the opposition to A becomes ever more outspoken, a “Stop A” movement works frantically behind the scenes to rally behind a single alternative.  The number of potential nominees makes this difficult, however, and the divisions within the “Stop A” movement look to be crippling.  Candidate B is a southern conservative with tenuous links to party leaders.  Candidate C is an economic and social conservative who has risen to prominence in the Senate but made too many enemies along the way.  Candidate D is a northeasterner with a following in his own state but viewed elsewhere as a corrupt opportunist.  Candidate E has none of these liabilities, but as the convention approaches this Midwesterner is the first choice of only one state: his own.

Although candidate A commands a sizable plurality of delegates when the convention opens, candidate E’s campaign team goes to the convention determined to deny A a first-ballot nomination and open the door for E.  Unabashedly pragmatic, their message to delegate after delegate emphasizes expediency.  E is electable.  A is not.  E lacks A’s negative baggage and is widely respected.  He is a unifier who has been careful not to denigrate the other candidates.  E’s promoters encourage A’s delegates to consider E as a good second choice if it becomes clear that A cannot win a majority on the convention floor.  Where it promises to be helpful, E’s team makes thinly veiled offers of future political favors to delegations willing to switch their support to E after the initial ballot.  A significant number of wavering delegates are even willing to shift their allegiance before the balloting begins.

In the end, the strategy works.  On the first ballot, A takes 37% of the vote to E’s 22% (with candidates B, C, and D trailing even farther behind).  But as delegates are released from their first-ballot pledge to support A, the momentum shifts decidedly toward E on the second ballot, and by the third ballot E claims the nomination over A.  E’s margin of victory?  A razor-thin 50.5% to 49.5 percent.

So how would you evaluate the outcome of this contested convention?  Was it a miscarriage of justice?  An assault on democracy?  A “brokered” behind-the-scenes deal that bartered the wishes of the people? Or was it a politically prudent compromise that secured the best outcome realistically available?

If you say that you don’t have enough information to answer the question, you would be right.  But in thinking through the scenario, it might be helpful to know that it isn’t hypothetical.  It’s my best attempt to summarize the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  Candidates A, B, C, and D were Republicans William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and Simon Cameron.  We don’t know how this year’s Republican slugfest will play out, of course, but so far I’d say there are some pretty striking similarities to the 1860 Republican contest.  And although Donald Trump has modestly proclaimed that he is as “presidential” as Abraham Lincoln, right now the person best approximating that role is probably John Kasich.

So what does this analogy prove?  Can it help us to predict how the race for the Republican nomination will come out?  Can it teach us how it should come out?

Absolutely not.  The point of listening to the past is not to get easy answers to contemporary problems.  I cringe whenever I hear someone in the public opining ponderously about what “history proves.”  We study the past not as a storehouse of simple lessons but as an aid to thinking more deeply, more self-consciously, and hopefully more wisely as we meet the future.  History promotes wisdom, when it does, by expanding the range of our experiences to draw from.  As C. S. Lewis put it figuratively in “Learning in Wartime,” the student of history has lived in many times and places, and that greater breadth of perspective aids us as we seek to think wisely and live faithfully in our own historical moment.

I suspect that much of the popular hyperventilating about the prospect of a contested Republican convention stems from the fact that the last multi-ballot nomination of a major-party candidate came in 1952, before the vast majority of Americans were born.  And because we have no memory from before we were born—only people with historical knowledge can have that—we are vulnerable to all kinds of nonsense from those who would prey on our ignorance.

The reality is that the presidential primary model that we take for granted today has been dominant for less than a half century.  The earliest presidential candidates were chosen without any popular involvement at all, hand-picked by party caucuses in Congress.  Beginning in the 1830s (following the lead of a bizarre coalition known as the Anti-Masonic Party), the major parties established the pattern of choosing candidates in party conventions.  And although some states began to hold presidential primaries as early as 1912, as late as the 1950s conventions still effectively made the final decision, and it was possible for a presidential candidate like Adlai Stevenson to win the nomination without running in a single state primary.

And unlike the conventions of the last half century—which are carefully choreographed, excruciatingly boring infomercials—the conventions between the 1830s and the 1950s were frequently contested.  It wasn’t just Abraham Lincoln who was nominated after multiple ballots.

Future president James K. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot at the Democratic Convention in 1844.  In 1848 future Whig president Zachary Taylor was nominated on the fourth ballot.  Future Democratic president Franklin Pierce was nominated on the forty-ninth ballot in 1852 (and received no votes at all for the first thirty-five ballots).  Among other future presidents, James Buchanan was nominated on the seventeenth ballot in 1856, Rutherford Hayes on the seventh ballot in 1876, James Garfield on the thirty-sixth ballot in 1880, Benjamin Harrison on the eighth ballot in 1888, Woodrow Wilson on the forty-sixth ballot in 1912, and Warren G. Harding on the 10th ballot in 1920.  And although he lost in the general election, Democrat John W. Davis outdid them all, claiming his party’s nomination in 1924 on ballot number one hundred and three!

There was much that was broken about this system of selecting nominees.  Political bargains in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” were the norm, and I’m not recommending that we return to them.  But these examples should give us pause and lead us to wrestle with some questions that might not otherwise occur to us about the current Republican contest.  Why, for one, would we assume that a candidate with a plurality of popular support has earned his party’s nomination?  Is it wrong to take “electability” into question in selecting a nominee?  Why do we think that a contested nominating convention is automatically disastrous for the party in question?  I have thoughts about all of these, but I’ll stop here and invite you to share what you think.

For more in this series, see also:

Offered In A Spirit Which Will Not Disgrace The Cause Of Truth

Words From The Past: James Madison On The Role Of Elected Leaders

George Washington on the “Spirit of Party”

“Neither Force Nor Will”: Alexander Hamilton on the Supreme Court

Should the American People Have a Say in the Supreme Court’s Direction?

Image: 1880 Republican National Convention by C.D. Mosher. Available via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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.