Unbridled Mercy

My heart breaks for a world scourged by violence.

Duped and deceived by the satan inside us.[1]

Accuse![2] Convict! Point fingers at “them.”

It’s us who are just! and they are condemned.


Our violence is good—it’s righteous and true.

God’s on our side and “they’ll” know that soon too.[3]

With power and might we lord over others,[4]

Accusing the prophets of being false brothers.[5]


Woe to those who confuse Christ for religion,

Who speak devilish things about those already forgiven.

Woe to those who demand blood in Christ’s name,

Who spit venom and poison[6], curse others, and blame.


The grace you demand is abundant and infinite

Yet the grace you give seems rather impotent.[7]

The grace of God is unfathomable[8] and yet,

You contend Love offers an eternal threat.[9]


A gospel with violence is unfounded and false.

It’s the opposite of Christ—a religious farce.

The way of the Christ is the way of the cross,

But in knowing the Christ, all else is loss.[10]


The way of Christ is preemptive grace.

Grace in the midst of a spit to the face.[11]

This model of forgiveness is what sets us free,

Free to love all with unbridled mercy.


[1] For a detailed expose on what/who is “the satan,” see Michael Hardin’s eBook aptly entitled, “The Satan.” It can be found at
[2] The satan, or “ha satan” in Hebrew, translates to “the accuser.”
[3] I am referring to the three major Abrahamic religions, which have many within the respective faiths who claim they are the chosen people and thus, that they have God on their side.
[4] See Matthew 20:25 – 27, where Jesus tells his followers they are not to lord over others, as the Gentiles do, but they are to become great by becoming as a servant.
[5] See Luke 11:50 – 51.
[6] See Matthew 23.
[7] Matthew 7:1 – 2.
[8] See Romans 11:32 – 33.
[9] I contend that since God is love (1 John 4:8), eternal conscious torment as a final fate for some humans is incompatible.
[10] See Philippians 3:8.
[11] See Matthew 26:67

Image: Created by Venrun. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License


Donald Trump, Immigration, And The Politics Of Satan

Donald Trump created a stir recently with his comments about immigration.

“When Mexico sends its people, they aren’t sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”

We could easily dismiss Trump and his comments by claiming that he’s our nation’s crazy uncle. But our crazy uncle is gaining in the GOP polls. After announcing his candidacy and making his comment about immigrants, he surged to second place among Republican voters.

It’s early, of course. I don’t expect Trump to maintain his surge. But I do think his comments reveal something important about politics.

Immigration and the Politics of Satan

In the biblical book of Job, Satan is the Accuser. Satan roams throughout the world as a prosecutor looking to make accusations against people. But Satan doesn’t care if people are good or bad. As we see with Job, all Satan cares about is making accusations.

In other words, truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Donald Trump made an accusation against Mexican immigrants that has struck a chord with many Republican voters. And that’s the point behind the satanic principle of accusation. As René Girard claims in his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “Satan seeks to have others imitate him.” Our imitation of Satan primarily comes in the form of accusations against our fellow human beings. That accusation is usually based on fear, a contagious emotion that is easily manipulated by the satanic principle of accusation.

But the fear is baseless because it isn’t grounded in truth. That’s especially true in the case of immigration. Study after study shows that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are less likely to be involved in violent crimes than the rest of the population.

In her study, Bianca Bersani, professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, states, “Foreign born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course.”

Jorg Spenkuch of Northwestern University finds that, “There is essentially no correlation between immigrants and violence crime.”

The Public Policy Institute of California reveals that, “Immigrants are underrepresented in California prisons compared to their representation in the overall population. In fact, U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.”

Donald Trump’s accusations against Mexican immigrants is a clear example of the politics of Satan. Satanic politics orders the world through accusation, exclusion, andscapegoating. While native born Americans actually have a higher rate of violent criminal activity, that fact doesn’t matter to the politics of Satan. What matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Immigration and the Politics of God

Fortunately, we do have an alternative to the politics of Satan. We don’t have to order our lives around the principle of accusation and exclusion.

The way God wants us to order our lives, including our politics, isn’t based on accusation and exclusion, but love and acceptance. For example, take Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34 continues the theme, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The politics of God makes no distinction between “illegal” and “legal” immigrants. Rather, all immigrants are human beings worthy of being included and treated with love. The Bible calls us to empathize with all immigrants, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” While in Egypt, the Israelites were marginalized and treated as less than human. In modern America, we’d call them “illegal immigrants.”

But the Bible calls us to something higher. The Bible calls us away from the divisive politics of Satan and toward God’s politics of love.

Instead of making accusations against immigrants, the Bible calls us to love them. Instead of excluding immigrants, the Bible calls us to include them.

The differences between the politics of Satan and the politics of God couldn’t be clearer. It’s the difference between exclusion and embrace. This election cycle, let’s follow God who calls us to “love the alien as yourself.”


Photo Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License


Tony Campolo: The Christian Morality Of Gay And Lesbian Inclusion

There is a new movement happening among Evangelicals.

“Behold,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, “I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

The old movement was based on excluding gays and lesbians from the church, using the Bible in an idolatrous way that demeaned and rejected them. But now Evangelicals are waking up to the new thing that God is doing in the world. Fortunately, more Evangelicals are perceiving that God is making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the dry desert heat for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Tony Campolo is the latest Evangelical to come out of the closet to support full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He posted a statement on his website yesterday that created quite a stir among Evangelicals.

He ends his statement by saying, “I hope what I have written here will help my fellow Christians to lovingly welcome all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the Church.”

Tony Campolo is a major voice in American Evangelicalism and he is pointing to the new thing that God is doing within the Evangelical movement. But there are those who want to hold onto the old way of exclusion.

One critic claims that Campolo’s acceptance of gays and lesbians “is significant as another prominent leader moves away from the faith once for all delivered by the saints.” And that American Christianity is going through a winnowing process that “is going to reveal whose consciences are bound by the authority of scripture and whose aren’t.”

This critic hits the nail on the head. Unwittingly, he reveals the very thing that’s wrong with the old version of Evangelicalism. To claim that accepting gays and lesbians into the church is to move “away from the faith once for all delivered by the saints” is ludicrous.

Do you know how many of the saints talked explicitly about gays and lesbians? Zero. In all of Scripture, in all the writing of the ancient church fathers, the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heck, not even the word homosexuality appears in the Hebrew or Greek. Any modern translation of the Bible or an ancient church writing that uses those words is not a literal translation. It’s an interpretation.

And I’m all for interpretations. We have to interpret the Bible. In fact, there is no literal interpretation of the text, which is why people of faith have always debating the meaning behind scripture.

The point is that we need to take responsibility for our interpretation of scripture, which is what Campolo is doing. After all, we know that the devil can quote scripture just as much as anyone else. And what’s the devil’s role in scripture? As Rene Girard has taught us, the name Satan means Accuser. Satan’s role is to divide humanity through the principle of accusation. Any time someone points the finger at another person, or group of people, to exclude them, you can be sure that they are being influenced by the satanic principle of accusation. For many of us, it’s getting old.

Which is why I’m grateful for the new thing God is doing. The new thing is summed up by Jesus when he talked about the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, the word Paraclete means “called to one’s side” and has connotations of “advocate or helper.”

The distinction between Satan and the Holy Spirit couldn’t be more evident. Satan’s role is to accuse people of being evil. Satan will use any resource available to make that accusation, including the Bible. When we use the Bible as a means to accuse others of immorality, we have turned the Bible into a satanic idol. The Holy Spirit on the other hand, stands with those who are accused by the satanic principle of accusation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t use the Bible to accuse or exclude people; that’s Satan’s job. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to lead us away from accusing our neighbors and toward loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

But I don’t want to do away with morals. Evangelicals are right to be concerned about them. But we should be concerned about morals in the way Jesus was concerned about morals. Jesus didn’t use morality or religious principles to accuse those whom the religious elite deemed immoral. Rather, Jesus flipped morality on its head. For Jesus, morals was about standing alongside those who were accused of being sinners. He fellowshipped with them, not in order to change them, but in order to love them just as they were. Loving others just as they are. That is the essence Christian morality.

Tony Campolo is being moved by the Holy Spirit. He is showing us how to be a moral Christian. He will continue to take heat for doing it. And that’s okay. He will, I hope, continue to love even his enemies.

I’m grateful that other Evangelicals have already discovered the new thing God is doing. I pray that many more will do the same.

Defeating Satan at Harvard

Photot: Fábio Santoro via JMJ Rio 2013-Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photot: Fábio Santoro via JMJ Rio 2013-Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How do you defeat Satan?

That was the question the University of Harvard had to answer on Monday night when the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club planned a Satanic “Black Mass” at the university.

The Harvard community, led by Harvard president Drew Faust, was outraged by the Black Mass. Faust addressed the situation by stating, “The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the church and beyond.” Although Faust was offended by the planned event, she defended the right of the Cultural Studies Club to proceed with the black mass. “Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs.”

The Archdiocese of Boston also responded with outraged offense. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley claimed, “Why people would want to do something that is so offensive to so many people in the community, whether they’re Catholic or not, it’s very repugnant.”

As a Christian, I understand the outrage. After all, the satanic black mass mocks the Eucharist, one of the most holy events in Christianity. But, before we fester in our animosity toward the Satanists, I want to encourage us to take a step back and analyze this event from the angle of mimetic theory.

Mimetic Theory and the Satan

René Girard has been invaluable in helping us understand Satan by exploring the many titles attributed to Satan. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard states, “These titles and functions include the ‘tempter,’ the ‘accuser,’ the ‘prince of this world,’ the ‘prince of darkness,’ the ‘murderer from the beginning,’ and all of them together explain why Satan is the concealed producer, director of the Passion.”

The reason Satan is so dangerous is not because Satan is a mythical figure with horns and a pitch-fork. Satan is so dangerous because Satan represents an anthropological reality. Satan has no independent existence outside of humanity. Humans provide oxygen for Satan’s survival whenever we accuse others and exclude them from our community. Following Girard’s use of Satan’s titles, Satan is the anthropological principle that “tempts” us to unite in “accusation” against a scapegoat, or a common enemy. Satan is the “prince of this world” and the “prince of darkness” because the world runs on accusations. Whenever we experience accusations against us, we respond with accusations of our own. This leads us down a dark path of mimicking verbal and physical violence against one another

Girard’s exploration of the satanic principle leads to a difficult conclusion that no one wants to hear, but we need to hear it: whenever we point fingers against another, even when we point our fingers against Satan, we are caught up in the satanic mechanism.

Again, as a Christian, I completely understand the outrage against the satanic black mass at Harvard, but ultimately our outrage traps us into an imitation of Satan, and so we give oxygen and bring to life to the satanic mechanism. We provide Satan with oxygen as we participate in “Satan casting out Satan.” The Harvard community, the Catholic diocese of Boston, and many others were caught up in mimetic outrage at the Cultural Studies Club and succeeded in having the event relocated to another venue. If Satan is the principle that unites us against a common enemy and excludes them from our midst, then we need to consider the possibility that any act of excluding the satanic black mass is itself satanic.

Mimetic Theory and the Eucharist

Is there an alternative response, one that resists the temptation to accusation and exclusion? Yes. And ironically the answer is found in the very thing the black mass ridicules.

The black mass mocks the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving of Christianity. What is so “great” about the Eucharist?

The Gospel of Luke tells us that during Jesus’ last supper with his disciples he “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Now, what’s really interesting about the last supper is that Jesus knew he would be betrayed. And it wasn’t just Judas who betrayed him. Satan didn’t just enter Judas’s heart; he entered the hearts of all the disciples who abandoned and denied Jesus during his time of need. They were all caught up in the satanic mechanism.

But thankfully the satanic mechanism of accusation, expulsion, and murder doesn’t have the last word. Jesus has the last word. The Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving because the last words of Jesus are words of forgiveness. As James Alison states, Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who doesn’t respond to satanic accusation and violence with more satanic accusations and violence. Rather, Jesus responds with love that embraces even his enemies and universal forgiveness. Jesus prayed for his persecutors from the cross,

Father, forgive them, for they know know not what they do.

The Only Way to Defeat Satan

Satanists make an easy scapegoat for Christians. Who could be an easier target for Christian outrage than those who glorify Satan? But when we unite in mimetic outrage and accusations against Satanists we reveal that we are prone to getting caught up in the satanic mechanism of exclusion.

The only alternative to the satanic principle of accusation is Christ’s principle of love and forgiveness. Christian tradition claims that Satan was defeated by the forgiveness of Christ on the cross. Christ gave his body and his blood for the very people who betrayed him; the very people who were caught up in satanic accusations against him.

In other words, Christ gave his body and his blood for all humanity, including Satanists. Whenever we unite in accusation against another, but especially when we do so in the name of Christ, we mock the cross and the Eucharist. We become Satan casting out Satan, only to reinforce the satanic principle of exclusion.

Harvard stopped the black mass from happening on campus, but it was a short term win. In the long term, excluding Satanists only reinforces the Satanic principle of exclusion. If we want to win in the long term, the only way to defeat Satan is to deprive him of the oxygen that gives him life. And the only way to deprive him of oxygen is to love and forgive him.

C. David Owens resized

Finding God in the Mess

Despite years – and I mean YEARS – of therapy, I still run like a madwomen from my own feelings of sadness, especially during the holidays. Denial has always been my favorite coping mechanism. So this weekend, when my holiday spirits started to dip, instead of looking inside for the cause I made a mess of things by finding fault with everyone around me. My husband said the stupidest things; my kids seemed ungrateful; and friends were ignoring me. I became irritable and grouchy because no one was being nice to me anymore. And I hadn’t done anything to deserve such treatment! But guess what? No one was being mean to me at all. What I realized after a few days was that I was scapegoating them in order to avoid feeling sad. Once I let myself feel sad, suddenly they all got a whole lot nicer.

When we talk about scapegoating, we usually don’t think of it going on at the psychological level like this. But our own interior sense of goodness can generate torrential streams of false accusations against unsuspecting others. Why? Because we usually run a script like this in our pretty little heads: “The only thing that could cause perfect moi to be less than a perfectly happy, generous, and grateful person would be someone else. It certainly couldn’t be some failure on my part, like an inability to tolerate sadness – heaven forbid!” What I didn’t want to face was that I was missing my friend and pastor David Owens who died ten years ago during Advent. I don’t like feeling sad during the holidays and I don’t like that deep down I’m angry at David for dying when and how he did; I don’t like – okay, I hate that he was taken from me by a stupid curable disease like prostate cancer just weeks before his 57th birthday. I hate missing his humor, his sermons, his talents and his foibles. And I really hate that David spent the last few years of his life defending himself against scapegoating accusations, a time when I witnessed firsthand the pain and shame of the place occupied by a victim.

4734317_mSo you’d think I’d know better than to scapegoat others over my feelings for David. But sadly, I keep doing the dreadful blame-someone-else-first routine. Hey, I’m human. We all are. The trick is to recognize our scapegoating before we do damage to healthy relationships; early enough that forgiveness is still possible; maybe so early that we are the only ones who noticed what we were doing. That’s what Advent hope is all about, really. That when we are behaving badly we are capable of turning it around. That God entered into the midst of our world BEFORE we got our act together, because for some unfathomable reason God believes in our turning it around. That’s the thrust of a sermon David delivered on Christmas Eve in 1994, The Star Thrower. He said that “God shows up in the least likely places” and so we shouldn’t be afraid to “seek out the weakness and folly in this world, and in your soul.” So if your soul, like mine, is well-endowed with weakness and folly and prone to making a mess of things, my prayer is that you will find solace in David’s Christmas message and hope in the birth of a baby so very long ago. (This sermon is part of a collection published by our congregation in the year after David’s death. The collection has two volumes and is available for purchase here.)


The Star Thrower

David Owens

Christmas Eve, 1994

How are you? How is your spirit? Is it well with your soul? Are you prepared to receive the blessing of God’s love in the birth of Christ this evening? Just take a deep breath. There is nothing more that needs to be done but to receive the gift that is offered.

We gather this evening in the hush and quiet of this sanctuary to receive the gift of God’s birth. And to dream… to dream of that world of peace and good will that comes with God’s birth. Did your imagination catch fire with the words of Isaiah, the prophet-poet in our Scripture lessons? His prophetic dream prepares for God’s coming world of peace and good will.

Remember the images he uses, images of peace and harmony? The wolf will be the guest of the lamb. The calf and young lion will browse together. The cow and the bear will be companions. The lion will eat hay with the ox. The baby will play by the cobra’s nest. And a little child shall lead them.

I know that some of you, even some of you who are very close to me, are saying, “Dave, don’t get carried away! Christmas is wonderful, it’s a wonderful time of year. It’s good to be in a generous and warm spirit, but life is going to be dog-eat-dog tomorrow and in the days that follow. Forget about all these Pollyanna-ish dreams where wolves and lambs pal around together.”

Honestly, I understand your hesitancy about dreaming of a new world dawning. I, too, have pragmatic moments when I would rather be safe than sorry. I, too, have moments of doubt when I apply the acid test of reason and the empirical methods of science to the magic of poetry and song. And I ask myself… is it true? Is God with us? Has God entered our world and taken up our struggle for wholeness?

Friends, the message of Christmas is too incredible to believe. In fact, it is impossible to comprehend. But here we are this evening, some of us in different states of array, but here we are, proclaiming the message of Christmas. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, we hope, and we hope, and we hope that somehow the creator of this universe, who made lambs and wolves, came to dwell with us one night in Bethlehem of Judea, and decided to stick around with us to see it through until the end.

Some time ago, I was introduced to an essay by Loren Eiseley entitled The Star Thrower. It can be found in his book, The Unexpected Universe. I would like to share a story from that essay with you this evening. I believe the story will help us dream of God’s coming world of peace and will which began that evening long ago in Bethlehem of Judea.

Loren Eiseley was Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of

Pennsylvania. He was a poet-scientist, a unique bird, who struggled with the stupid cruelty that humans inflicted on one another in the natural world. After reading one of Eiseley’s books, the poet W.H. Auden paid him the highest compliment one genius could confer on another. He wrote, “I wanted to read anything and everything of his could lay my hands on.” Auden described Eiseley in these words, “He is a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shore of dejection.”

Is not this an apt metaphor for many of us? Do we not long to hear the angel message, “Fear not. You are not alone. You do not carry your burden in solitude. Your fears and worries are assumed by another.” Like Eiseley, we too are wanderers in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of dejection. We, like the Magi, are in search of a star.

Eiseley’s story begins during a bout of melancholy when he found himself lying on motel bed near the beaches of Costabel. Outside, a heavy storm raged. In that pause between and morning when dark hesitates, Eiseley went outside. Fires sputtered up and down the beach. Eiseley knew that professional shell collectors were at work. He was passed by a frantic shell collector who rushed, heavy-laden, toward a boiling kettle. As he watched, the man dumped his bag of shellfish into the boiling water and stoked the fire under his pot.

That was the “why” of the fires on the beach. Shells, once boiled free of all living tissue, could be sold or kept by the most aggressive shell collectors. A very apt metaphor again… shell collectors without shame or guilt, boiling away the flesh of living beings to possess the shells as ornaments of greed. Eiseley journeyed like the Magi of old and past the scrambling, bumbling shell collectors.

As he rounded a point on the beach, he noticed the emerging sun pressing red behind him and above the shell collectors. Ahead, over a distant point, he saw a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection. It sprang, shimmering, into existence. Eiseley saw a human figure standing within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. Eiseley labored toward that figure over a half a mile of uncertain footing. Drawing near, he saw the man stooping, stooping and retrieving a starfish from the silt and sand where it was trapped. Eiseley ventured a comment, “It’s still alive.”

“Yes,” the man said. And with a quick and gentle movement, he spun the star out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume and the waters roared once more. “It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and the rainbow light danced on his bronzed, worn face.

“There are not many who come this far,” Eiseley said. And then, looking at the man, he asked, “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” the man said softly, skipping another star into the water. “And of course, I collect only for the living. The stars throw well,” he said. “One can help them.”

Eiseley nodded and walked away, leaving him there along the dune with that great rainbow hanging up the sky behind him. As Eiseley left the star thrower, he thought, “Perhaps, far outward on the rim of space, a genuine star was similarly seized and thrown. Somewhere, there is a hurler of stars:’

Friends, I believe there is a star thrower, a cosmic power moving us in a direction away from the drive for mere survival of the fittest, a presence who moves among the debris and tragedy of life and flings gently a star, our star, back into the mystery and wonder of existence.

Friends, I believe God chose to appear on planet Earth in the least likely of places in order to reveal divine power through human weakness and human folly. God showed up at the birth of a baby in the animal quarters of a Jewish Palestinian peasant’s home. God chose to become known through human weakness and folly… our weakness, our folly… in these places where we’re least likely to look for the God of power, justice and mercy.

God shows up in the least likely places. God shows up to be with the child afraid of the dark where things go bump in the night. God shows up to be with the rich man who has everything, but feels empty. God shows up to be with the single mother who has nothing, but feels fulfilled. God shows up to be with the one who longs to go home and dreads to go home all at the same time. May we look for God, the star thrower, in the least likely of places.

Seek out the weakness and folly in this world, and in your soul. There stands the star thrower… at the foot of the rainbow, hanging up the sky, tossing you into the joyful mystery of your life. Tonight, a child is born. Angels sing… and stars are thrown.


God, a Tornado and John Piper’s Satanic Theology

Many of my liberal friends never call themselves “Christians.” Their hesitancy is usually a reaction against conservative Christians who, let’s face it, are an embarrassment to the name. You know what I’m talking about – those who make crazy claims like natural disasters occur because God is angry at homosexuals. And then there are those who use phrases like, “legitimate rape.

Influential pastor John Piper provides the latest example. While most of my friends on Facebook and Twitter lamented the devastation wrought by the Oklahoma tornado, Piper decided to show off his biblical acumen with this tweet:


Piper’s tweet is a bit ambiguous. His reference to Job doesn’t say that God caused the tornado, but Piper has historically claimed that God causes these types of disasters. In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time he has tweeted something so theologically insensitive. A few years ago Piper claimed God caused a tornado in Minnesota because God was angry at homosexuals. Piper’s god is a fickle Cosmic Jerk.

Job and the Satanic Principle of Accusation

Rachel Held Evans brilliantly points out the irony of Piper’s reference to Job in her article “The abusive theology of ‘deserved’ tragedy.” She states, “The great irony of Piper using the book of Job to support his theology is that the story of Job stands as an ancient indictment on those who would respond to tragedy by blaming the victim. That’s exactly what Job’s friends did, and the text is not kind to them for it, because Job is described as ‘blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’” Adding to the irony of Piper’s reference to Job is that Satan is the Accuser. (See footnote “b” in this online Bible.) While it’s true that Satan only appears in the first two chapters of the book, Job’s “friends” take on the satanic principle of accusation, and of blaming of the victim. Ironically, by blaming the victims of the Oklahoma tornado, Piper is acting satanically, imitating Satan’s accusations in the same way that Job’s friends did.

Bad Things Just Happen

John Piper calls himself a Christian, but I don’t think he knows Jesus. Whenever Jesus talks about natural disasters, they are just that, natural disasters. He never blames anyone for them; instead he points to them as an opportunity to show God’s love. Jesus was once asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Then the power of God worked through Jesus to stop the accusations and heal the man.

When people told Jesus that towers fell in Siloam and killed 18 people, Jesus asked, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” He answered his rhetorical question by saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Repent of Satanic Theology

What does Jesus want us to repent of? Jesus challenged the age-old assumption that God causes bad things to happen to bad people. That’s theologically satanic. Yet we love this assumption as long as tornadoes don’t bother us, because it makes us think we are better than those people over there! Jesus tells us to repent of such satanic theology. Bad things happen to everyone.

But the unfortunate truth is that there is a little bit of John Piper in all of us. Whenever something bad happens to someone, we want to know why. Why did he lose his job? Well, he must not have worked hard enough…the way I do! Why did she get lung cancer? Well, she smoked too much…I smoke just the right amount! All of these “answers” become addictive because they make us feel morally superior to the other person and they give us excuses not to respond with loving compassion to our suffering neighbors.

We need to repent of blaming the victim so that we can respond to our neighbors’ suffering with compassion. And we need to repent of the idea that God is out to get people. God’s not against you or me or even John Piper. God doesn’t cause natural disasters. Bad things just happen, so stop blaming God. God wants us to stop finding someone else to blame and to start working toward healing one another.

God of Carnage: From the Schoolyard to the Killing Fields

What’s the connection between a suburban schoolyard brawl in which an eleven year old boy gets two teeth knocked out and the Darfur genocide? That’s the question raised by the play, God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza. In its current excellent staging at AstonRep in Chicago, the intimate theater with a thirty seat capacity brings the audience right into the living room of the play where two polite, middle-class couples descend into violence, a physical proximity that forces us to see that the question is about us, too.

I had the pleasure of moderating a post-show discussion at the theater after the Saturday evening performance. During the conversation, the actress Kelly Lynn Hogan (Veronica) explained the difficulty she had in describing to her family and friends which female role was hers. The play has a simple plot: two eleven year old boys are involved in a school yard altercation in which one boy strikes another with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The play opens in the living room of the parents of the injured boy as the two couples meet to discuss what to do. So which of the two moms was Kelly Lynn playing? “All of the characters mirror each other so much,” she said, that she could not resort to easy brush strokes – she couldn’t say she was the female lead as this is an ensemble piece in the extreme. She’s not the good mother or the bad mother, since the question is moot. (The director, Doug Long, explained that for him it was important to recognize that these are four good people just like us.) Nor could she simply say that she plays the mom of the victim because which boy was to blame for the violence is a fraught question that ultimately is not answered. She tried, “I’m the artist,” but that was met with blank stares so finally she just said, “I’m the one who doesn’t vomit!”

Indeed, anyone who is familiar with the show knows that the other mom, played by Amy Kasper (Annette), is so distraught that she vomits onstage, a moment of hilarity, embarrassment, and disgust that elicits groans, moans and nervous laughter from the audience. This play has been called a comedy of manners without the manners, an apt description as the four refined, well-educated parents descend into tantrums, name-calling, finger-pointing, the destruction of physical property and at one point, a wife pummeling her husband in uncontrolled rage. The question of violence permeates the play and the play itself can feel like a kind of assault to the audience – just witnessing the outbursts is traumatizing, a reality made undeniable by AstonRep’s intimate theater. The audience is so close to the actors as to feel as if they are silent, horrified witnesses in the living room, too, helpless to stop the carnage.  The point that the hurling of insults needs to be counted as acts of violence, is made by Annette explicitly when she says, “An insult is also a kind of assault.”

At various points, the playwright continues to expand the definition of violence and to challenge our sense of ourselves as remote and peaceful noncombatants, by inviting us to make a connection between what happened in the schoolyard, what unfolds in that living room and the killing fields of Darfur. We are told that both Veronica and Alan (played by Robert Tobin) are well informed, albeit for different reasons, about the Darfur genocide and Alan tells us he is heading off to The Hague the next day because he has a case at the International Criminal Court. The ICC, as we all know, hears only the most serious crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. I believe the connection that Yasmina Reza is pointing to is that all violence, whether trivial or horrific, is made possible by the same mechanism: Whether in the schoolyard, in comfortable living rooms or in killing fields violence is committed by people who think of themselves as good people. When violence happens, many of us go in search of the bad guys but the problem is that it’s almost impossible to find someone who self-identifies as a bad guy. The people we think are bad guys, think of themselves as good in spite of the violence they commit. And when good people commit violence, our faith in our own goodness is rarely shaken.

Let me offer only two examples from the real world: one is taken from testimony at the ICC of a wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Momcilo Krajisnik, whose job was to oversee the “ethnic separation campaign” in 37 Bosnian townships. He was found guilty of “deportations, forced transfers and persecutions as well as murder and extermination of Croats and Bosnian Muslims.” Yet in his defense Mr. Krajisnik claimed that he was unaware of any crimes he might have committed and that he considered himself to be a peacemaker. Even more chilling, if that’s possible, is the statement made in Norwegian court by Anders Breivik, the murderer of 77 young people in Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity. He said, “I did this out of goodness. I acted in self-defense on behalf of my people, my city, my country.”

We can see clearly that Krajisnik and Breivik were not peaceful or good and are victims of profound self-deception. But their claim of goodness, of being peacemakers and acting out of patriotism sounds remarkably like our own claims, made when we talk about our own violence. For example, as a nation our invasions and wars, secret prisons and use of torture, drone attacks and bombing raids are all committed in the name of American values, a claim of ultimate goodness that transforms acts that we would condemn when others commit them into noble undertakings. So here’s the question raised by God of Carnage: are these self-justifying statements about violence lies only when other people make them and the truth when we make them? Or are they always lies? That’s a question that we must allow to haunt us if we want to live up to our claim of being truly good as individuals and as a nation. We must face the truth that perhaps our goodness is more of a self-deception than a reality. Perhaps it is a convenient way for us to justify our own violence while condemning the violence of others and to never face the truth that all violence is committed by good people doing very bad things. When violence is involved, we lose our individual identities and the line between good and bad becomes so blurred that we become mirror images of each other, the very dynamic that the play dramatizes so well and Kelly Lynn described to us.

The play confronts us with this choice between the lies and truth in the final few minutes when Veronica receives a call from her daughter about the most trivial act of violence in the entire play – the abandonment of their daughter’s pet hamster, Nibbles, onto the street by the father, Michael, played by Ray Kasper. The hamster was terrified and is most likely dead, but Michael is unrepentant and so Veronica comforts her daughter with lies – that Nibbles is resourceful and happy now, that her father is sad and sorry about upsetting her. When she hangs up, Michael hides from the pain that facing the truth would surely cause by saying that the hamster is probably stuffing its face, but Veronica won’t have it now. She utters a quiet but plaintive, “No” and we are left to wonder how far that “no” will take her. Perhaps she’s done lying about violence and the suffering if its victims – we can only hope, but the last line of the play is Michael’s. “What do we know?” he asks. It’s a question for us to take home with us. What do we know about what being good truly means? What do we know about how violence happens and our complicity in it? I’d say we know all we need to know, but it’s kind of like that old joke about how many psychiatrists does it take the change a light bulb. The answer: only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. What do we know? After seeing this play, we know everything. The choice is ours.


P.S. My heartfelt thanks to AstonRep for bringing the profound, provocative and darkly funny God of Carnage to life for us. Their production is a great example of the transformative power of theater. I am looking forward to their next offering, the Chicago premiere of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts coming in spring 2013.


Is God a Cosmic Jerk?: God, Satan, and the Problem of Evil

Is God a Cosmic Jerk?

That’s how I ask the question, but professional theologians use the term theodicy. It comes from two Greek words: theo, which means “God,” and dike, which means “justice.” Theodicy asks, “If God is good and just, then why is there so much evil in the world?” There are many answers to this question. Some claim that God causes evil. In which case, my question becomes relevant – Is God a Cosmic Jerk?

Let’s first examine the word “evil.” Theologian Joe Jones succinctly defines evil in his book A Grammar of Christian Faith “as the harm to some creature’s good” (280). Jones distinguishes between two categories of evil that harms a creatures good. First, there is moral evil – the harm humans inflict upon one another through violence, injustice, and oppression. The second category is natural evil – the harm caused by cancer, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events.

The Bible mainly explores moral evil, but one book, called Job, explores both categories. Job was a good and righteous man, who always turned away from inflicting moral evil upon others. He was rich, prosperous, and had everything that anyone in his society desired. Yet everything fell apart for job. He suffered the moral evil of people stealing his property and killing some of his servants. He suffered the natural evil of a windstorm that killed his children, the “fire of God” that burned up his sheep and killed his other servants, and a skin disease that tormented his body and his soul.

Why did this evil befall Job? The first chapter of Job claims that God is a Cosmic Jerk. Well, not explicitly, but it does claim that God made a deal with Satan – and that’s a total jerk move in my book. It’s important to note that in Hebrew the word “Satan” means “Accuser.” Satan was part of God’s divine council and his role was to roam the earth and report to God about the moral evil humans were causing. One day, God asked Satan if he had encountered Job. God bragged about Job’s righteousness, but Satan accused Job, stating that he was righteous only because God had blessed Job with an abundance of wealth and a large family. “Stretch out your hand,” Satan asserted, “and strike everything he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Satan influenced God to play his evil game of harming Job. “Very well,” God replied. “Everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself, do not lay a finger.”

That makes God into a Cosmic Jerk. I mean, if God is good, does God really play Satan’s evil game that harms Job? I’m gonna say no. Job starts with an unhelpful and false view of God, but I think its view of Satan is helpful. Satan, you’ll remember, roams the earth as the Accuser. Satan is the principle of accusation. Everyone in the book of Job, including God, participates in Satan’s accusations.

For example, Job has three friends who visit him. At first, they don’t accuse him. Instead, they met Job in his suffering. “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (2:11). This is what pastors call “the ministry of presence.” In the face of suffering caused by the harm of moral or natural evil, sometimes words just get in the way. Sometimes intellectual and religious explanations of evil aren’t helpful. The ministry of presence doesn’t demand answers to the harm caused by evil. Rather, it meets people in their suffering. The only thing the ministry of presence says with certainty is, “You are not alone.”

But then Job’s friends search for answers and their answers come in the form of accusation. To paraphrase, each friend says to Job, “You’ve committed a sin! God has turned against you. Just admit it, confess, and God will restore everything to you.” Notice that in their accusation, Job’s friends move from participating in the ministry of presence to participating in the satanic principle of accusation. Answers to moral and natural evil that come in the form of accusation are satanic and it makes God into a Cosmic Jerk. The friends blame Job and they even blame God for causing Job’s suffering. Job also blames God when he asks a rhetorical question to his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Job asserts his innocence in the face of these accusations. He contends that he doesn’t deserve this harm from God. Yet he thinks that God is a capricious divinity who randomly blesses and randomly curses, and that we should accept both. Is that what God is like?

We struggle with the same question. When natural evil strikes, like the harm caused last week by hurricane Sandy, many look for someone or something to blame. Some religious people claimed that God caused Sandy’s harmful destruction because people living on the east coast are sinful.  And when moral evil strikes, like the evil that infects our broken political system, each side accuses the other of causing our political problems. The more one side accuses the other, the more the other side feels justified in answering with accusations of their own. Many have stated that we just experienced the most hostile and negative presidential campaign in the modern era. It’s a satanic cycle of harmful accusations that infects our culture. We can easily become captivated by the spirit of accusation in our lives at home, at work, in our neighborhoods, and in our houses of worship.

Job demanded to meet with the Cosmic Jerk of chapter 1. But when Job meets with God in chapter 38, we discover that this is a different God. This God is not distant, uncaring and fickle. Instead, this God meets Job in his suffering. God comes to Job, but God doesn’t explicitly answer Job’s questions about evil. Rather, God has some questions for Job. God takes Job on a tour of creation and asks Job questions about the mysteries of the universe – about the night sky, about the power of the oceans, and about the enigmas of the animal kingdom. Then God says to Job, “Let him who accuses God answer!” (40:2).

There’s that word – “accuse.” Job was caught up in satanic accusations against God. Those accusations blinded Job, and they blind us, from seeing what God is actually doing in the world. God’s questions to Job provide him with a new perspective on God’s role in the universe. Job answered God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know … My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (42:3-5).

What didn’t Job understand? What are the things too wonderful for Job to know? And now that Job sees God, what does God look like? What is God actually doing in the world?

The story ends with Job receiving everything that he lost. In fact, we are told that “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.” This begs more questions: Did God bless Job because he repented from his accusations against God? Was Satan right all along – that God only blesses us when we are blameless and righteous, and that God curses us when we are unrighteous? Is God really caught up in Satan’s game of accusations?

Job leaves it to us to answer those questions. The early Christians, though, had a more direct answer. They explored the problem of evil through their experience with Jesus. Paul answered the problem of evil by stating that God is not a Cosmic Jerk. Well, that’s not exactly how he put it, but he did say that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Much of the moral evil in the world is caused because we participate in satanic accusations against one another. We hold sins against one another, but God doesn’t hold our sins against us. God does not play Satan’s game of accusations; rather, God’s desire is for reconciliation.

What I love about Job is that while he accused God, he never accused his accusers. In fact, in the end, he prayed for his accusers. He imitated the God who is “reconciling the world to himself … not counting their trespasses against them.” And in doing so, Job participated in the ministry of reconciliation with his accusers. Job threw a party and “everyone who had known him before came and at with him in his house” (42:11).

And so when we witness the suffering in the world that is cause by natural or moral evil, the answer of faith is not found in accusations against one another or against God. We should seek answers to the problems of harmful structures in our society and seek to change those structures, but answering those questions through accusations against one another only promotes the spirit of satanic accusations. Let’s stop the accusations against God and one another. There is a better way. The best answer to evil is to participate in the ministry of presence and in God’s reconciliation of the world.

The Truth About Political Debates: A Filthy Bunch of Liars

The Associated Press

We are a nation that is dangerously obsessed with “truth.” For example, before the debates end, internet fact checkers test every comment for its veracity. After the debates, political pundits continue the fact checking by telling us they are separating fact from fiction.

We say we want to know the truth, but in reality we are hiding from the truth. We don’t want the truth; we want to live in a myth. Unfortunately, the myth looks deceptively like truth. The myth doesn’t set us free; it enslaves us. I’ll risk the cliché about truth because, ironically, it is true. Jack Nicholson was right, we can’t handle the truth, because the truth about ourselves makes us uncomfortable.

We saw the myth last night during the second presidential debate. During a particularly awkward moment, President Obama and Governor Romney circled around one another as they pointed fingers of accusation. My Facebook friends called it the “alpha dog” moment. The image of our political candidates circling one another was symbolic of the toxic nature of this campaign where myth passes as truth.

Please, don’t be infected by the myths our candidates are spewing. They are grasping at truth and attempting to beat one another over the head with it. That use of the word “truth” enslaves us to rivalry with one another. Our politicians are enslaved, and especially during this political season, we are enslaved to the myth. We mirror one another and look like enemy twins, circling one another, ready to accuse one another of lies in the name of truth.

But truth is always false when you think you have it. Because you can’t hold the truth; if we are lucky, the truth holds us.

One thing is for sure: When we think we hold the truth, we have made the truth into our idol. By making the truth into an idol, we use it to scapegoat our opponent. We justify our open hatred, name calling, and a win-at-any-cost mentality. The problem is that scapegoating never leads to truth. Rather, scapegoating always leads to a mythical sense of our own goodness, which is mythical because it depends on the lie that our opponents are a filthy bunch of liars.

That version of truth is false. And our politicians are leading us into a toxic future of lies that lead to rivalry. The truth that we can’t handle is that in our mutual accusations against one another we become exactly the same. We become the filthy bunch of liars we see in our opponent.

I want our politicians to lead us out of this mess. I want them to have the courage to say this: “My opponent is a good and fair man. He wants what’s best for our country. He has served our country in the best way he knows how. I’m not going to accuse him of being a liar. I simply disagree with his policies.”

Is that political suicide? Maybe, but I don’t care. If it is political suicide, that’s a reflection of our culture. Our culture needs real leaders. Leaders who will guide us into a more truthful future with one another. Unfortunately, we don’t have those leaders. We have enemy twins.