heaven and hell

Satan on the Throne: A Parable about Heaven and Hell

You have lived a long and faithful life. You have done your best to follow Jesus in working for justice. Most importantly, you have just learned that faith isn’t so much something you try really hard to have, but is something you relax into. Faith, you have discovered, is relaxing into the love that God has for you, and sharing that love with those you meet.

Now you find yourself here, on the other side. You walk on clouds, which are softer than any pillows you ever felt on earth. You walk toward the Pearly Gates and you see St. Peter. He looks at you and then down at the “Book of Life.” Peter nods his head and with a warm, gentle smile, he calls you by name. “Welcome to Heaven,” he says. “You are a Good One. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Peter,” you reply as you gaze through the gates. You’ve never thought of yourself as particularly good, but you’re flattered by the complement. You see streets of gold, large buildings, and a beautiful garden in the middle of the city. People smile and laugh. This is Heaven. It’s the happiest place you’ve ever seen.

Another man approaches. He has a long white beard and walks with a staff. “This is Moses,” Peter says. “He will take you where you need to go.”

With Moses as your guide, you walk through the city to its center. Moses is friendly and enjoys hearing about your life. You take a minute to close your eyes and breathe deeply. You let the wonders of Heaven enter your body. As you open your eyes, you notice that everyone is strikingly beautiful. The streets, paved in gold, are surrounded by the finest restaurants you’ve ever seen. People are eating rich, succulent food, smiling and laughing as they enjoy their dinner. And then you start to notice something strange that makes you feel a bit uneasy.

When the customers at the restaurant are done eating, they give credit cards to the wait staff in exchange for their services. You think it’s odd that people have to pay for food in Heaven. But you feel even more troubled as you notice that the wait staff has a darker skin complexion than the customers. And as you continue to walk with Moses, you notice, off in the distance, beyond the city gates, a group of the same darker skinned people making bricks and carrying them to the entrance of the city gate. It is clearly hard and backbreaking work. Moses tells you that the Holy One wants a new and bigger temple.

As you try to make sense of this experience, Moses suddenly stops in front of the temple. He interrupts your thoughts and says, “We’re here. You will meet the Holy One inside. He’s been expecting you. Enter through this door and follow the river. You will find the Throne Room. There will be Saints singing. Boldly walk through the Throne Room. He wants to see you.”

A sense of fear comes over you. Moses intuits your trepidation and says, “Remember what our friend John said in one of his letters, perfect love casts out fear. The Holy One is for you. You are one of the Good Ones. You belong here and you have nothing to fear. Now go!”

You follow the river, just as Moses instructed. You hear the Saints singing. It’s faint at first, but as you continue following the river their voices become louder. It’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard. You come to the door of the Throne Room. As you put your hand on the doorknob, you remind yourself that “Perfect love casts out fear.” You boldly walk through the doorway.

The singing stops and the Saints look directly at you as you walk toward the Throne. The Holy One calls you by name. Love bubbles up inside of you. He sits on the Throne, looking like a Lion. “Come forward, Good One.” His deep voice reverberates across the Throne Room.

“Welcome to Heaven, my good and faithful servant. You have shown yourself to be one of the Good People of the Earth. You fought for justice. You deserve to be here. Unlike them!

The Holy One points to His left. Suddenly a portal that leads to Hell emerges. You look through it and see what appears to be people suffering eternal conscious torment.

“They are the Evil People of Earth,” the Holy One continues. “They get all the punishment that they deserve! And you should know this: The fuel of Heaven comes from the fires of Hell. And what fuels the fires of Hell? Those Evil People! We need them to suffer so that we may live in the joyful magnificence that we call Heaven!”

You take a step back. “Wait a minute,” you think to yourself. “This isn’t right. This isn’t just. This isn’t how Heaven is supposed to be.”

The Holy One scowls at you. “Your thoughts betray you,” He bellows. “Maybe you would like to join them,” He says with a sinister smile. “The choice is yours. You can stay here for eternity and enjoy the richness Heaven offers, or you can throw Heaven away and join them in suffering eternal conscious torment in Hell! Choose wisely. Your eternal soul hangs in the balance!”

You stand there, sensing the thousands of eyes from the Saints that are piercing through you. The pressure is almost too much for you to stand, but then you remember to relax – that whoever God is, God loves you and all people. You know, deep down in your bones, that you can’t stay here. If Heaven is like this, then you don’t want any part of it. You’ve made your choice. You will join the Evil Ones in Hell.

“You fool! Go then!” bellows the Holy One as He points to portal for Hell. “You don’t deserve to be here! Join the Evil Ones suffering eternal conscious torment!”

The Saints who were singing now taunt you as you walk toward the portal. Before stepping through, you take a deep breath. “Perfect love casts out fear,” you say to yourself as you put one foot through and then the next.

It is dark on the other side, but in the distance you see something that looks like a Lamb walking towards you, along with a man with wounds on his feet, hands, and side. “Welcome to Heaven,” the man says. “My name is Jesus. This is my Father,” he says as he points to the Lamb. A woman suddenly emerges beside them. But you notice that she’s more than just beside them. She’s around them and through them. It’s as if she’s connecting the three of them together. “And this is Sophia, the Holy Spirit. We are happy to see you.”

“The Trinity?” you think to yourself. “How could this be?” But at the moment you feel a bit silly asking theological questions. Besides, you always thought the doctrine of the Trinity was a bit irrelevant. So, you point to the portal and blurt out, “But I thought Heaven was back there.”

“Oh. That wasn’t Heaven,” the Lamb replies. “This is Heaven.”

“But what about the people suffering here, in eternal conscious torment?” you ask.

“Ahh, eternal conscious torment,” Sophia sighs, shaking her head. “It’s one of Satan’s tricks. It doesn’t exist. It’s a myth meant to make us look like we are involved in scapegoating. That myth justifies human scapegoating and blames us for it. We have nothing to do with it. We desire merciful love, not sacrificial scapegoating. Nobody here is suffering, but everyone here does care for each other. We do love one another.”

You look around and see people with different skin complexions walking together and laughing. There is no exchange for food and no one is making bricks to make bigger buildings. Everyone here has enough.

“Wait a minute. I’m confused,” you say. “What about Peter and Moses?”

“They were imposters, imitators of the true Peter and Moses meant to trick you,” answers the Lamb. “The false Peter decides who is included and who is excluded in the false version of Heaven. That Book of Life he carries around is really a book of death because it’s based on exclusion. Jesus holds the key to the true Book of Life. And get this! Everyone’s name is written in it! Everyone, from the beginning of human history, is invited to join us. The true Peter is over there, making sure everyone here has enough to eat and drink. It’s all free here. And the real Moses is over there, taking our newest group on a tour.”

“When Moses takes you on the tour, be sure he parts the river that runs through the middle of the city,” Jesus says with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen!”

“Sounds great!” you reply. “But what about the Lion sitting on the Throne of Heaven?”

“That was Satan,” the Lamb replied. “I love him so much. He wanted to sit on the Throne and he threatened a rebellion if I didn’t give it to him. He wanted everything that I had. But as long as I’m with Jesus, Sophia, and those who choose to be down here, I have everything that I want. Besides,” he says motioning toward the portal, “the people over there are happy enough. And if they become unhappy, they are free to come here whenever they want. They know this intuitively. But most of them are blind to Satan’s evil ways of creating order, so they maintain with the status quo.”

“But there is hope,” Jesus continues. “After all, Satan’s kingdom is founded on the principle of accusation, exchange, rivalry, and oppression. It can’t last forever. His kingdom is inherently divisive. And a kingdom divided against itself will soon fall. When it does, we will be there to pick him up. It may take a while longer, but even Satan will find redemption. There is still goodness in him. Our love will win him over.”

“But until then, we have work to do,” Sophia says. “There’s a garden that needs some watering and bushes that need pruning. And then we need to serve dinner at the shelter. Would you like to join us?”

“Sure!” you say with excitement as a sudden sense of warmth fills your soul. “I’m so glad I came here.”

“So are we,” Jesus responds, as he puts his arm across your shoulders. “You know, the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to eternal life, and there are few who find it. But you found it. Well done, my faithful servant.”

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Book Feature Friday: “Desire Found Me” By André Rabe

In Desire Found Me, André Rabe does a wonderful job of communicating highly detailed information in beautifully poetic ways. René Girard’s mimetic theory has not quite yet entered the mainstream, but a book like this could go a long way in changing that. As someone who has studied mimetic theory for some time, I have to admit it was actually this book that helped coalesce many of the ideas and concepts together in easy-to-understand ways.

Rabe begins Desire Found Me by offering insight into how human beings learn and develop relationships through desire. The first four chapters of the book are an introduction to mimetic theory and how the book of Genesis should be read in light of Girard’s work. Rabe does a wonderful job explaining human behavior before shedding light on how compelling of a book Genesis is. This first section really sets up the remainder of the book.

In the second section, Rabe offers an insightful and a detailed exposé of many of the developing themes contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. He compares and contrasts the progressing Jewish faith with other cultures’ practices in the area. Rabe offers a compelling argument that the ancient Jews, at one time, were henotheists (those who worshipped one god while believing in the existence of others), engaged in human sacrifice, and how their understanding of evil progressed over time. This was not a cut and dried thing, as Rabe contends: “the human story is chaotic.” This is true about the Jewish story as well. Chaos, murder, and mayhem are prevalent throughout, but Rabe is able to offer great insight into how revelation about God throughout the Old Testament progresses toward what would become the full revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

In the third and final section, André is at his best. After setting the stage in the first two sections, Rabe delivers a wonderfully detailed description of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He offers a compelling argument for a nonviolent atonement, replacing the less-than-compelling substitutionary models. In addition, Rabe offers solid exegesis of the anti-sacrificial passages contained in Hebrews 10. His concluding chapter, “Beautiful Contrasts,” is the perfect ending to a very good read..

All in all, this is a crucial book for today’s Christianity. There is a lot going on in this book, but Rabe keeps one engaged the entire time. I recommend it to anyone who is willing to question some of the more popular, albeit medieval, doctrinal views of Western Christianity. This is a vital resource and it is my hope that more and more people discover André and Desire Found Me.

 

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The Bible Clearly States (What Exactly?)

The Bible can be used to justify just about anything. If you so choose, you can develop any sort of doctrine you want based on things “plainly” taught in the Bible. The one I am going to focus on in this article is the practice of sacrifice. For many Christians, a God who demands sacrifice is essential to the faith. Entire systems of theology are centered on this practice. So, let us take a look at this “plain teaching” from Scripture a little more closely.

The first mention of sacrifice is found in Genesis 4:3, which reads: “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” It is interesting to note that sacrifice is already presupposed, as there is yet (as of Genesis 4:3) to be any mention that God desires it. Regardless, because of this practice, competition for God’s favor—for the better sacrifice—leads directly to envy and death. This is how culture is created. It is how the writer of Genesis describes the founding of the first city (see Genesis 4:16 – 17).[1] The Greeks would later describe the principle that structured our civilizations as the logos. Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) said violence—“war and conflict” specifically—is “the father of all things.” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 13) Genesis 4 gives us strong hints as to how this principle is structured, with sacrifice a key ingredient in the process. The Book of Leviticus tells us just how complex sacrifice then became in the Jewish faith.

The Book of Leviticus, which is central to Judaism, begins with all the various ways in which sacrifice is to be performed. Chapter 1 is blood offerings. Chapter 2: grain. This goes on and on and is quite precise throughout. To those who look for “plain truths” in Scripture, nothing is plainer than the importance of the sacrificial system in the Jewish religion. What is interesting then, as things progress and move forward, is that you have prophets who begin to question the sacrificial apparatus. Jeremiah 7:22 – 23 states:

“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’” NRSV

If you are looking for a “plain teaching” vis-à-vis sacrifice, you are not going to get it at this point (short of adding the word “just” in v. 22; like the translators of the NIV did. Jeremiah 7:22, in the NIV, reads: “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just [emphasis mine] give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.”). For me, this question remains: Did Yahweh give Moses the commands regarding sacrifice or, as Jeremiah states, did he not?

Then, if you go to the Epistle to the Hebrews, you will again read that the Law requires blood in order for forgiveness to occur (Hebrews 9:22). Nobody should dispute that. However, if you continue on to Hebrews 10:5 – 7 (referencing the anti-sacrificial Psalm 40:6 – 8), you will discover that the sacrificial aspects of the Law were not something the Father ever desired—it was unpleasing even. (See also Amos 5:21 – 22 for God’s apparent disapproval of “festivals” and “burnt and grain offerings”) In fact, in verse 8, the writer goes so far to write: “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings (these are offered according to the law).” Even though such things are offered according to the Law, they were not desired by God. This passage seems right in line with that of Jeremiah 7:22. However, it still is not so plain, is it?

Now, the last thing I would like to leave you with is a comment on the death of Jesus. I do so because it is the presupposed belief in a God who demands sacrifice that leads most Western Christians to conclude the Father demanded his Son become “the perfect sacrifice.” Because of humanity’s sin—our fall—the Father must have his Son die in order to then offer forgiveness. This has many negative implications so I would like us to meditate on Jesus’ death and whom the sacrifice actually appeased.

On multiple occasions in the Book of Acts, it is “clearly stated” that we killed Jesus (2:23, 3:14 – 15, 4:10) but that the Father raised him from the dead (2:24, 3:15, 4:10). Andre Rabe puts it this way: “Man does the killing and God does the making alive!” (Rabe, Desire Found Me, 224)

It is ironic that it is John Calvin—a lawyer—who popularizes the Penal Substitution Atonement theory. Sure, it makes sense a lawyer would think of things in terms of the human justice system, but in light of all real-world evidence, is it not obvious humanity is 100% guilty of the murder? Is Jesus not betrayed by a human named Judas? Is he not handed over to the crowd’s desires by Pilate? Is he not flogged by men with clubs and whips? Is he not placed on the almighty Roman cross—the symbol of the power of empire? Of course he is.

If anything is clear, it is that humanity killed Jesus. What is not so clear is why. Most believe it is because his Father needed a perfect sacrifice, but the convincing reason for such a belief remains unclear. There are plenty of pro-sacrificial passages throughout, but, as René Girard says, it is not a “cut and dried thing.” (Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins, 141) There are also plenty of anti-sacrificial passages that seem to undermine the “pro” stance.

Surely, something as important as the Bible needs to be taken more seriously than simply giving it a “plain reading.” I hope Western Christianity (broadly speaking) can give up that hermeneutic, one that strips the spirit of the Scriptures of all life. The flat reading must be exchanged for the anti-vengeance, anti-sacrificial hermeneutic Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews used. I do not believe the “Bible clearly says” much, but I do believe Jesus clearly says to “follow him.” (Matthew 4:19, 16:24) We need to follow him in action and in hermeneutics—forever eliminating our sacrificial lens.

[1] This would be similar to the founding myth of Rome, where Romulus slays his brother Remus over the interpretation of an omen.

Image: Biblical mosaic scene: sacrifice of Lamb of God. Kykkos monastery, Cyprus. Copyright: Yulia Kuznetsova. Available via 123rf.com

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ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

My blood boiled with rage as I read the New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” ISIS has been promoting the systematic rape of women and girls, some girls even younger than 12. The article starts with a horrific description,

He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her. When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

I have a daughter who will soon be 12. I’ve also been the youth pastor of teenage girls. Although I’m a staunch supporter of nonviolent action in the face of evil, and I don’t believe in hell as a place of torment after death, there is a significant part of me that wants to blow those bastard into a million pieces, sending them to the hell that they so richly deserve.

But there are two points that I would like to make in response to the article. First, ISIS is not Islamic. We need to stop calling ISIS a form of “radical Islam.” ISIS and other terror groups don’t deserve to have the name “Islam” attached to their identity.

As a Christian with many Muslim friends, I cannot allow ISIS to set the theological terms of Islam. When an ISIS fighter prostrates himself in prayer before and after raping a woman or a girl, he is not praying to Allah. He is praying to the devil.

Who Is Allah?

In Islamic terms, Allah is not a god who justifies rape and murder. Rather, Allah is the God of Mercy and Compassion. The chapters of the Qur’an begin with the phrase, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.” In Islam, mercy is God’s fundamental nature and Muslims are to imitate God’s mercy by acting in the ways of God’s mercy.

God states in the Qur’an that, “My Mercy and Compassion embrace all things” (7:156), but just what is God’s mercy like? The Arabic word for mercy is rahmah. It is intimately related to the Arabic word rahim, which means “womb.” In his book The Heart of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr claims that the connection between mercy and womb indicates that, “the world issues from the womb of Divine Mercy and Compassion.”

In Islam, Allah is like a Merciful Mother who loves and cares for her children. Now, one might claim that Allah’s children are only Muslims, and thus, only Muslims deserve mercy and compassion. But that would be false. As the Qur’an states, God’s “Mercy and Compassion embrace all things.” All that exists is embraced by God’s mercy. It doesn’t matter whether we are believers, polytheists, or atheists. In Islam, Allah responds to all things, including all people, with Mercy and Compassion.

Mercy and Compassion are so integral to Islam that Nasr states, “It is impossible for a Muslim to pray to God or even think of God without awareness of this essential dimension of Compassion and Mercy.”

Which leads me back to heinous acts of rape committed by ISIS. Their “theology of rape” has nothing to do with Islam. In fact, it is anti-Islamic because it goes against the very Mercy and Compassion that is the nature of Islam’s theology of God. True Islamic theology doesn’t lead to rape; it leads to compassion and mercy. ISIS is anti-Islamic because, as Nasr claims, “There are numerous teachings in the Quran and Hadith emphasizing the importance of having compassion toward the people who are one’s neighbors and being aware of their needs. Then beyond one’s neighborhood there is society at large, in which the same attitude of compassion and kindness must exist even beyond the boundary of one’s religion.”

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

This leads me to my second point. As much as I’d like to blow those bastards away, if we are to take seriously the fact that God’s “Mercy encompasses all things,” then God’s mercy might extend even to ISIS. Will bombing ISIS stop their violent quest? Well, it might stop their violent quest, but as we’ve seen during the last 13 years in the “War on Terror,” when we violently destroy one enemy, another more dangerous enemy emerges.

In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that the mismanagement of Iraq by the United States has “encouraged thousands of skilled Iraqis to take their expertise to the anti-American insurgency that eventually became the Islamic State.”

We don’t need more bombs. The “War on Terror” has taught us that attempting to solve our problems with violence only reinforces a worldwide culture of violence. It teaches us and our enemies that violence is the only real solution to our problems. It reveals that we don’t really believe in God or Jesus or Allah. We and our enemies believe in the same god. And that god’s name is Violence. Our faith in the demonic god of violence will only lead us to a future of mutually assured destruction.

I believe that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would have us look reality in the face. Violence is mimetic; it only leads to more violence. We must lay down our weapons and find more creative ways to solve our problem of violence. We have wasted enough money on war that will only doom us to a future of apocalyptic violence. I’ll end with a quote from Jean-Michel Oughoulian, who describes a better and more merciful way to solve our worldwide problem of violence in his book Psychopolotics:

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


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Jesus Fulfilled The Promise Of The Throne Of Mercy

In the Office of Readings at Universalis for July 15, 2015, I read this wonderful text from St. Bonaventure:

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages.

Christ is like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant. What a wonderful image to recall when we are trying to make sense of Matthew 5:17:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

What does it mean to fulfill something? Bring it to completion, I suppose. To fulfill the purpose of something would be to bring the promise it holds for the future into the present. The way a completed house fulfills the promise of the architect’s plan for it. My guess is that’s what Matthew means – he is referring to Christ as the fulfillment of the promise of the law. But what is that promise? I think that St. Bonaventure offers us a clue when he likens Christ to the throne of mercy above the law. To fulfill the law might mean that mercy and law are brought into their proper relationship.

Jesus himself often had to field questions of how to interpret the law. To answer whether it was proper to eat with sinners, thereby violating a legal requirement for purity, he quoted the prophet Hosea:

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:13)

Adam offered a wonderful reflection on this passage, applying it to the search for a Christian response to marriage equality for gays and lesbians. He quotes James Alison’s wonderful explanation of Jesus’ answer to show that there are different ways to apply the law. We can either apply the law quite legalistically or with mercy – those two options are always open to us. But Christ is instructing us to opt for mercy. Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of what it looks like to live with the throne of mercy above the law. As Adam concludes on the issue of marriage equality:

When we understand Jesus’ hermeneutical principle to interpret through God’s mercy, it means that we won’t discriminate against the LGBTQ community for any reason, but especially not for a religious reason. Why? Because Jesus teaches us to interpret the Bible through merciful love that seeks to include, not through the sacrificial mechanism that seeks to exclude.

I do love thinking about thorny problems of the Christian life this way. The Law, God bless it, makes a valiant effort to anticipate any and all problems we might encounter and offer the appropriate solution. But life can never be codified in this way. Even the first generation who received the revelation of the Law knew that, or at least God tried to convey it to them in a very concrete way. How wonderful to realize that God not only gave our ancestors the Law but taught us the proper way to carry it around with us! Whenever we wonder how to be faithful followers of Christ today, we need not worry all that much as long as we remember that the answer key was given to us long ago. When in doubt, let’s meditate upon the throne of mercy and see where it leads us.

Image Credit: Anthony Baggett/ 123rf.com

A hangman's noose. Image from 123rf.com

Dismantling Racism, Part 3: The Strange Fruit of White Supremacist Christianity

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” – Abel Meeropol

When Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” this was not the fruit he had in mind.

Yet a look back through American Christian history will show white preachers proclaiming Biblical endorsement for slavery and lending moral sanction to the terrorism of lynching. In churches around the nation, the sanctuary regularly became a den of thieves and the sermon a rallying cry for a mob. After-church picnics were often the settings for the horrible spectacle of torturing, hanging, and burning African Americans, where people would gather from miles around and smile as their pictures were taken close to the swinging bodies. Photographs and postcards were conciliation for those who didn’t get trophies of fingers, ears, or other body parts.

This barbaric cruelty – manifest in slavery and lynching and underlying segregation — was a prominent face of American Christianity from before America became a nation until shockingly recently. While Christianity also proved to be a force of empowerment for African Americans who saw in the Gospel a message of comfort and liberation, a triumphalist, militant, white supremacist interpretation of scripture twisted the Good News into a weapon of mass destruction and wielded it against black bodies.

The rotten fruit of white supremacist Christianity has contaminated the soil in which new seeds of faith are planted. White supremacist ideology has yet to be fully uprooted, and thus continues to poison human relations and the Body of Christ itself.

Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Goucher College, in her eye-opening examination of racism in American Christianity, What’s Faith Got To Do With It? Black Bodies, Christian Souls, wrestles with the question of whether there is something endemic to Christianity itself that makes it vulnerable to such manipulation as to twist a message of life into an instrument of death. What she found was that a platonized tradition (one that elevates the mind and soul above the body) mingled with an exclusivist theology and a cross (mis)understood as an instrument of God’s wrath produces a lethal cocktail. I want to dissect this cocktail and examine each component to expose the vulnerability of Christianity to racism among other forms of imperialism. Whereas Jesus radically overturns the traditional understanding of God’s power with self-giving love, enslavement to the love of power undermines the way of Jesus, turning hope to terror.

A Deadly Cocktail

Douglas describes the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity as being essentially anti-body and anti-sexual. Platonism elevated the soul over the body, while Stoic thought emphasized reason and sought to subdue passion. The dualistic divisions between body and soul and reason and passion were given a moral dimension when brought into relationship with the dominant understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. Thus, as Douglas maintains, the soul is divinized while the body is demonized. Such an understanding can lead to belief in a moral benefit or blessing to punishing or abusing the body.

While Christianity can be interpreted in such a way as to affirm the body and extend love to all, as I will explore later, scripture also leaves plenty of room for an interpretation that is harmful and destructive not only to the body, but to certain bodies in particular. Paul’s warnings against the works of the flesh, for example, in Galatians (“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, etc.”), interpreted in light of a philosophy that already emphasizes the spiritual above the material, can serve to divide all people against their own bodies and be on guard against their desires, beyond necessary self-control to a stern distrust of the body. But in combination with a hermeneutic that so stringently divides good from evil, one that speaks of a “jealous God,” a “chosen people” and an exclusive salvation (“No one comes to the Father except through me”), the temptation to “other-ize” is given theological cover. And the belief that God embodied a particular person, with a particular shade of skin, can provoke a temptation to demonize those of other shades. A dualistic understanding of light and darkness on a symbolic level combined with white supremacist ideology reincarnates Jesus in a white body and demonizes those who do not share his physical image.

Finally, the utter cruelty with which the black body has been treated under a white supremacist interpretation of Christianity cannot be understood apart from the violence of scripture culminating in a punitive understanding of the cross. The ruthless power of an awesome and terrible God is highlighted in stories that speak of rigorous purity codes, harsh punishment for disobedience, and even divinely-mandated genocide. In these stories, God’s love is limited to an exclusive people, demonstrated in violent conquests over enemy others, and tempered by “discipline” that is sometimes deadly. A reading of scripture that takes claims of God’s violence at face value will interpret the cross in violent terms as well. A violent God, whose own Son’s death atones for the sins of some but not for all, can be invoked by some against others in all manners of torture, humiliation, and oppression. Combine that with an already devalued understanding of the body and a white supremacist hyper-sexualization of black people, and one can then see how white American Christianity could sanction the systematic enslavement, torture, and lynching of the black body. One can trace the strange fruit back to its poisoned roots.

Remnants of Racism

Christianity is thus dangerously vulnerable to deadly imperialistic interpretation. African Americans are by no means the only victims, but their victimization has particular qualities touched upon in this essay. The unholy alliance between white supremacy and Christianity is just one of many sources at the heart of the racism that has plagued our nation since its inception, but I maintain that the false Christian justification for the subjugation and degradation of black bodies is crucial to understanding race relations not only in the past, but in the present as well. While overtly racial prejudice may have waned, the roots of white supremacist theology still harm black bodies and the body of Christ. Religious devaluation of the body still combines with hyper-sexualized portrayals of African Americans in the media to devalue black people. An inequality of wealth and opportunity and a prison industrial complex that disproportionately targets African Americans segregates and isolates along racial lines, thus “other-izing” African Americans in the eyes of many whites. A judgmental hermeneutic that diminishes mercy and justifies violence effectively reinforces institutional racism and cloaks it in religious morality.

Seeds of Hope

Yet Christianity has also proven a healing balm and a source of dignity to African Americans. A hermeneutic that provides a “reading from below,” or, as James Alison would say, “the intelligence of the victim” exposes white supremacist Christianity as the antichrist incarnate by revealing God in solidarity with, rather than judgment of, victims of violence. Thus Christ is most revealed in those whose humanity has been denied. Dr. James Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Treeputs it eloquently:

I claim that no American Christian can understand completely the full theological meaning of the American Christ without identifying his image with the recrucified black body hanging from a lynching tree.

With the bitter fruit of white supremacist Christianity exposed and the image of Christ revealed in the black body, I would like to more deeply explore a healing hermeneutic, one that affirms the body, embraces all in love, and reveals the cross not as a instrument of God’s violence but as the subversion of human violence by God. I will do so in my next installment of my Dismantling Racism series when I meditate on the black body of Christ.

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leads to all manners of madness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

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

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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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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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Eid: A Promise Of Hope And A Celebration Of Empathy

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified and updated version of last year’s Eid al-Fitr message.

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Eid Mubarak from the Raven Foundation to all of our dear Muslim sisters and brothers! The holy month has drawn to a close, and all around the world, the ummah, or Islamic community, is celebrating the culmination of 30 days of fasting. Long daylight hours, at least in the northern hemisphere, have made this Ramadan among the most challenging in decades, with faithful Muslims refraining from food, drink and sexual intercourse while the sun is up – about 17 hours a day here in Chicago and similarly long hours around the world!

The hunger in the belly, the dryness of throat during the heat of the day, the restraint against urges of desire, are all meant to invite the soul into deeper relationship with God and neighbor and train the heart in the ways of compassion and civility toward friends and adversaries. In recent years, the sacred intentions of Ramadan have been further challenged by the heartbreaking violence raging throughout the world and devastating Muslim communities in particular. This violence is ravaging places like Afghanistan, where our 14-year-old war has all but been forgotten by media, Iraq, where ISIS is hypocritically and violently undermining the spirit of Islam in the name of Islam, Libya and Syria, where ISIS also has strong footholds, and Gaza, where the rubble from Israel’s latest bombing campaign one year ago, which killed over 2000 people, still has yet to be cleared, and none of the 17,000 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. These are just a few examples of the violence and aftermath of violence devastating predominantly Muslim countries around the world. For many, this day of celebration must instead be a day of mourning. So in the midst of this devastation and chaos, it is important to remember the promise of hope that is Eid al-Fitr (literally, “the lesser holiday,” the holiday after the fast).

Let us first ponder the meaning of Ramadan, the 30-day fast meant to tune the heart, mind, and soul toward God and break down walls and build bridges of compassion and solidarity between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed from God through the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an describes itself as a mercy and a guidance, and just like our world today and all times and places throughout history, mercy and guidance were desperately needed! My friend Adam Ericksen explains the world of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya, or Age of Ignorance, as a time when “fate” was thought to determine the rich from the poor, the winners from the losers, leaving little incentive for compassion or generosity. It was a world in which tribal gods were invoked in violent raids of conquest, and the wealth of a few created a world of desperation and misery for the poor, particularly the widow and the orphan. Sadly, this sounds very much like our world today. But it was in the midst of this violent and bleak hopelessness that Muhammad, tuning his heart and his mind to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, was able to hear the message of God: a message of ultimate peace, which is the meaning of Islam.

So it is appropriate that the month in which the Qur’an was revealed is a month of fasting, a time when the faithful enter into solidarity with the poor and hungry. As stomachs growl, those who are normally well-fed get a taste of the hunger 1 in 8 people worldwide experience (according to the 2013 statistics of the World Hunger Education Service). This voluntary material poverty is reminiscent of the world of Jahiliyyah into which the Qur’an was revealed, as faithful Muslims share the experience of the poor and suffering. Nothing dispels ignorance more than the active empathy that Ramadan requires.

This year, beyond connecting with the hungry, another profound way that active empathy was displayed was through a tremendous gesture undertaken by a coalition of Muslim networks working together to raise money for at least 8 African American churches that burned in the wake of the Charleston massacre. At a time when worship is brought into even sharper focus for Muslims, when spiritual connection and brother and sisterly solidarity is even more greatly pronounced, Muslims felt a desire to reach across faith boundaries. The burning of African American churches is an attack on the last, most sacrosanct refuge of the black Christian community, but Muslims reached out with an empathy deeply rooted in their faith experience and augmented by the holy month of Ramadan and raised over $30,000. In an interview for Al Jazeera America, spokesperson Linda Sarsour elaborated on the solidarity between Muslims and African Americans. This solidarity exists not only because the Muslim community includes African Americans, but also because Muslim Americans of all races are subjected to distrust and profiling on account of religion and the state of permanent US warfare in the Middle East. As Sarsour says,

We’re working on a lot of solidarity issues, including working against police violence, surveillance of political movements, building solidarity across the country. There’s so much more we can do together, and we’ve been able to do that in the past few years and it’s been remarkable.

The building of interfaith solidarity in the midst of the holy month is a powerful living example of Islam’s profound respect for the Abrahamic traditions and its tradition of peaceful interfaith relations. While the violence in Muslim countries gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, positive interfaith relations especially among the Abrahamic traditions are integral to Islam. This year, Ramadan has been a connection to those in times of struggle and turmoil, a time to build people up and provide a refuge of compassion and love – not just for fellow Muslims, but across religious lines.

Furthermore, in this month of spiritual renewal, desires are reoriented from human concerns to divine will. As Muslims find themselves sustained throughout the day not by food but by the loving God and supportive community, they liberate themselves from things that society tells us we need. Negative mimetic desires for material possessions, which can lead to envy and conflict, are tuned out as Muslims become models for one-another of positive mimesis. Turning away from selfish desire to following the desire of God, whose will is for all to love one-another, Muslims during Ramadan find mutual support as they strive through the day to renounce wants masquerading as needs, instead focusing their hearts, minds, time, and resources on those most in need. As food intake decreases, prayer, charity and compassion increase, and the empathy born from this experience extends past the imposed 30 days. The hope is that after the fast comes to an end, Muslims will continue to choose to spend fewer resources on themselves and more in the way of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, relying always on God’s abundant providence.

Eid is a festival of this abundance. It is a holiday that symbolizes that the mercy of God’s message, lived out among the faithful, dispels ignorance. It is a reminder that the same God who sustains us through hunger and poverty generously provides us with a rich and beautiful world to enjoy and share.  Eid is the promise of light after darkness, fulfillment after hunger, celebration after tribulation.

So many people worldwide, not only Muslims but people of all faiths and people who have lost all faith, are still in the midst of this tribulation and losing hope. Some have no food for a feast; some have no home to gather inside; some must bury their family instead of celebrate with them. May they be on the hearts and minds of all of those who can enjoy the feast today, and indeed all of us regardless of religion. As Muslims around the world come together today to celebrate the triumph of God’s mercy, abundance, and love, I pray that all of us may learn the lessons of Ramadan – empathy for the victims of violence and greed – so that we may all work toward a future Eid in which we invite all to the table – rich and poor, friend and foe, Palestinian and Israeli – to share the rich feast of God’s boundless love.

Image Credit: This image was generously created by ihsaniye and labeled for reuse.