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batman v superman 1

Theology and Sacrifice in Batman v. Superman [Spoilers]

The critics have almost universally condemned Batman v. Superman. Personally, I think they’re right. Like many, I fell into plot holes about every 15 minutes and had a difficult time finding my way out. But for all the problems with the story line, Batman v. Superman asks some really good questions about theology, evil, and sacrifice.

There is an ancient sacrificial formula. According to René Girard, it goes back all the way to the founding of the first human cultures. Most concisely, the formula looks like this: whenever a community experiences a crisis of violence, it undoubtedly will survive by blaming a single person for its problems. Girard calls this person the scapegoat. The group finds unity by channeling its own violence against their scapegoat, who is accused of being evil, even a demon or a monster. The scapegoat is violently murdered and peace descends upon the group, but the peace is only temporary because the real problem of violence has never been solved.

When a crisis once again threatens the group, the process of sacrificial violence against an “evil” scapegoat repeats itself. As Girard states in a recently published conversation edited by Michael HardinReading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Stephen E. Berry, “Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.”*  Soon, mythological stories and a theology emerges that claims that whenever the community experiences a crisis, the gods demand a violent sacrifice so that peace will return.

Indeed, this sacrificial formula is ancient, and yet it remains the dominant formula of our modern world. Its logic claims that sacrificial violence against an evil enemy is the surest way to peace. We see this logic in our politics, economics, religions, newscasts, and in the cinema. One of the most obvious examples of it is portrayed by Superman in the latest blockbuster film, Batman v. Superman.

Superman, Jesus, and Sacrifice

Superman is referred to as “God” throughout the movie. He seems to fit common assumption of the divine role quite nicely – Superman is all-powerful and miraculously seeks to save people from harm and death.

Many have suggested that Superman is a Christ-like figure. Superman and Jesus are similar in that they both seek to save humans from evil. The similarity becomes even stronger as they both save the world from evil through an act of sacrifice. But there is also a fundamental difference between the two. Superman saves the world through the ancient formula of sacrificial violence, whereas Jesus flips the ancient sacrificial formula and saves the world through an act of sacrificial nonviolence.

Superman and Evil

Near the end of the movie, Lex Luthor unleashes “Doomsday,” a monster that is a nearly perfect representation of evil. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman unite to destroy Doomsday, but the more they attack the evil monster, the more it feeds the beast with energy. With every violent blow, Doomsday grows stronger.

And that’s why Doomsday is a good example of evil. Paradoxically, the most reliable way to ensure the growth of evil is attempting to defeat it with violence. But violence only gives evil more energy. Tragically, we are witnessing this truth about evil in our current War on Terror. We attacked Saddam Hussein as part of the War on Terror. When Saddam was overthrown, al-Qaeda moved in to fill the power void. Once we weakened al-Qaeda, ISIS became our biggest threat. There is a clear pattern emerging. U.S. violence against terrorists is only planting the seeds for more terrorists. Apparently, we’re on the verge of defeating ISIS, which only begs the question – What terrorist group will emerge next?

In the end, Doomsday isn’t a perfect example of evil. Superman soon realizes that he and the monster share Kryptonian DNA, which means they are both vulnerable to Kryptonite. Superman sacrifices himself by seizing a Kryptonite spear and impaling the weapon through Doomsday, killing the monster. Unfortunately for Superman, holding the Kryptonite weakens him just enough for Doomsday to impale him with a spike, leaving them both dead.

And, you know, since Superman destroyed Doomsday but didn’t destroy evil, there will be a sequel. And I will watch. Hopefully the next movie won’t have as many plot holes…

Jesus and Evil

Indeed, Superman and Jesus have the same goal of saving the world from evil. They also sacrifice themselves in order to defeat evil. We want a Superman-like-Christ who will keep us safe from evil, by any means necessary, including violence.

But we don’t have a Superman-like-Christ. We have a Jesus-like-Christ. Superman believes if he just has the right weapon – a spear made of kryptonite – then he can finally destroy evil. But Jesus didn’t believe that. He knew that no matter the weapon, violence only feeds the evil beast.

Jesus came face to face with evil when he went to the cross. It was his “Doomsday” moment. And like Superman, it was a sacrificial act that led to his death, but there’s an important difference. Jesus didn’t feed evil by using violence against it; rather, he starved evil by a radical act of forgiveness. From the cross he prayed that God would not avenge his persecutors. Instead, he prayed for their forgiveness, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Conclusion

It’s interesting to note that Batman v. Superman was released in theaters on March 25, which happened to be Good Friday. Many think this was just a coincidence. That may be true, but what an odd coincidence to release the story of a god who dies to save the world from evil with an act of sacrificial violence on the day that Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, who saved the world from evil by sacrificing himself in an act of nonviolent love.

Batman v. Superman tells a contemporary mythical version of the ancient sacrificial formula. The heroic god-like figure saves the world by violently killing an evil enemy. This story has been told since the beginning of human culture. Unfortunately, it’s not working. Evil continues to threaten our world. With the advent of nuclear weapons and chemical warfare, violence threatens our world like never before.

But Jesus tells a different story. In a world where violence only feeds evil, Jesus offers the only alternative of nonviolence. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Forgive those who persecute you.

This year, Good Friday put two stories before us. One was based on the ancient sacrificial formula of violence, the other was Jesus’s alternative sacrificial formula of nonviolent love. Which story will we choose?

Photo: Screenshot from YouTube.

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*Michael Hardin, ed, Reading the Bible with Rene Girard: Conversations with Stephen E. Berry (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2015), page 40. 

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Star Wars and Theology Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Good and Evil

One common critique of the Star Wars saga is that it holds a simplistic view of good and evil. For example, Star Wars makes it easy to tell the difference between good and evil. The distinction is as plain black and white. The Jedi are good and the Sith are evil. The Rebellion is good and the Empire is evil. Even the costumes point toward a simplistic understanding of evil – the Stormtroopers are white, while the main villains, Darth Vader and now Kylo Ren, wear black. And, of course, their humanity is hidden by the fact that they wear masks.

Unfortunately, this simplistic notion of good and evil doesn’t just exists in the movies. It’s alive and well in our culture today. Once we eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we are the force of good in the world, thus, they are the force of evil. We then tell mythical stories about the evil other. These myths lead to radical examples of claiming to be good while scapegoating others.

The latest example of this patently false myth are the “evil” Muslims who are out to conquer the United States. Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, recently held a rally in South Carolina. In good mythical fashion, he turned to the dark side by accusing Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country of “probably” being members of ISIS. You know, because they are Muslims. In response to Trumps remarks about Syrian refugees, a Muslim woman at the rally stood up in silent protest as she wore a shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.”

Despite her silence, the crowd turned against her, shouting at her to leave by chanting, “You have a bomb. You have a bomb.” For his part, Trump claimed, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred; it’s not our hatred.”

Trump and many of his supporters live in a mythical world. A world where the distinction between good and evil is as clear as the distinction between night and day, between Christian and Muslim. They are a force for good; whereas silent Muslims wearing “Peace” shirts are full of hatred. Of course, I can easily split the world into good and evil. As I critique Trump and his supporters at the rally, I risk doing to them the same thing that they are doing to Muslims. I risk making a mythical claim to be a force of goodness over and against their force of evil.

Fortunately, Star Wars offers us an alternative to that myth. The critique that Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil is false. Stars Wars constructs the myth of good and evil only to deconstruct it.

The deconstruction of the mythical understanding of good and evil emerges in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. As he runs and flips around the swamp-like forest with the little green alien on his back, Luke asks the mythical question, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda replies, “You will know, when you are calm, at peace.”

But Luke discovers a greater truth about knowing the good side from the bad. The Force leads him into “The Cave of Evil.” As he enters the cave, he asks Yoda what’s inside. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda responds. Luke took with him his fear of the dark side; his fear of confronting Darth Vader.

A few moments after entering the cave, Luke has a vision of Darth Vader walking towards him with his lightsaber extended. Their sabers strike three times, then Luke slices off Vader’s helmet. It rolls to the ground, stops, and the mask exploded, only to show Luke’s face in the helmet staring straight at him.

In that scene, Luke discovered the truth about good and evil. In Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of evil in cinematic history, Luke sees himself. Even before he knows that Vader is his father, Luke learns that his identity is connected with Darth Vader. That’s because the evil that we see in the other is the evil that is inside ourselves. But we’d rather not see the evil within ourselves, so we suppress it by projecting it onto others. And so, at this moment in the Star Wars saga, Luke begins to discover that the distinction between good and evil is not primarily a distinction between himself and Darth Vader. Rather, the distinction between good and evil is a distinction that exists within himself.

Luke’s spiritual awakening is in the fact that he didn’t banish the darkness from within himself. He didn’t scapegoat the fear and evil within his own soul. When we do that, the fear and evil within only grows bigger and more menacing. Rather, Luke acknowledged the evil within himself. Later in the saga, after he slices off Darth Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi, Luke stares at his own mechanical hand. Once again he becomes aware of the darkness within himself. He was able to resist the dark side not because he made a distinction between the good in himself and the evil in his enemies, but because he learned how to manage the darkness within his own soul.

Kylo Ren has a similar experience in the Force Awakens. He feels the tension between the light and the dark within himself, but manages it in a different way. Kylo holds his Grandfather’s helmet and offers a prayer, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the dark.” Luke and Kylo both feel the light and the dark within themselves. The difference is that Luke was able to incorporate the light and the dark. In doing so, Luke made peace with the darkness within. But Kylo felt tormented because he resisted the light that shined in the darkness of his soul.

The truth is that we are all a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. The great Russian novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn warned that, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus taught this lesson, too. He asked his followers, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Jesus and Star Wars both challenge us with the difficult spiritual practice of examining the darkness that lies within ourselves. Taking the log out of our own eye is painful work; I’d much rather point to the speck of evil that’s in my neighbor’s eye. But Christianity reminds us that we are much more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. We learn from Jesus, but we are much more like the disciples who abandoned, betrayed, and turned against Jesus during his darkest hour.

But the good news is that like Luke never gave up on his father, Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He resurrected to give his disciples a new mission. That mission wasn’t to locate evil out in the world and destroy it. Rather, Jesus’ mission is to “feed my sheep.” The great adventure that is Christianity is not to fight violence with more violence, but to care for those in need and to love even those we call our enemies.

More about that in the next part of this series.

Images: Luke Skywalker after defeating Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (Screenshot from YouTube) and Kylo Ren praying to Darth Vader’s helmet (Screenshot from YouTube)

Other parts of this series:
Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure
Part 2: The Myth of Good and Evil

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Doing Good, Becoming Evil: The Pope, Elijah, And Moses

How do we oppose what is evil without becoming its mirror image? That’s the question I’ve been pondering since Pope Francis said this to Congress:

We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

The Pope’s call to be alert to different types of fundamentalism struck me as the message America needs to hear. We often forget that fundamentalism can appear in economic, political or ideological garb. It can be as secular or political as it is religious, but it is within religion that we find deep resources for understanding and combatting fundamentalism in all its dizzying variety.

The Idolatry of Anti-idolatry

Girardian scholar and professor of Jewish studies at Purdue University, Sandor Goodhart, says that the Old Testament is troubled by a type of religious fundamentalism, what Goodhart calls “the idolatry of anti-idolatry”. The ancient Hebrew zeal to witness to the one true God, Goodhart explains, at times turned the truth of God into an idol. What does that mean? That the dynamic, creative, unknowable God can become hardened into an idea that we think we own and represent in all its fullness.

When we believe we are in possession of complete knowledge of God, then it endows our actions with unassailable goodness. Even actions that we condemn when performed by our opponents will appear good and noble to us when we do them. A wonderful illustration of this comes from 1 Kings 18 where we are told that Queen Jezebel, the Baal worshipper, has been “killing off the prophets of the Lord” (18:4). To demonstrate that the Lord, not Baal, is God, the prophet Elijah miraculously ignites a sacrificial fire that humiliates Baal’s prophets. Elijah then “seized them; and Elijah brought down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” (18:40)

I’m not sure we are meant to applaud Elijah’s murderous rampage. I think the Biblical text is inviting us to see the similarities between Elijah and Jezebel, despite their insistence on how different they are from one another. They are both so strongly in the grip of religious fundamentalism that they condemn each other as murderers while celebrating murder as justified by their god. Nothing can dissuade them from their belief in their own goodness, not even the blood of their victims. This is what James Alison is referring to when he says that “our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.” When we cling to our sense of ourselves as good, despite evidence to the contrary, we have turned our goodness into a sacred idol.

The Elijah Trap

But isn’t killing bad people good? Nothing could be more good and righteous than defeating the worship of Baal, which took the form of routine child sacrifice (Jeremiah 19:5). If so, then the response “Thanks be to God!” after reading 1 Kings 18 would be more than justified. And yet I hope the thought of thanking God for the murders committed by Elijah makes you every bit as uncomfortable as thanking God for Jezebel’s murders.

Of course we no longer have to combat Baal worshippers. Yet we are at war with an enemy whose evil we do not question. So here’s the question I think the Biblical writers want us to ask ourselves: Should we “thank God” for the murder by drone or bombing campaigns, for example, of suicide bombers or religious terrorists? After all, did they not celebrate the victims of the 9/11 attacks? Do they not call for the destruction of the Great Satan, as they call us? But if we celebrate and thank God (or whatever name we give to ‘goodness’) when we kill them, have we become like Elijah, unassailable agents for what is good and right who fail to recognize the Jezebel within?

Unwavering belief in our own goodness has infected our politics as well. Political discourse has deteriorated to such an extent that we treat the opposition party as if they are modern day Baal worshippers. The political battlefield has become no different than a real one: no compromise, no surrender. Only the defeat and annihilation of the enemy will satisfy our thirst for justice.

Have we become the very thing we oppose? Pope Francis wants us to consider that question because just after his comments on fundamentalism he added this:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Sadly, polarization is our new normal. At home and abroad, we radiate the “hatred and violence of tyrants” in the name of our own brand of goodness. The Pope is right to call us to reject the Elijah trap of dividing the world into good and evil. In such a world we celebrate our own violence, condemn the violence of our enemies, and guarantee that we are a stubborn part of the problem.

The Moses Solution

Peace. Nonviolence. Freedom. How can we work for our cause without imitating the thing we are against? Pope Francis began his address to Congress with an image that may help. Here’s what he told our representatives:

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Pope Francis wants our representatives “to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Every human face, he said. Not just American faces. Not just the faces of legal immigrants. Not just rich faces. Not just white faces. Not just Christian faces. Pope Francis wants us to see the image of God in every face, black and white, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, terrorist and terrorized. Even the face of our enemies.

There is nothing more paradoxical than the use of violence in the name of peace, yet that is the very thing America is doing. When no one, not even the self-proclaimed champions of goodness, will relinquish their right to violence, the quest for global peace is doomed from the start. But renouncing our right to be violent is a scary proposition. It most likely will demand that we drop our defenses, rather than prop them up. Or maybe it means that we begin to see what makes for peace and security in an entirely new way. But dropping our guard may be exactly what is required to make us, and the world, a safer place. We won’t know until we are brave enough to try.

Image: Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress. (Photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN YouTube channel)

The Girl and Emperor Palpatine.

My Daughter, the Star Wars Myth, and Jesus – How to Defeat Evil

I recently dropped my daughter off at her elementary school’s summer kindergarten program. When I opened the side door of our mini-van, the Girl* had a huge smile on her face as she held up a Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser.

I was a little shocked by the juxtaposition of my daughter and Darth Sidious – who is arguably the greatest fictional depiction of pure evil during the last 35 years. I was shocked partly because I have no idea where that Pez Dispenser came from. I didn’t buy it, but somehow it appeared in our van that day.

But I was also shocked because the Girl was all smiles and feeling a sense of joy as she held up this ugly sign of evil. Wookipedia states that Darth Sidious “was evil incarnate” and “the living incarnation of the dark side of the Force.”

I’m biased, but I think the Girl is adorable and all things good. And there she is, smiling and holding this symbol of “evil incarnate.”

In that moment, I think my daughter taught me something about defeating evil.

The Star Wars Myth

I grew up watching the original trilogy. Sometimes I would pretend to be sick on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t have to go to church. When I heard my parents start their car, I’d run to our living room and play a Star Wars movie on our VCR. (I know. I’m old.) Star Wars had a mythical, even religious, element for me.

I still love the Star Wars saga, but as I discovered mimetic theory, I began to see it with different eyes. Star Wars is based on a myth, a lie that tries to conceal the truth about violence. Now, there is moral nuance within Star Wars when it comes to violence. For example, after Luke defeats Darth Vader in Episode VI, he refuses to kill him. This act of nonviolence puts Luke in jeopardy as Darth Sidious nearly kills him with lightning bolts, but Luke’s act of nonviolent mercy converts Darth Vader to the “good guys.” Darth Vader then saves Luke by killing Darth Sidious.

That dramatic scene sums up the myth behind Star Wars. Walter Wink calls it the “myth of redemptive violence.” In his book, The Powers that Be, Wink describes the myth of redemptive violence as, “the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.”

When we are under the spell of the myth of redemptive violence, we think that our “good violence” will save us from our enemies “bad violence.” Thus, Darth Vader saves Luke with “good violence” by killing Darth Sidious. But if there is a truth that emerges from the Star Wars myth, it’s that “good violence” never actually solves the problem of evil; rather, it gives evil the oxygen it needs to spread. And so, even though the evil Darth Sidious was killed and Darth Vader converted, the truth is that Jedi violence never solves the problem of evil. Thus, we have three more movies coming out. (And I cannot wait!)

René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, points to the utter futility of violence in his book Battling to the End. Violence is futile because it functions to perpetuate itself. He claims that “it is impossible to eliminate violence through violence.” He goes on to give an apocalyptic warning, “Sooner or later, either humanity will renounce violence without sacrifice or it will destroy the planet.”

How to Defeat Evil

But if violence doesn’t work to defeat evil, what does? In holding the Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser, my daughter gives us a clue. The more we fight evil on its own violent terms, the more we become the very evil we attempt to defeat. But there are alternatives to defeating evil. What if we had posture towards evil that didn’t combat it with our own violence, or run away from it in fear, but gently held it in our hands?

Christians believe that Jesus definitively defeated the forces of evil. For Christians, faith is trusting that the way to defeat evil is the same way that Jesus defeated evil on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus was no Jedi. He didn’t use “good violence” to protect himself or others from the evil forces that converged against him. Nor did he run from evil. Rather, he defeated evil by entering into it, forgiving it on the cross, and offering peace to it in the resurrection.

Of course, many – even those who profess to follow him – think Jesus is absolutely crazy. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s true that following Jesus by responding to evil with nonviolent love is risky. After all, Christ was killed, as were his disciples. But fighting violence with violence is also risky and only perpetuates a mimetic cycle of violence.

The myth of redemptive violence still permeates our culture. We see it everywhere: In cartoons, movies, and politics. But the myth is losing its force as more people are seeing through its lies and realizing that violence can no longer defeat violence.

Although the forces of evil were defeated on the cross and in the resurrection, evil is obviously still present with us today. Unfortunately, many Christians have more faith in violence to defeat that evil than they do in Jesus Christ. But true Christian faith trusts that Jesus had it right.

The way to defeat evil is to nonviolently love our enemies as we love ourselves.

The way to defeat evil is to forgive it.

The way to defeat evil is to trust that God doesn’t defeat evil through violently taking life, but by restoring life.

*I don’t use the real names of my children on the blog, so I call them “The Girl,” “Boy 1,” and “Boy 2.”

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The Spirituality of Fun.: God’s Grace in a Violent World

I love Fun.. I especially love the wacky period at the end of the band’s name. But my Word doc has the green squiggly line under the two periods of that first sentence. I hate that green squiggly line – it’s not fun. It’s there to tell me that I have bad grammar. Not this time, Word Doc! I shall right click and ignore you!

Fun.’s (okay, now there’s a red line! Once again I shall ignore…) Some Nights is full of philosophical and spiritual gold. It asks questions about identity, friendship, violence, and the purpose of life. But, for me, these words stand out the most:

My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she calls “love”

When I look into my nephew’s eyes…

Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from…

Some terrible nights…ah…

That stanza gets me every time. We don’t know exactly what happened to his sister, but we know she had a terrible night with someone she loved and that terrible night produced a child. Although we are left to guess what exactly happened, the words here speak to the paradox of violence and pain, amazement and wonder that is life. There is no excusing such terrible things that happen, but there is a certain disposition of trust and hope that’s invoked in those words. Despite experiencing brokenness, betrayal, and pain wrought by human violence, we can trust that amazing things will overcome the terrible evil in our world.

It reminds me of what Paul wrote in Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

My progressive friends have a hard time with the word “sin,” but I think we need to reclaim it. It’s an ugly word, but I’m convinced that we need ugly words to describe the violence we experience. The word “sin” claims that something isn’t right in God’s good world. Terrible nights shouldn’t happen. When Paul used the word “sin” in Romans 5, he was reflecting upon the terrible death of Jesus. That death was an example of the increase of human sin and violence. But Paul was convinced that sin and violence never have the last word, because where sin increased, God’s grace abounded all the more.

Trusting in God’s grace creates a disposition toward the sin that we experience. Grace doesn’t excuse sin, but it does mean trusting that the most amazing things can come from some terrible nights. God is creating new life by defeating sin, not by mimicking sin with God’s own violence and destruction, but by overcoming sin with the abundance of grace. If we trust in God’s grace, it can begin to change the way we respond to sin and violence. We are not only set free from mimicking it with our own violence, but we are set free to overcome the terrible evil in our world by participating in God’s abounding grace.

Fun. and Paul provide the assurance that sin doesn’t have the last word. Grace does.

[divide]

For more in the Spirituality of Pop Music Series see:

The Spirituality of Pearl Jam: Love Boat Captain

The Spirituality of Phil Phillips: Home and Lent

The Spirituality of Fun.: God’s Grace in a Violent World

The Spirituality of Kelly Clarkson: Misfits, Scapegoats, and People Like Us

The Spirituality of Katy Perry: Pointing Toward Unconditional Love

Boston Marathon: Deliver Us from Evil

Explosions at Monday's Boston Marathon (Photo: Reuters/Dan Lampariello)

(Photo: Reuters/Dan Lampariello)

What do you say in the face of evil?

The stories from yesterday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. One in particular stands out to me. A woman was waiting for her husband to cross the finish line when the bombs exploded. For three hours she searched frantically for him, not knowing if he was alive or dead, not knowing if he was frantic and looking for her. Her voice cracked and tears flowed with the raw memory as she told of the moment when she and her husband embraced.

Moments like this, even when they end happily, remind us of our vulnerability. As hard as we try to protect ourselves with heightened security measures, complete invulnerability is impossible. I am vulnerable. My wife is vulnerable. My children are vulnerable. We cannot escape it.

In the face of gun violence and bombings, gender violence and rape, we would be irresponsible not to ask big questions about evil and human vulnerability.

A few hours after the bombing, President Obama addressed our natural desire to carry out justice after these events.

[M]ake no mistake; we will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.

Like the president, I want to take action against evil and I want to know I am secure. I hate admitting that I’m vulnerable. But the president’s words didn’t reassure me. They made me feel more vulnerable because the phrase “full weight of justice” is always a veiled call to violence. The logic of violence is that it’s always committed in the name of justice. The “good” guys and the “bad” guys always have the same justifications for violence – and that justification is justice. Victims – whether in Boston or in Kabul – always see the violence committed against them as evil. When we are under the myth of redemptive violence, each side falsely believes that justice requires violent retaliation.

This leads me to ask these questions:

At what point does our desire for “justice” make us the mirror image of our enemies?

At what point does “justice” become an excuse for revenge?

Does the violence that enforces “the full weight of justice” stop future violence or enslave us to cycles of violence?

In 1995 we had the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1996 we had the bombings at the Atlanta Olympic Games. In 2001 we had 9/11. During the last few years we’ve had shootings at political rallies, shopping malls, movie theaters, places of worship, and at an elementary school. Each time we’ve attempted to enforce the “full weight of justice.” Yet we continue to experience these kinds of horrific events. As we capture, imprison or kill one perpetrator, others emerge and the cycle continue.

How will it end? I don’t know. What I do know is that all of this “justice” hasn’t made me feel safe and secure. I continue to feel defenseless and vulnerable. Violence has rules. Responding to violence with more violence has only led to more and more of it; it clearly has not led to security.

Before we can be delivered from the violence of others, we need to be delivered from our own violence. Today on social media, many people have posted Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” King was trying to empower us. In the face of anger, recriminations and violence, he told us that we have options other than retribution. King’s full quote is worth reading for its call to love and its urgent apocalyptic tone:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral destruction. So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (Strength To Love, 53)

We will be delivered from evil only when we refuse to respond with evil of our own. Justice will only happen when we follow Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. True justice, true peace, is only possible with peaceful actions.

Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

North Korea, Syria, U.S.: Violence Rules

Does violence rule our species? The barrage of international conflicts now in the headlines seems to suggest that violence may be the one language we have in common. Though we all speak it fluently, very few of us learned it in school. We didn’t have to study its “vocabulary” and “grammar rules” – no, it was much easier than that. Humans pick violence up by immersion and so we are all native speakers. From Syria to Korea to Pakistan to Iraq to the U.S., the language of violence is so natural to us that we couldn’t recite one of its “grammar rules”.

A rebel fighter in Syria (Photo: Photo: AFP/The Telegraph)

A rebel fighter in Syria (Photo: AFP/The Telegraph)

Sadly, ignorance of language rules does not diminish fluency. The odd thing is that if we stopped to learn the rules governing our fluency in violence, it would actually make us less fluent. Why? Because the rules of violence reveal an unpleasant reality: We don’t use violence; violence uses us.

Rule #1: Violence escalates

When we employ violence, it is impossible to return the same or a lesser amount of violence than what we believe we received. We always return more violence. Our adversary then does the same.

Real world application: Should we arm rebels fighting for freedom? When deciding how to answer this in a particular situation such as Syria, it’s vital that we remember Rule #1: Arming rebels will create the conditions for an escalation of the conflict.

Rule #2: Only good people use violence

Anyone who employs violence does so in the name of some good or noble cause. We justify violence as necessary to defend ourselves against an evil other, and the one we identify as the evil other is doing the same thing.

Real world application: Whose side are we on? When deciding who the good guys are in a particular situation such as Israel/Palestine, it’s vital that we remember Rule #2: Both sides believe completely in their own goodness, especially when they are using violence.

Rule #3: Violence destroys goodness

This is the paradoxical corollary to Rule #2. While everyone employing violence believes in their own goodness, goodness itself is destroyed by the violence. Violence is a means to an end that becomes the end in itself.

Real world application: Should the U.S. invade a country militarily? When deciding whether or not to deploy our massive military might in a particular situation such as North Korea, it’s vital that we remember that the death and destruction caused by violence drowns out our rhetoric. What will it matter to the dead, displaced and grieving to learn that the damage was inflicted by a good and noble nation? Indeed, would they be able to hear us speaking at all?

Violence is a language that escalates from whispers to shouts, that believes its own propaganda, and destroys the noblest of goals. Every time we employ violence to achieve our ends, violence refuses to be an obedient instrument. It takes over, runs the show and speaks through us, making mindless slaves of us all.  Once we realize that these are the rules of the language that currently rules the world, perhaps we’ll decide it’s time to go to school and learn a new vocabulary.

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.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Politics

As the summer winds down, we will enter the campaign season in earnest. Both political parties will hold their nominating conventions and do their best to frame the political decision facing us as a choice between good and evil. The fate of the nation, they will insist, hangs in the balance and good people must choose wisely or evil people will lead us down the road to perdition.

Maybe they won’t use those exact words, but I don’t think I’m guilty of overstating the sentiment. Look, I have never denied that such things as good and evil exist. What worries me is how awful we are at telling the good from the wicked. And when it comes to politics, we are utter failures. So let me offer a chapter from my book about the musical, Wicked, as a sort of users guide to the extreme rhetoric of the political conventions. You don’t have to have seen the show for my discussion of good and evil to make sense to you. If you have a chance to see the company that is currently touring cities in the U.S., by all means go. They provide their audience with an entertaining, inspiring and transformative experience – something our political conventions rarely achieve.

Chapter 2 is called Pulling Back the Curtain. If it intrigues you, I encourage you to read the entire book; it’s called The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things. If there’s one thing good people need to be able to do it is to know how terribly easy it is for good people to do wicked things without ever doubting our own goodness. I hope you enjoy the read – please share your ideas of how to be truly good during this campaign season with me. And join the live conversation about transforming hostile religious and political identities during this heated campaign season with best selling author and theologian Brian McLaren on the next edition of Voices of Peace Talk Radio, September 6 at 11 a.m. CT.

Political Nudity: Becoming Un-Ashamed

Be Ashamed.”

That’s the title of Erick Erickson’s post. Erickson, the popular conservative blogger at RedState.com, wants you to be ashamed. I have a very different reaction: I don’t want you to care. In fact, I think we should become un-ashamed.

This time, Erickson’s call for shame is directed toward his fellow conservatives. Sunday night Politco.com published an exclusive story titled, “Exclusive: FBI probed GOP trip with drinking, nudity in Israel.”

Naked Republicans in Israel! Shame, shame, I know your name!

Erickson wants his fellow conservatives to be ashamed of these actions, stating:

Today comes word that a bunch of Republican Congressmen got drunk, naked, and jumped in the Sea of Galilee. No doubt a few of them, given the religious significance, peed in the holy waters while swimming. Many conservatives are greeting it with a yawn, a “the media is out to get us,” and a “no big deal.”

I think that’s the perfect response! Conservatives and liberals should yawn at this story and treat it as “no big deal.” Because we should always be suspicious of outrage like this. We need to ask some questions and not accept this at face value because outrage is a political game and those who play it well gain political (and blogging!) points. If you approach this story with a healthy dose of skepticism, here’s what you find out from the Politico report:

A year ago, around 33 Republican members of congress were invited to Israel to visit sacred sites and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli dignitaries. They also met with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister. The trip was sponsored by the American Israel Educational Foundation, a pro-Israel advocacy group. According to Politico, “The AIEF trips are a fixture of Washington” and “a rite of passage for members of Congress.” The AIEF was pleased with the Republican members of Congress during their visit, claiming that they were “substantive and rigorous” and that “As part of the trip, and after a day of meetings including with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and briefings on Hezbollah and the border with Lebanon, trip participants traveled to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.”

And that’s where, according to Erickson, things went horribly, actually, shamefully, wrong. Imagine this, Erickson says, “American lawmakers behaving badly as if they were starring in a Girls Gone Wild video”! Oh, say it ain’t so!

It’s not.

After meeting with Prime Minister Fayyad, 20-30 members of Congress, along their senior aids and some family members, went to dinner and then went to the Sea of Galilee. The FBI investigation discovered that while on this excursion into the holy Sea of Galilee “participants, including the daughter of [a] congressman, swam fully clothed, while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who were participants on the trip.” These lawmakers gave several reasons for their late night dip in the water. Some claimed “the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day. Several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in.” But in its investigation, the FBI found “no inappropriate behavior” and no “formal allegations of wrongdoing.”

So, why is Erickson in a tizzy? Apparently, the most “shameful” part of the story is played by Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas. Yoder became a little over-zealous in his religious experience and went into the holy Sea of Galilee the way the Good Lord made him – Naked.

Because of the outcry of shame directed at Yoder, who has become the scapegoat for the 30 member group, he was forced to make a public apology in an attempt to save his political career. In a statement to Politico he said:

A year ago my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit. It is my greatest honor to represent the people of Kansas in Congress and [for] any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.

The problem with this event is not the guilt or innocence of the 30 members of the congressional GOP, or even the guilt or innocence Yoder himself. I mean, adults drinking and skinny dipping! Why should we care? I really don’t know. What I do know is that the problem is not with them. The problem is with us. The problem is with our addiction to shaming others. We love shaming others because it gives us a sense of moral superiority. Whether we shame our friends, neighbors, members of our family, co-workers, celebrities or politicians, it always provides us with a sense of moral superiority. Please notice the word “we.” When I shame someone, I want others to join me in shaming that person, too. That way, we bolster one another’s sense of superiority as together we shame our scapegoat.

So, when it comes to politics, I want us to become un-ashamed of these types of events. Be skeptical of liberal and conservative politicians and bloggers who want to get us all riled up in the shame game. Because not only does shaming others provide us a false sense of superiority over and against another, but it also distracts and hinders us from actually working together on the real problems facing our nation: Problems with the economy, with health care, and with the physical, emotional, and verbal violence that plagues our cities.

The best way we can solve those problems is by becoming un-ashamed; by free ourselves from our addiction to shaming others. Only then can we work together in the context of our political, familial, neighborhood, and religious circumstances to pursue the things that really matter.