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love and hate

Defenses Disarmed: Art, Islam, and Breaking the Silence

The images were raw, brutally honest, haunting, beautiful. And disturbing.

I was at the artist’s reception for Marwa Adel’s incredible photography exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, at the Burning Bush Art Gallery in Wheaton, Illinois.  Marwa Adel is an Egyptian artist on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and her photography, sometimes digitally manipulated or overlaid with calligraphy, tells a story through a taboo medium: the female body. In the description of her exhibit, Adel writes:

The physical body is a word surrounded by restrictions in Middle Eastern society.

Why do people express such a fear from the physical body? How could we fear ourselves? Our bodies are the medium that links us to this world and reflects our souls. … [E]very person develops a personal memory enriched by the unique human existence that reflects on the body through which one can realize dreams. There is nothing impossible to achieve as long as the communication and interaction between the physical body and the memory are existent.

The photos express confinement, repression, and sorrow, but also yearning, hope, and resilience. They are deeply personal expressions of Marwa Adel’s own experience – as an Egyptian, as a young wife (now divorced), and, to an extent, as a Muslim. She had felt restrained by the societal pressures and expectations of her tradition, culture, and religion. When I met her at the exhibit, she had recently shed her hijab, and she spoke of her work as an outlet for her soul, the song of a voice long silenced.

Confliction at first kept me from fully affirming the voice that cried out through the silence of those photos. It was not the female form, shrouded or exposed, that disturbed me. It was rather that the images and their titles, “Arab Prisoner,” “The Burden,” or the deep sorrow in the eyes of “Surrender” made me concerned that this exhibit could play into a prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, an Islamophobia already deep and deadly in the West.  Concern for a marginalized population was keeping me from fully hearing the voice of someone bringing herself out of the margins through her artwork, someone who, ironically, was a Muslim, a Middle Eastern woman, someone with whom I longed to share solidarity.

It was the eyes that pierced my doubt, captivating me, compelling me to listen to their truth. Marwa Adel told a story through these photos of a patriarchal society that imposes stifling demands and restrictions upon women, seeing their value primarily in their relationship to men. This wasn’t the story of the feminist Muslims I knew, for whom Islam means empowerment. This is a story, shared by women throughout the world, of being devalued and having to struggle for free agency, a story to which certain interpretations of religion have contributed.

It made me wonder, “How often does a concern for an overall cause or ideal keep us blind and deaf to the needs of individuals? What happens when we refuse to hear the truth of someone who doesn’t meet our ideal narrative, even when claiming to be working for justice?”

My inclination to defend Islam comes in part from seeing it at its best, reflected in good Muslim friends whose faith is the foundation for their compassion, their intellectual drive, and their hopeful outlook on life. Some of these friends voluntarily choose to wear hijab and loose-fitting clothing, arguing, like Dalia Mogahed, that such modest dress frees them from impossible beauty standards and focuses attention away from their physical attributes and toward their minds. Yet those who choose hijab and experience it as liberation come from different perspectives from those forced by law or social pressure to wear it. Patriarchy is embedded in both Western and Middle Eastern cultures, influencing societal pressure upon women to dress a certain way and conform to certain standards of behavior. Those who see hijab as freedom from the social pressure imposed upon women to conform to beauty standards from everything from weight to hair style come from a different angle than those from cultures that demand modesty, especially from women, as an obligation (beyond encouraging it as a virtue).

Adel’s photography shows how a patriarchal culture veils women with more than just clothing, and how in such a culture, the veil itself may be the physical extension of a spiritual stifling. Islam at its best mitigates patriarchy, but all too often is interpreted through a patriarchal lens to reinforce woman’s subordination. Thus, Qur’anic passages that could be read as explaining men’s responsibilities toward women are often instead read as ordaining men’s superiority over women. Passages that could be read as mutual obligations of modesty that are relaxed only in the presence of one’s spouse are instead read as a husband’s control over his wife’s body. In an article by Jyoti Kalsi, Adel explains the burden of expectations and demands upon women in marriage expressed in her photographs:

[A woman] has to be a good woman in the eyes of a man, not in her own eyes. And that is the root of the conflict in this relationship.

I want to stand in solidarity with hijab-wearing Muslimas as they express how their faith empowers them, but I also must stand in solidarity with those who have been stifled by misogynistic interpretations of religion within their culture and misogynistic cultural overlays imposed upon their religion. Even when their stories may appear to clash, they express truths that must be heard with compassion, understanding, and grace. This is true for people of all faiths, including my own. When I hear critiques of Christianity, my urge to defend my faith must not overcome my ability to listen, for if defensiveness in the name of faith prevents me from hearing a story of pain, of injustice, of victimization, then my faith has become an idol working against its own best nature.

The test for any expression of faith in the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful, is whether that faith can humble itself to hear criticism from those pushed aside. What has been revealed through the great Abrahamic faiths, through Jesus and the prophets, including Muhammad, is the character of the one God who stands with the oppressed, the marginalized, those whose voices have been silenced. Too often, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are used to reinforce the patriarchy of the cultures into which they were born or migrated. But at their best, these same faiths can help people transcend the patriarchy of their cultures. Voices critical of human practices of faith that fall short of God’s love for women and men and God’s affirmation of women’s agency are crucial to practicing Islam – peace through conformation to God’s will for compassion and mercy – in ever-growing degrees of fullness. The same is true for any faith. Listening to the critiques from the margins and the marginalized is essential for following the faith of the God who calls us away from marginalization, scapegoating, silencing and sacrifice – even when those critiques reflect on the practice of that same faith.

Middle Eastern society, and all societies, Islam and all religions, indeed all of humanity, need to hear the voice of Marwa Adel and all the other voices rising above social, cultural and religious pressures that once kept them silenced or stifled. The voices, faces, and whole lives of women emerging from the shroud of patriarchy are crucial to transforming a world dulled and dimmed by oppression into the full, vibrant dance ordained by Love, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Image: Love and Hate by Marwa Adel. Used with permission.

Marwa Adel’s exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, will be at the Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, IL, until March 10. The exhibit is sponsored by Caravan, “an international and interrrelgious peacebuilding arts non-profit (501c3) / NGO that originated in 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, addressing the increasing chasm of discord and misunderstanding that exists between the cultures and creeds of Middle East and the West.”

Lincoln

A Movie For Lincoln’s Birthday

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

This article was originally posted on February 12, 2016, which would have been Abraham Lincoln’s 207th birthday. It is equally timely on President’s Day. More than the movie Lincoln, Dr. McKenzie helps us appreciate how our 16th president wrestled with his faith and his conscience when he became determined to abolish slavery, which had not been an original goal of the North. Lincoln’s growing conviction that God demanded the end of slavery helped him not to demonize the South, not because he agreed with the Southern cause but because he recognized his own sins and those of the North. 

Today [February 12] is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (he was born 207 years ago, if you’re wondering), and a great way to commemorate the occasion would be to watch one of the best movies about American history ever made, the 2012 Stephen Spielberg film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sallie Field. On the whole, academic historians praised the movie when it came out, and I generally concur. Lincoln can be criticized for numerous factual inaccuracies (most of them minor), but by Hollywood standards, the film makes room for an unusual degree of historical complexity. I recommend it highly.

To begin with, the entire structure of the film drives home the complicated interrelationship between the issues of slavery and race in mid-nineteenth century America. One of the most important things to understand about the coming of the Civil War is that southern whites tended to believe that the defense of slavery and white supremacy were inseparable, while northern whites thought otherwise. As the sectional crisis of the 1850s intensified, southern whites tended to see any criticism of slavery as an assault on racial hierarchy. Northern whites, in contrast, were divided on the matter. While northern Democrats regularly condemned abolitionism as part of a fanatical crusade for racial equality, northern Republicans went out of their way to separate the issues of slavery and race. Indeed, they had no choice if they wanted any kind of political future. Northern voters were not ready to embrace racial equality, even as a hypothetical goal, but the majority, at least, might be convinced to support the end of slavery if emancipation did not seem to threaten the privileged position of whites in American society.

Lincoln makes this point wonderfully in the scene in which Pennsylvania Republican congressmen Thaddeus Stevens (played by Jones) disavows support of political or social equality for former slaves, even though he had long been a supporter of both. The clear message of the scene—a historically accurate one—is that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment required that the party of Lincoln frame the racial implications of emancipation as conservatively as possible.

The movie also illustrates nicely the considerable diversity within the Republican Party itself with regard to emancipation and racial equality. Whereas scenes situated in the House of Representatives commonly pit Republicans against Democrats, many of the movie’s more intimate conversations—in the president’s cabinet room, the executive office, even the White House kitchen—were designed to highlight differences of opinion among Republicans themselves. So, for example, we see Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens chiding Lincoln for his timidity and telling the president that the only acceptable course is to free the slaves, expropriate the land of their masters, and totally remake the southern social and racial structure. But we also listen in as Maryland Republican Francis P. Blair (played by Hal Holbrooke) lectures Lincoln that conservative Republicans will never support emancipation at all unless they can convince their constituents that the measure is absolutely necessary to win the war. The movie does an outstanding job in helping us to imagine just how difficult a task it was for Lincoln to satisfy the disparate factions of his own party and still fashion a reasonably coherent public policy.

Yes, Lincoln gets a lot of its history right, and in a medium in which that rarely occurs. And yet the message of the movie is historically inaccurate and anachronistic. What is Lincoln trying to say to us? I suspect that historian Louis Masur is correct (writing in The Chronicle Review), when he observes that the film aims “to restore our faith in what political leaders, under the most trying of circumstances, can sometimes accomplish.” I’m no movie critic, and I don’t know for sure what producer Stephen Spielberg or playwright Tony Kushner intended, but this certainly seems to be the message that emerges. Not coincidentally, it is a message that many Hollywood liberals would find comforting: a determined leader uses the power of government to push a reluctant nation toward a self-evidently righteous end.

With this central point in mind, I thought one of the most dramatically critical moments of the movie was when Lincoln grows angry at naysayers in his cabinet. As they insist that the votes necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the House simply aren’t there, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln rises to his feet and thunders, “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.”

In fairness, I don’t think that such a reading of Lincoln’s leadership is entirely off base. Lincoln was an adept politician who successfully held together a diverse coalition during the greatest trial our nation has endured. More specifically, the movie’s portrayal of Lincoln’s sense of urgency in pressing for a vote on an emancipation amendment before the war’s conclusion is well grounded in historical evidence. And in the end, it is undeniable that our sixteenth president forcefully promoted a measure—the abolition of slavery—that a substantial majority of the nation’s free population opposed. At the same time, however, the movie’s simplistic message requires a selective reading of Lincoln’s private papers and public pronouncements. Such a selective reading is facilitated by the chronological focus of the movie, which centers almost entirely on the first few weeks of 1865. A broader focus might have complicated the film’s central message enormously.

Ever since Lincoln’s assassination, well meaning Christians have insisted that “the Great Emancipator” was a sincere follower of Jesus. I would never say dogmatically that he was not (who can know the human heart save God alone?), but I will say that almost none of Lincoln’s closest contemporaries viewed him as a man of orthodox faith. The best modern scholarly study of Lincoln’s religious beliefs—by a nationally respected Christian historian, Allen Guelzo—argues persuasively that Lincoln never fully accepted the Christian concept of a God who intervenes in the world to effect the salvation of individual sinners who trust in Him. (I highly recommend his biography Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.) And yet Lincoln did believe in Providence. In his early adult years such faith amounted to little more than a belief in a “First Cause” or “Prime Mover,” but by the beginning of the war Lincoln had come to believe in a God who actively superintended human affairs. As the war grew long and its human cost soared, furthermore, it is clear that the president ached to find some larger meaning or divine purpose in the conflict.

Long before the events dramatized by Stephen Spielberg, Lincoln had begun to ask profoundly religious questions about the war. Possessing a logical bent of mind (the movie rightly hints at his appreciation for Euclid’s theorems), the lawyer Lincoln wrestled with the possible implications of the war’s unexpected length and butcher’s bill. Sometime in 1862 he jotted down his inchoate thoughts on the matter, and the undated memorandum was preserved later by his personal secretaries and given the title “Memorandum on the Divine Will.” Lincoln’s memo to himself begins with this bedrock assumption: “The will of God prevails.” In the brief paragraph that follows, Lincoln noted that God could bring victory to either side instantly, and “yet the contest proceeds.” This suggested a conclusion to Lincoln that he was “almost ready” to accept as true, namely, that “God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

Lincoln’s suspicion that God was at work for some larger purpose continued to grow as the war dragged on, and increasingly he suspected that the divine design was to bring an end to slavery. Lincoln understood full well that the North had not gone to war in 1861 with that objective in mind, and over time he came to believe that God was prolonging the war until the North embraced and accomplished that goal. If Salmon Chase and Gideon Welles can be trusted (two of Lincoln’s cabinet members who kept careful diaries during the war), Lincoln privately explained his decision to declare the preliminary emancipation proclamation as the result of a vow to “his maker.” If God allowed the Union army to repulse Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, Lincoln told his assembled cabinet, he had resolved to “consider it an indication of the divine will and that it [would be] his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.”

Lincoln gradually developed this theme more publicly as the war continued. In the spring of 1864, for example, in a speech in Baltimore he observed that neither side had anticipated “that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. “So true it is,” Lincoln noted, “that man proposes, and God disposes.” That same month Lincoln wrote similarly to a Kentucky newspaper editor. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he related, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.” A few months later Lincoln wrote to a political supporter that “the purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. . . . Surely,” Lincoln concluded, the Lord “intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.”

The culmination of such reasoning came in Lincoln’s rightly admired second inaugural address, a speech that also serves as the culmination of Lincoln the movie. Yet playwright Tony Kushner has chosen to include only the final fourth of that very short speech (the original was only 703 words long), and he leaves out the most religiously significant passages of an address that is arguably the most profoundly religious public reflection ever uttered by an American president. The movie ends with Lincoln’s famous call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” but that plea can only be understood in the context of what had preceded it. Echoing the insight that had come to define Lincoln’s personal understanding of the war, the president had told the assembled throng that neither side had anticipated the end of slavery and both had hoped for an outcome “less fundamental and astounding.” Although both sides “pray[ed] to the same God,” the prayers of neither side had been fully answered. “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Since neither side had been fully in step with God’s will, it made no sense for the victorious side to impose a self-righteous and vengeful peace.

I have observed in this blog that history can function in a number of valuable ways as we go to the past for enlightenment. As a form of memory it aids our understanding. As a kind of mirror it sharpens our self-perception. History is also a kind of conversation across the ages. In the midst of our nation’s greatest trial, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with questions of profound importance. We would benefit from hearing him and from wrestling ourselves with his conclusions. For all its virtues, Lincoln won’t help us with that.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube. Lincoln “Now” Scene by Vishakh T.V.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Star Wars & Theology: Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure

On Wednesday, Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieved an historic feat at the box office. After just 20 days of its release date, The Force Awakens surpassed Avatar to become the highest grossing film in North America.

I helped the Force by seeing it three times. I love Star Wars. Even the prequels.

Coincidentally, or maybe as the Force would have it, Wednesday was also the first day of the Christian season called Epiphany, which means a “manifestation,” or “appearance.” There are important connections between Star Wars and Epiphany, beyond the coincidence of Wednesday’s events.

George Lucas stated in an interview with Bill Moyers that his vision for Star Wars was to inspire belief in God,

I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.

As a former youth pastor, I can appreciate Lucas’ emphasis on young people. Of course, part of the enduring aspect of the Star Wars saga is that it speaks to people of all ages. The great mystery is a force that is bigger than ourselves, yet includes ourselves in it. As Obi Wan Kenobi explained to Luke, the Force “is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Whenever a Jedi attempts to explain the Force, they don’t say very much. There’s great wisdom in using few words to describe the Force and Christianity could use some direction here. The Force isn’t primarily known through a theory. Rather, the Force is known by participating in a story that is bigger than ourselves. The same is true about God.

From a Christian point of view, it’s not that theories about God are bad. In their proper place, theories can lead us into the beauty of God. But theories can lead us to the dark side when *we* claim to have the right theory, which means *they* must have the wrong theory. When that happens, we lose sight of the adventure that is bigger than ourselves. The world gets smaller and smaller as we become consumed with being right, which means making sure that others know they are wrong.

Fortunately, the adventure that Epiphany calls us into is much bigger than a theory. It’s a mystery that leads us into divine life of God. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi. The Magi were Gentiles who didn’t really have a theory about God, certainly not one that Christians would call “orthodox.” But they did have a premonition that a mysterious star would lead them on an adventure to a child who was born king of the Jews.

The Magi left their homes “from the East” to Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible states that the Magi likely came from Parthia, which was Rome’s enemy. The Magi were sent on an adventure into enemy territory by a force bigger than themselves. And their adventure involved great risk, as it put them in contact with King Herod, who was well known for killing anyone he thought was a threat to his crown. Herod was consumed by fear, which as Yoda tells us, “is the path to the dark side.” Because of his inability to manage his fear in a healthy way, he killed many people, including his wife and his children.

When we are consumed with fear, like Herod, we easily forget the bigger mystery in our lives. The Magi provide a different model. They likely had much to fear on their night journey through the dangers of the desert, but they weren’t caught up in their fear. Rather, they were caught up into an adventure that was bigger than anything they could fear.

The adventure led the Magi to a child who was the Chosen One. Alternatively in Star Wars, the Chosen One was Anakin Skywalker, who was chosen to bring balance to the Force. This may be controversial to some, but that’s exactly what he did. The Force is a mixture of light and dark, a balance of good and evil. As Han Solo explains in The Force Awakens, “The Force is a magical power, holding good and evil together, the light and the dark.” Before Anakin, the Force was completely out of balance. Good and evil, light and dark, weren’t held together in balance. The Jedi, the light, dominated the Force. The darkness of Star Wars is the fact that by killing the Jedi, Anakin did bring balance back to the Force.*

But the Chosen One in the Christian story didn’t bring balance to the Force that undergirds our world. Rather, Jesus brought something much more radical than a balance between good and evil. Christianity doesn’t call the mystery of our world “the Force.” It calls that mystery Love. “God is love,” states the letter First John. The love of God is the mystery that holds the universe together. As the apostle Paul claimed, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” The Magi found a symbol of that love in a star – a light that shines in the darkness of our world that led them on an adventure to Jesus. And that love was embodied by a seemingly insignificant child, born to seemingly insignificant parents.

The great mystery of Christianity leads us on a great adventure that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our theories, bigger than our fears, and bigger than our need to be right. It leads us to the One who reveals that God is love. But Jesus taught his followers even more about God. The author of 1 John would also state that, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

The darkness belongs to us. Violence belongs to humans. Not to God and not to the Force. We can no longer project our dark violence upon God. That means we must take responsibility for our own darkness. Fortunately, Luke Skywalker and Jesus Christ are perfect examples of how to do just that. We will explore that aspect of Star Wars and theology in the next part of this series.

 

*Of course, this is an interpretation. Many argue that Anakin actually brought balance to the Force by killing Emperor Darth Sidious. If Anakin’s mission was to bring the balance of good and evil to the Force, then both interpretations may be correct. We’ll explore that in a future part of this series.

**Image: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

***For more on Epiphany, see:
Let Us Know You Are Wheaton By Your Love, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez
Peace on Earth: Maria Montessori, the Wise Men, and King Herod, by Suzanne Ross
The RavenCast Ep 10: Epiphany, Fear, and the Journey to God, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez and Adam Ericksen

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ravencast 1 image final

Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 1 – Mimetic Theory, Cancer, and Jesus

Show Notes

Welcome to Talk To Me Tuesdays: The RavenCast. Each Tuesday we plan to post a video and mp3 discussing mimetic theory. Sometimes these videos will be an individual discussing mimetic theory and sometimes we will have interviews with people engaging mimetic theory.

In this video, Adam Ericksen introduces the RavenCast and mimetic theory by telling the story of his mother as a model of faith. Through her experience with cancer, she taught Adam how to live. When death is so close, we begin to discover what really matters in life. Our cultural models often tell us the things that matter are success, wealth, buying bigger house or more expensive car. Those are the ways we become good enough and lovable. But confronting death can teach us that what really matters is not our wealth, or even being good enough. What matters is receiving the love of God and sharing it with others. Adam’s mom ultimately learned that from Jesus, her model. And she passed that lesson to Adam.

bible 1

The Bible’s Authority in Its Proper Place

Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page.

Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.

On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Nature of God
  3. Jesus, God’s Son
  4. The Holy Spirit
  5. Salvation
  6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
  7. The Role of the Church

Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity.

We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.

“Bible believing churches” tend to think that “the Bible is the very Word of God – supernaturally inspired in every word and absolutely free from error in the original documents. God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

But the Bible doesn’t work that way. It contains within itself many disagreements about the nature of God and how events unfolded. For example, did Noah take two of every animal onboard his ship, as Genesis 6 claims, or did he take seven of every animal, as Genesis 7 claims? Does God require sacrifice, as Leviticus suggests, or does God require mercy and not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea claims? Does God punish children for their parents’ mistakes, as Exodus claims, or is each generation responsible for itself, as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah state? Did Jesus overturn the tables in the Temple at the end of his ministry, as the synoptic Gospels claim, or did he do it at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John claims?

Those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy will do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to put the round peg of the Bible into the square hole of inerrancy, but it just doesn’t fit. That’s because it’s not meant to fit.

The Bible is a document written by human beings who tried to recognize what God was doing in their lives. But it’s not inerrant. Interestingly, if the Bible were inerrant you would think it would tell us. It simply doesn’t use those terms. The Bible never says, “Hi! I’m the Bible. I’m the inerrant Word of God. Believe in me!”

There are disagreements that run throughout the Bible. Those disagreements are one of the things that I love about the Bible! The Bible models for us how to wrestle with God and ask questions about faith.

The Bible contains human testimony about how God works in the world, but it is not God’s inerrant Word. The Bible points beyond itself to God, and in the New Testament, to the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible even claims that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible itself.

Jesus warned people about elevating the Bible above himself. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus claimed that the scriptures are limited. You cannot have eternal life by believing in the Bible. In fact, when we elevate the Bible above God, it blocks us from our only access to eternal life.

The Bible is important, but we are not Biblians. We are Christians. We are not called to believe in the Bible. We are called to believe in Jesus.

Christians need to put the Bible’s authority back in its proper place. The Bible’s authority rests in the faith that it points beyond itself to the God revealed in Jesus.

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Photo: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

hands_touching_hands_by_monsternest-d2z37dg

Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

Mimetic theory teaches us that we learn by imitation—whether you have studied the work of René Girard or not, you have probably noticed this. For example, when we teach, we not only use words to explain how to ride a bicycle, throw a ball, or do a push-up. More importantly, we model. We actually get on our bicycle, pick up a baseball, and drop to the ground and “give ‘em twenty.” Because of our mimetic nature, we also tend to embrace the belief systems of our parents and/or dominant culture.

My personal background is no different.

My parents had an Arminian theology and as such, told me that I had the “free choice” to accept Jesus Christ as my “Lord and Savior” or not. Of course, given the eternal consequences of an incorrect choice, I “freely” chose to be a Christian. However, even as a kid, in the back of my mind was this sickening feeling that others’ choice did not seem as free as mine did. Why was I so fortunate to be born into a Christian family? What if I had been born into a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu family? What would have been my eternal fate then? I would often think something similar to the following:

“Why am I afforded more detailed information about this eternal ultimatum than a Hindu or Muslim? How is this fair and how can people be held accountable for such a decision?”

Of course, all of this presupposes this “choice” actually being the correct one. Should those in the other faith traditions who believe in a similar “hell” be correct, why are they afforded more insight into the “choice” than I?

What seems even more unfair is that there are those who have been molested by those who claim to profess the love of God—whether Christian or otherwise. There are those who have put their faith in clergy, only to be violated in the most painful of ways. There are countless of individuals who have had to experience a version of Jesus that is actually anti-Christ. And this is the only Jesus they may ever meet! And yet, they are supposed to “freely choose” Jesus or face eternal condemnation?

When I meditate on these questions and those similar, I cannot help but have empathy. What if I were molested by a “follower” of Jesus? What if one of “God’s elect” raped me when I was younger? Would my eternal choice not, in some very large and distinct way, be affected by such a terrifying event?

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

Take a look at Genesis 4:9. After God asks Cain about his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain sarcastically snaps back at God and rhetorically asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, Cain did not believe himself to be the keeper of Abel, but the implied answer from God, should the Lord have answered, would have been “yes.” There is an implied oneness in this passage between Cain and Abel.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes such oneness when he writes: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9: 2 – 3)” For Paul, it makes no difference if another or himself is cut off from Christ. Both options would cause “unceasing grief” for him.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains our interconnectedness when he says what we do to the least of our kind, we do to Jesus himself. Because all things come into being through Jesus (John 1:3) and he thus, “enlightens every person” (1:9), Jesus is truly saying that what we do to our brothers and sisters—even the least of our fellow human—we are doing to the one we claim to worship.

We are all responsible for each other, because all humans came to being through him!

All people. Not some. All.

When we look at our eschatology, we need to have some empathy. Jesus sure did! That is one reason he brought peace. That is a part of why he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” He recognized that we have no idea what are doing to each other. We had no idea what we were doing to Jesus.

This ignorance runs through each and every one of us. Because of this, God shows all of us mercy (Romans 11:32). I must take the stance that I am responsible for my brothers and sisters, which, according to how I interpret things, includes everyone. Should one lost sheep perish (apollumi), to follow Christ is to desire to save even one. To follow Christ is to rejoice over finding the last lost sheep—those sinners who repent of their ways and choose the path of the non-violent Christ. I believe once every lost sheep is found, then and only then can “every tear be wiped from our faces.” (Revelation 21:4) As interconnected interdividuals, I simply cannot foresee any other way.

Image: Photo by monsternest via deviantart.com. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 

Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

My Brainiac Faith on the Resurrection

image from www.123rf.com

image from www.123rf.com

For a long time I thought I was too smart for the resurrection. My progressive UCC congregation made a comfortable home for my intellectual faith – I wasn’t letting anyone force me to leave my brain at the sanctuary door. If my head couldn’t come along for the ride, my faith wouldn’t go there. And so my rational, scientific brain did away with miracles of all kinds. They were too easy to explain as metaphors or written off to first century worldviews. Of course the loudest pillar to fall beneath the weight of my brainiac faith was the empty tomb. That it happened to be the central pillar of Christianity didn’t bother me at all. I still called myself a Christian, albeit in a whisper and with the self-satisfaction of knowing my brand of Christianity was the wave of the future.

But then my pastor, the one who had told me I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door, knocked me for a loop. Some unsuspecting newbie to our community asked him if he believed in the resurrection. I felt sorry for the poor questioner because I knew what my pastor was going to say – or so I thought! When he said, “Of course I believe in the resurrection,” my brain nearly exploded! My rational mind couldn’t figure out how a fellow rationalist could “believe” in something so unscientific and irrational. Seriously, the software that had been running my faith crashed and burned. I felt betrayed. Either my pastor meant what he said and I could bring my brain along, which meant the resurrection had to go, or the resurrection stayed and rationality took a vacation.

I was seriously at a loss, but that’s a good place to be, it turns out, if you want to follow Jesus into new life. I’ve learned so much in the intervening years about the power of violence and death that permeates each of us, vibrating undetected at the very core of our identities. All that I’ve learned about violence, scapegoating, and the anthropological earthquake that Jesus inaugurated I’ve learned from the mimetic theory community that my pastor, now of blessed memory, introduced me to. Sharing that knowledge is what motivates our blogging at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement on Patheos and here at the Raven Foundation. If you’d like to experience the kind of conversation around the resurrection that takes place among mimetic theorists, I urge you to join the Theology and Peace Discussion Group on Facebook so you can see how my question about the resurrection was answered with an inspiring combination of reason and faith.

After years of letting my brain work through the anthropological impact of Jesus life, death and resurrection on humanity, my heart began to see things more clearly. By denying the power of God to raise Jesus into new life, I had been engaging in a secret form of idolatry. My logic had been simple: if humans couldn’t do it, then neither could God. Not only was I limiting God’s power by forcing God to behave within human limits, I had become an atheist without realizing it. Because if no power existed that was greater than human power, then no God existed. It was logical. But it was sterile, too. My faith and my life were drying up, cut off as they were from the source of life that God had made available to me, to us all, on that first Easter morning. I encourage you to take your brain for a long stroll through our blog posts, to pick up a good book on the anthropology of the cross*, and allow yourself to dare to peer inside the empty tomb. See how your brainiac faith reacts when reason is seasoned with “terror and amazement”. Do not be afraid this Easter – the stone has been rolled away and he has gone ahead of you. He is waiting even now for us to arrive.

*My short list for books presenting an anthropology of the cross are The Jesus Driven Life, by Michael Hardin; Virtually Christian, by Anthony Bartlett; Compassion or Apocalypse, James Warren; and Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, by S. Mark Heim. A great online resource for interpreting biblical texts is Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary curated by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein.

Advent: The Faith to Scream “It’s Not Okay!”

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness." (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness.” (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo)

She sat in total shock. Her head rested in her hands as her long hair hid her face. She was silent for forty-five minutes. And then the river of tears began to flow.

It was the most traumatic event I’ve experienced in ten years of ministry. The pain and distress of a murdered family member were unbearable.

As she wept uncontrollably, her sister stepped into the void to hold her. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” her sister gently encouraged.

“No! It’s not okay! It’s not okay! It’s not okay!”

Those were the words that struck me that night. In the face of horror, trauma, and evil, the most faithful thing to do is to protest, to scream, “It’s not okay!”

Christians are in the midst of the Advent season. The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “an arrival or coming, especially one which is awaited.”

During Advent, Christians anticipate celebrating the first coming of Jesus at Christmas and we await his second coming when Jesus will set the world right. Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches, we know that some ideas about the second coming are wrong. Jesus won’t come again with a heavenly military and guns blazing to kill the “bad guys.” No. Jesus will come again to set the world right in the same way he came the first time – with God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love.

Until then, we need to have the bold and subversive faith to protest. Advent faith doesn’t ignore the darkness of the world. It claims the world’s violence is not okay. But Advent doesn’t just protest. The Advent wreath is a symbol that the light shines in the darkness. Advent faith shines a light in the darkness by working through God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love to participate in helping to make the world right.

Unfortunately, many of us have come to accept violence. Another school shooting? Terrorists holding people hostage? Another “casualty of war”? Police officers abusing their power? Continued racism? “Ah,” we apathetically respond. “It’s horrible. But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just how the world works.”

Others have a different response. We want to get the bastards! Violence rules the day and spreads like a contagious disease. As Ren Girard states in his book The One By Whom Scandal Comes, “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance.” These are the rules of violence and we play by the rules. We respond to violence with vengeance, only to lead the world deeper into future of apocalyptic destruction.

But Advent protests. It says no to apathy and to vengeance. Advent awaits the One who changed the world forever because he wasn’t apathetic. He refused to believe that violence is just how the world works. Rather, he challenged violence at its core precisely because he didn’t play by its rules. He played by a different set of rules – the Kingdom of God. Advent faith takes seriously Jesus’ command to forgive one another and turn the other cheek, not because we’re weak doormats, but because we’re rebels who disobey the rules of violence with a completely different set of rules: The nonviolent love of the Kingdom of God.

Like a girl weeping in the midst of a traumatic experience, Advent looks at the violence in the world and refuses to accept it. Advent faith proclaims, “No! It’s not okay. The light shines in the darkness. A better world is possible.”

America’s Leading Historian on the First Thanksgiving and Faith

We recently had the great honor of talking with Dr. R. Tracy McKenzie about his book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. Read my review of Tracy’s book here.

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. His book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History was released last year from Intervarsity Press. The book explores the Pilgrims’ celebration of the first Thanksgiving, which is a keystone of America’s national and spiritual identity. But is what we’ve been taught about them or their harvest feast what actually happened? And if not, what difference does it make?

Tracy is also the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (Cambridge University Press) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press).  He is president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national association of Christian historians, and he blogs at Faith and History, where he engages the church in reflection about how to think Christianly about our national heritage.

Civil War buffs might be interested in McKenzie’s approach to Civil War reflection. Here’s a video recording of his keynote lecture at the Civil War and Sacred Ground Conference, sponsored by the Raven Foundation and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton.