Book Feature Friday: Undivided: How a Christian Mother and a Muslim Daughter Find Reconciliation

0529113058.jpgUndivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace is essential for anyone interested in interfaith dialogue. It is written by Alana Raybon and her mother Patricia Raybon. They write honestly about their faith, their passion, and their hope for reconciliation.

This book is important because increasingly the world seems to be divided upon religious hostility. Many in the US are suspicious of Islam. We are fed a constant diet of “Islamic extremists” on the news. That diet includes a poisonous main course that claims Islam is inherently violent. And if Islam is inherently violent, then Muslims are, too.

We need to stop eating that poison.

Just as the US is divided when it comes to religion, so were Patricia and Alana. Undivided invites the reader to glimpse into the life of a mother and daughter that seek reconciliation amid religious division. Like many mother-daughter relationships, the division and hurt between them is intense and painful. But Undivided also reveals that there is hope.

Patricia, a devout believer in Jesus, felt betrayed by her daughter’s conversion to Islam. She’s heartbroken because she believes that Alana has rejected Jesus in a “defiant choice of faith.” And in rejecting Jesus, Patricia feels rejected, too. She “feels the hurt of a daughter who turned the Lord down without spending even one second to ask her give-it-all mother what I thought.”

A little motherly guilt trip, there? Yes. Patricia “pounds” on Alana, in hopes of bringing her back to Jesus. “A few Christian friends of mine want me to keep pounding on Alana” she writes. “Even more want me to keep pounding on Satan. To take authority and pray Satan back to hell and Alana back to Christ. Jesus, instead, asks me to step out of the boat.”

But throughout most of the book, Patricia continues to pound on Islam. She writes about her steady diet of news stories claiming the Islam is violent and experiences with Muslims that are negative, putting Alana on the defensive. Alana defends Islam against the barrage of the news stories that emphasize violence in the name of Islam. She pleads that her mother stops watching the news and begins to understand that “I know firsthand about Islamic peace, through my own life and from the people who surround me every day.”

As I read Undivided, I noticed a general truth about family dynamics. The more a parent pursues, the more the child creates distance. Patricia’s pursuit to convince Alana that she needs Jesus only backfires because she talks past Alana. Alana distances herself by going weeks without responding to her mother. claims that her choice in converting to Islam wasn’t a “defiant choice of faith”; rather, Islam gave her a passion for God that she never felt before. Islam “holds me together when life seems to pull me in so many places.”

Patricia and Alana’s relationship was divided because they both insisted on being right about their religion. And in being right, the other had to be wrong. The religious battle between this mother and daughter is indicative of the religious battle of truth that seems to be playing out between Christianity and Islam on a global scale.

But not all Christians and Muslims are fighting that battle. In fact, Undivided is an important book because it reveals how this mother and daughter moved from an interfaith battle of right and wrong to walking hand in hand down the interfaith road to peace. Our religions aren’t the problem; it’s our shared desire to prove ourselves right and another wrong that divides us. This dynamic creates a mimetic rivalry because the more I want to be right and prove you wrong, the more you will likely respond by wanting to be right and prove me wrong. Fortunately, Patricia and Alana are no longer consumed by that rivalry. “We’ve moved past the point of needing to prove each other wrong,” writes Alana, “and I’m so grateful for that.”

I’m grateful for that, too. In fact, Alana states, “I find myself not offended” by statements that used to offend her. The spiritual maturity of becoming less offended is crucial for our future. We are so easily offendable, which leads to resentment, bitterness, and violence. If our society would read this book, we would discover how to better manage ourselves when we feel offended. We would discover that despite our interfaith missteps, the point of our religious traditions is not to be right by proving each other wrong, but to step out of the boat. To stop pounding on each other. And to seek reconciliation as we love one another as we would love ourselves.

Book Feature Friday: The Hope to “Reconcile” in a World of Conflict

reconcileFrom Ferguson to Ukraine to Syria to Iraq to local neighborhoods to family systems, many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the many conflicts that afflict our world. The news continues to feed us an unhealthy diet of continual conflict, hostility, and violence. It’s easy to think that this is just how the world works. It’s easy to lose hope that we can find reconciliation.

If you are beginning to feel a sense of despair like I am, please read Reconcile by international peacebuilder John Paul Lederach. As Bill and Lynne Hybels state in the forward, “This book truly has the power to change the world.”

Lederach is known for working throughout the world in areas of deep seated conflict. Since the 1980s, he has helped to bring reconciliation to national conflicts in Columbia, the Philippines, and Nepal, along with countries in East and West Africa. But Reconcile is not just about restoring relationships in those countries. It’s also about healing inner turmoil, family disputes, neighborhood quarrels, and church clashes.

Immanently practical and engaging, Reconcile is part guidebook and part autobiography. It is written from a Christian perspective, but anyone who reads this book will gain important wisdom on how to nurture reconciliation. With a study guide, this book is ideal for personal reflection or group study.

Lederach claims that conflict is inevitable. Jesus put it another way, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” Reconcile is an important book because it provides the necessary tools and inspiration to engage conflicts in ways that promote reconciliation.

Personally, I deal with conflicts by running away from them. On the other hand, I know many people who deal with conflicts by treating them as a game to win. Both strategies are unhealthy. Lederach guides us through an alternative strategy with a reflection on Matthew 18 in a chapter entitled “Where Two or Three Meet.” This chapter alone is worth the price of the book! In Matthew 18, Jesus provides practical advice for how to engage conflicts. Lederach breaks down Jesus’ advice into four helpful steps. The first step is to go directly to the other person, not in the spirit of confrontation, but rather in the spirit of listening and mutual engagement. If that doesn’t bring reconciliation, the second step is to take 2-3 witnesses to the next meeting. The third step is to tell the church about the conflict because, as Lederach claims, “Reconciliation is the mission of the church.” And if the first three steps fail to bring reconciliation, the fourth step is to treat the person as a sinner or tax collector. Sounds a bit harsh, huh? Well, Lederach gives us a new perspective on these steps by placing them within the context of Jesus’ teachings. I will examine the two steps that tend to be the most controversial, the first and the last.

The first step is to go directly to the other person. For someone like me who avoids conflict like the plague it seems to be, this first step might be the most difficult! But it is necessary because if we don’t go directly to the other person, we will go behind the other person’s back and gossip with other people. Lederach claims that in “common practice, complainers take the problem outside the relationship and ‘triangle’ other people into the situation.” In mimetic theory terms, we call this form of triangulation “scapegoating.”

Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to find reconciliation is for a group to unite against a scapegoat. The scapegoat functions for a group as a common enemy. All of our inner hostility is projected upon our scapegoat and we experience a sense of reconciliation. This strategy takes many forms, including gossiping and physical violence. It is so pervasive that it seems to be our default mechanism for dealing with conflicts, but it always leads to an increase in mutual hostility, distrust, and broken relationships.

It is far better to resist the temptation to scapegoat and go directly to the other person. But when we go to the other, it’s also important to resist the temptation to win and to blame. Reconciliation isn’t about winning a conflict by blaming the other person; it’s about restoring a relationship. As Lederach claims, healing a conflict involves “neither blaming nor retreating. It involves a stance of vulnerable transparency, where [we] speak from the depths of awareness about [our] own concerns, fears, hopes, and needs.”

If the first three steps don’t provide reconciliation, the final step is to treat the other person as “a Gentile or tax collector.” This step has often been interpreted as Jesus advising acts of exclusion. Gentiles and tax collectors were frequently treated as enemies and traitors, as people to hate and exclude from community. But Lederach asks a decisive question when it comes to understanding this final step:

How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? In answering that question, we can discover how we should respond when we reach this stage of the conflict. What stands out is this simple answer: Jesus ate with them (as in Matthew 19:10).  Time and again … Jesus chose the route of seeking out and eating with the very people perceived to be impure and outside the believing community. My interpretation of step 4 is this: Eat with them!

Reconciliation is hard and often dangerous work! If you are going to follow Jesus by seeking reconciliation with someone labeled an enemy by your group, you risk being labeled an enemy yourself!

Lederach is also clear that reconciliation is frequently a slow and painful process that requires a balanced sense of justice, mercy, truth, and peace. He also warns “that forcing someone into engagements and relationships [of reconciliation], which we often do under the rubric of spiritual obligation, without fully attending to the preparation and authenticity of that choice, is…damaging.” There are times when so much damage has been done that reconciliation might not be possible. At all times, great care needs to be taken as we seek reconciliation.

Still, reconciliation is not entirely up to us. We certainly have an important role to play, but reconciliation is ultimately up to God. In fact, according to Lederach, reconciliation “lies at the heart of the good news. God moves toward us to mend and heal what has been torn apart. God’s mission is reconciliation.”

Can anyone thwart God’s mission? Tragically, as we watch the news of escalating conflict and hostility, we seem to be thwarting God’s mission pretty easily. But ultimately, I don’t think we can thwart God’s mission of reconciliation. As the Bible states, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting us the message of reconciliation to us.”

The good news is that God is reconciling the world. So, as you hear the news about escalating conflict, violence, and war, and as you experience conflict in your own life and communities, please don’t lose hope. Know that God is reconciling the world and entrusting you to the message of reconciliation. And, if you want to help make your neighborhood and the world a better place, please read Reconcile.

Hatred In The Nuclear Era


Image from:

Before nuclear weapons, after nuclear weapons . . .

“The latter era, of course,” writes Noam Chomsky, “opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.”

We’re not even close. Or so it seems on a bad day. “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” asked columnist Colman McCarthy. Well, for one thing, we don’t wrap illiteracy in a shroud of glory and call it war or self-defense or national security; nor have we developed a multi-trillion-dollar industry called the Illiteracy Industrial Complex (or maybe we have, and call it television). In any case, the human race has a demonstrated ability to pull itself out of an instinct-driven existence — but now finds itself at a suicidal impasse, unable, or uncertain how, to commit to taking the next step upwards, beyond violent conflict resolution and the mentality of “us vs. them,” and into a fuller connection with the universe.

This moment, as we straddle the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a time to reflect on what happens next. Violence — disorganized and, of course, highly organized and extraordinarily sophisticated — remains humanity’s obsession, preoccupation and primary distraction. Despite the ability we now possess to destroy ourselves and most life on this planet, we have barely begun to question our reflexive violence. Doing so requires looking courageously inward.

If there’s a guiding principle in this journey, perhaps it begins here:

“. . .  conflict escalates — that is, moves increasingly toward violence — according to the degree of dehumanization in the situation,” writes Stephanie Van Hook, executive director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, summarizing the work of Michael Nagler, who wrote The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action. “Violence, in other words, doesn’t occur without dehumanization.”

This is simplicity itself, is it not? As long as we respect the person or group with whom we’re in conflict, both sides, eventually, win. It gets tricky, however, when one side adamantly refuses to show respect, and even more so when there’s an imbalance of power involved — and when one’s life is in danger. What does “showing respect” even mean in such circumstances? It could mean “turning the other cheek,” but two millennia on, this concept remains misunderstood as passive compliance and buried six feet deep in cynicism.

Gandhi re-energized the idea and called it “satyagraha”: seize the truth. That is to say, refuse either to dehumanize the other person or let the other person do it to you. Stand with courage and change the world. But the popular understanding of this idea is precarious. The media extol violent elimination of conflict — poof! evil loses — and capitalism caters to every side in almost every global feud. Ongoing dehumanization of one’s enemy is a source of unending profit, if not an economic necessity.

And this, I repeat, is the situation in a nuclear-armed world.

“Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestation?”

These are the words of Gen. Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, keeper of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, who, post-retirement, became haunted by the work he did and turned into a zealot for nuclear disarmament.

In his essay, “Death by Deterrence,” Butler noted that, “from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it.”

The conclusion I draw from this observation, by a man who has stared into the nuclear abyss, is that the temptation to dehumanize “the other” — whoever that may be — and keep the world, as it were, safe for violence, surmounts the rationality of survival. Continuing to develop nuclear weapons, generation after generation, means that one day they will be used. And in a world festooned with dehumanized people, such a day will be sooner rather than later.

It’s easier to hate than to love. We can maintain hatred for “the other” and remain certain of who we are. To love — especially beyond our obvious self-interest — is no small feat. Every religion reaches toward this peak of being in its teaching, but falls short of it in its practical application. Indeed, sustaining hatred for an enemy creates group coherence. And violence sustains the hatred, because without it, one would have to accept the blame for every murder committed in the name of that hatred.

As Rabbi Michael Lerner recently wrote: “. . . one of the primary victims of the war between Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held together for several thousand years.”

I think we do have the moral and intellectual capacity to control our worst instincts, but I don’t know if we have the will, or the time, to rebuild our lives, and our global civilization, around the best of who we are. Another anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us that the clock is ticking.

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


Surprising Insights on Ukraine in the New York Times

Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters

Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters

The news coverage of international conflicts can be very disappointing from a mimetic perspective. When conflicts escalate into violence as in Syria or the Ukraine, news outlets rush to cover the hostilities. They give us the facts on the ground, or rumors thereof, accompanied by an almost mindless report of what each side is saying by way of self-justification. However, if you listen to their rhetoric with mimetically tuned ears, which happens after spending time here at Raven, you realize that their rhetoric is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Unfortunately, it is this “nothing” that usually makes the headlines.

Major outlets like the New York Times rarely give as good an analysis as my colleague Adam Ericksen did last week. Speaking of the crisis in Ukraine, Adam said that we often think conflict is the result of differences. But the truth is that rivals resemble each other in often surprising ways. They are in conflict because they share the same desires and so are locked in a competition for something that they cannot or will not share. In the case of the conflict over Crimea, the “thing” is not the region but power and prestige. Adam explains:

Russia’s desire for power is mimetic, or imitative, and modeled on its rival for power, the United States. Russia wants what the United States has – the prestige of being a global super power – and Russia is willing to use the same methods that the United States has used to gain and sustain that prestige – violence.

News reports tend to emphasize differences, because that is what the combatants do, so imagine my surprise when in the last week I came across not one, but two articles in the New York Times that focused on the similarities between the US and Russia! A focus on similarities is a sure sign that a mimetic analysis is going on. If you’d like to play a game – read the articles before you take a look at my comments to see if you can spot the mimetic moments in them for yourself.

Difference #1: I’m the True Believer in Self-Determination, Not You!

March 7: For First Time, Kremlin Signals It Is Prepared to Annex Crimea

In the following excerpt we see a good understanding that each nation claims to support the right of self-determination which is a similarity they openly admit to. Yet they insist that only they and not their opponent are the true supporters of self-determination. And they give examples to prove it. But the reporter clearly sees the hypocrisy behind the rhetoric. All the rhetoric is around trying to explain why when I intervene somewhere it’s about my noble belief in self-determination, when I don’t intervene in a similar situation, well, let’s not discuss that right now! Mimetic point: Rivals insist on differences and cannot see how alike they are, something only skeptical onlookers can see.

With Washington and Moscow trading heated accusations of hypocrisy on the issue of respecting state sovereignty, validating Crimea’s secession would carry pointed political risks for Mr. Putin, given longstanding demands for independence from Russia by its own similarly autonomous republics in the Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya.

Michael A. McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia, noted the parallel in a sharp post on Twitter. “If Russian government endorses Crimean referendum,” Mr. McFaul wrote, using abbreviations needed for a 140-character limit, “will they also allow/endorse similar votes in republics in the Russian Federation?”

The West, which has insisted that the Ukrainian people are entitled to decide their future without interference from Russia, faces similar challenges as it seeks to explain why the people of Crimea should not necessarily decide their own fate.

The United States and its European allies typically support self-determination, but have opposed independence for regions within their own borders, like Scotland in Britain or Catalonia in Spain.

Difference #2: My Violence is Good – Yours is Bad!

March 8: Sovereignty vs. Self-Rule: Crimea Reignites Battle

This excerpt points to the thorny dilemma that our military intervention in Kosovo created for us. The US saw its use of violence as legitimate and unique. In other words, this was an extreme case in which good violence was necessary to stop bad violence and so it was not a precedent that should be imitated by other nations. We were trying the old parental gambit, “Do as I say, not as I do,” which is mimetic foolishness at its most extreme. We imitate the actions of our models, even when they tell us not to. What Russia saw us doing was use violence in the name of a good and just cause while reserving the right to condemn the use of violence by others. And so Russian makes the same claim: they insist their violence is just and justified, while ours is not. Mirror images once again – all similarity and very little difference. Mimetic point: Rivals see only the differences between their violence and that of their rival, while skeptical onlookers and especially the victims of the violence, see no difference at all. The rivals are mirror images, enemy twins, as they use violence, ignore victims, and never doubt their own goodness.

Kosovo is the case that deeply divided Europe. After Yugoslavia fell apart, the Kosovo Liberation Army, a rebel group representing the Albanian minority, struggled against the Serbian government, which responded with punishing force until Mr. Clinton intervened in 1999 with a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The United States under George W. Bush recognized it, as did Britain, France and Germany, but Russia adamantly rejected it, as did Spain. The International Court of Justice later ruled that Kosovo’s declaration was legal.

“We never saw it as setting a precedent, but there were some nations that saw it that way and still do,” said James W. Pardew, who was Mr. Clinton’s special representative for the Balkans.

John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer at the State Department under Bush, said: “We were very careful to emphasize that Kosovo was a unique situation. We were fond of saying it was sui generis — and it did not create a precedent that would likely be replicable anywhere else.”

That is not how the Kremlin sees it. Ever since, Russia has cited Kosovo to justify support for pro-Moscow separatist republics in places like Georgia, where it went to war in 2008 and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia over Western objections.

Difference #3: It’s Not About Differences!

A good mimetic analysis is always skeptical of the rhetoric of combatants for one simple reason: rivals insist on their differences for one reason – to justify their use of violence. Rivals divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, those who can use violence with moral or legal authority and those whose violence always falls outside those boundaries. When reporters fall under the spell of the conflict, they spend their time in a futile search for the good guys to defend, the victims to protect and the bad guys to punish. But in a conflict in which violence has erupted, the distinction between good guys and bad guys fades into meaninglessness. There are only perpetrators busy justifying themselves and victims who suffer and die.

The painful outcome of a mimetic analysis is the discovery that your side, your nation, your people, your morality may have fallen victim to difference-destroying violence. But out of that painful realization, hope for peace is born. Once we recognize that we are no different than our rivals, we may also recognize that to be truly good means to renounce the legitimacy of violence. That hope can be born out of a painful truth is what motivates our analysis here at Raven. I wonder if the New York Times is beginning to dare to tell its readers a truth they may not want to hear. If these articles are any indication, the Times may finally be reporting news fit to print.

Good War, Bad War: One Tiger’s Opinion

bengal tiger

Photo by Liz Lauren

Three days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United  States Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force giving the president the authority to “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…” As Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death writes in a recent HuffPost article, there was only one dissenting vote that day against a measure that condoned a never ending war against anyone, anywhere doing anything perceived as a threat. Rep. Barbara Lee of California warned, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Few listened then. The divide between us and them seemed so vast. They were clearly evil and we were clearly innocent victims. It felt so easy to tell the difference between good and evil that Rep. Lee’s warning seemed more than a bit naïve. How would it be possible for “us” to become “them”?

A news story appearing 6 months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 caught the eye of playwright Rajiv Joseph. A soldier, who was on duty guarding the animals at the war-damaged Baghdad Zoo, shot and killed a tiger that had mauled another soldier. An absurd thing to happen in urban warfare when one imagines the risks come from guns or bombs, not caged animals. That story prompted Joseph to explore the absurdities of war, or rather our absurd lack of understanding of the impact of violence on the human spirit. The result was his provocative and profound play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, now playing at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. Joseph’s play thrusts us into the middle of a war zone and dramatizes just how possible it is for “us” to become “them”.

This is a difficult play to sit through, I can tell you. The central character is the ghost of the dead Tiger and he haunts the streets of Baghdad demanding that God show up and explain why he’s still around. Is God punishing him for doing what Tigers do naturally? “After all,” he says, “lunch usually consists of the weak, the small, the stupid, the young, the crippled. Because they’re easier to kill.” He’s not the only one preying on the weak, not the only ghost to question his acts of violence, and not the only death the audience witnesses. Good people, confused people, tortured people and lonely people become perpetrators and victims. Violence is done to them, they witness it done to others, they survive somehow and shockingly find themselves mirroring the violence all around them. Things seem to be happening just as Rep. Lee warned, but this is just a play, isn’t it? Don’t good moral people hang on to their goodness in real life, no matter what?

Bengal Tiger is hard to sit through because it dramatizes our confused, misguided understanding that good people can use violence in a just cause without losing a hold on goodness. If we feel frightened enough and victimized enough, we believe, good people have a right and duty to respond with our own violence and nothing will happen to our souls or our spirits. Our consciences will be untroubled, no doubt will haunt us nor should it. As the Authorization for Use of Military Force demonstrates, we believe good violence is so good it can be completely unrestrained by time, place or legal barriers. Thank you to Rep. Lee for asking us to rethink that one, to Norman Solomon for reporting on her, to Lookinggass for staging this play and to Rajiv Joseph for writing it. Maybe we need to be forced to use our imaginations to see where such thinking leads us. Joseph has done the hard work for us, exercised his imagination so vigorously that he gives us a play that unmoors us from our normal framework. His Tiger that talks instead of growls insists we wrestle with our inability to admit that unrestrained violence is a bad thing. To believe otherwise is to live in a world so absurd that a walking, talking, praying ghost of a Tiger murdered in his cage passes for normal.

Good people become the evil they deplore when they believe goodness and violence make a sensible combination. In his article, Solomon reports on the latest attempt by Rep. Lee to pierce our belief in unrestrained violence: she’s introduced H.R. 198, a measure to repeal the Authorization for use of Military Force. If you’re thinking, “About time!” then do what thousands have already done – go to the special webpage at and email your Senators and House members to support the repeal effort. If you’re still thinking our violence is an exception, always exceptionally good, go see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Or follow Norman Solomon or listen to our interview with the director the Lookingglass production, Heidi Stillman. Pick one – it’ll do you good.

Guns: Cause or Cure?

obama and biden

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Adam and I did a series of four articles following the Newtown massacre in December. Our focus was on the culture of violence in which we live, breathe and have our being. We wrote that the logic of violence is woven through the fabric of our culture. In entertainment, religion, politics and war we act as if it’s true that there are two kinds of violence: our violence which is always good, and our enemy’s, which is always bad. This logic gives us tacit permission to use violence to achieve our ends, and in the third article in the series, I wrote about how the mentally ill who randomly kill others are acting out our own faith in good violence with a relentless, devastating logic.

The national response to Newtown is now crystallizing around political solutions. Vice-President Biden, Governor Cuomo of New York, and Governor Malloy of Connecticut where the massacre occurred, are all leading task forces or calling for a response that involves gun control measures. Arguing over guns is nothing new in America. We have a long, rich tradition of demonizing each other over the shape and limits of gun ownership. Passions run high on both sides because each side believes with an almost religious zeal in the rightness of their cause and the evil intentions of their adversaries. With apocalyptic fervor, each side claims that our freedom depends on their side winning control over guns in America. The mimetic insight of René Girard alerts us to what is really going on: When adversaries are most passionately proclaiming their differences in a contest over an object they both desire, that is when the object is most meaningless and the differences between the adversaries virtually disappear. If that is true of most conflicts, is it becoming true in this case? If it becomes true, what does it mean for our national political debate?

Girard explains that the end result of an ongoing conflict over some object of contention is rivalry for its own sake. What that looks like in the gun debate is that while both sides insist they want to find a way to protect innocent victims from random violence, the rivalry has escalated to such an extreme that they are no longer interested in what that solution might look like… unless, of course, it is their solution. The search for a sensible response may be the content of their rhetoric, but the reality is that what each side truly wants is to win. Winning is all that’s left and each side wants it so badly that the goodness they both claim to seek and to represent, is emptied of all meaning.

This is the risk we run now in our debate about guns. Guns are not the problem, as those who defend gun ownership are fond of saying. Nor are less guns the solution, as those who advocate for gun control contend. The problem is that both sides believe in the power of guns, believe in it so completely that they run the risk of becoming mirror images of each other, enemy twins as Girard calls them. The differences each side insists exist are superficial and irrelevant. The thing that matters, the truth at the heart of the conflict, is that what they share in common has become a bigger problem than guns. When each side shares the same faith in the power of guns and the same desire to defeat their rival, it’s not the “madness of violence” that consumes us, as Gov. Cuomo said in his state of the state address. It is the madness of our own escalating rivalry and self-deluded sense of goodness.

What would it look like if we actually cared more about ending violence than our own victory? One suggestion came from the Connecticut House minority leader, Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., as reported in the New York Times: “But he, like others, said one response to the Newtown shootings should be a commitment to civility and bipartisanship in the Legislature.” Civility would require dropping the false accusations of wicked intent against our opponents and bipartisanship would shift the focus from claims of differences to see more clearly what we have in common. Hopefully, once we were able to see just how much our faith in the power of gun violence unites us, we would be able to see that it is that faith which has generated the culture of violence of which gun violence is but a symptom. When we drop the pretense of sole possession of being right on the issue, we may discover that we share a mutual responsibility for the violence and have all become obstacles to meaningful change.

New York State Senator Timothy M. Kennedy expressed our nation’s deepest hope when he said, “When you hear about these issues all across the nation, whether it’s in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or Columbine, something needs to happen – something transformative.” The only truly transformative thing would be for both sides of the gun debate to find the moral courage to drop their pretense of difference and to face the underlying problem obscured by the smokescreen of rivalry: America believes in the power of violence more than we believe in anything else, more than we believe in freedom or democracy or love or community or God or peace. Nothing short of a culture-wide shift in our fundamental belief will end the scourge of gun violence. Culture-wide shifts begin one person at a time. Are you willing to go first?

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.