Kelly Gissendaner screenshot

To Death With The Death Penalty!

On September 30th, Georgia inmate Kelly Gissendaner was executed. Nay, she was murdered. Execution is but a euphemism for what the state did. In spite of countless emails, strongly backed petitions asking for a stay of execution, and even pleading from Pope Francis, a state within this “Christian” nation declared loudly that retributive justice is the correct form of justice. An eye for an eye is the best we can do.

A Life for a life.

In 1998, Kelly Gissendaner was sentenced to death for her role in the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Although she did not commit the murder—a man named Gregory Bruce Owen was the one who stabbed Douglas to death—Kelly was given the harshest of penalties because she was the one who masterminded the plan. Then for nearly two decades, Kelly Gissendaner waited to die. But there in prison is where she began to find life. She befriended German theologian Jürgen Moltmann while at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, finding Moltmann’s theology inspiring, as his universalism contends that none are beyond redemption. Gissendaner states:

I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know.

And in spite of this obvious transformation, in spite of a restored heart, and in spite of Kelly’s Christ-encounter, her life was ended. With the juice from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil still dripping down our collective chins, we cried: “Crucify her! Crucify her!”

Blood for blood.

Who do we think we are? What right do we have to deem who dies and who lives? Wasn’t the woman in John 8 who was caught in adultery deserving of death per the law of the land? And what did Jesus say to those who were armed to the teeth, ready to crush her? “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (8:7)” Who was without sin in Georgia the other day? The judge? The jury? The executioner?

Some “Christian” nation . . .

What is the point of the prison industrial complex if those who find the peace of Jesus are still murdered? Is it in place just so we can feel better about ourselves—so we can have some sense of “justice”? Oh, and what a sense of justice it is!!! Nearly two decades ago a sick and twisted woman showed no mercy to her husband so today, a sick and twisted society shows no mercy to a restored and healed woman!? That isn’t justice. It is murder

Breath for breath.

So now, we await the fates of over 20 human beings who are scheduled to be executed by the end of 2015. Yes, these people probably committed heinous acts. Yes, they were driven by hate and fear and prejudice and malice and contempt. And yes, if they committed those acts against my loved ones, my initial reaction would be to “kill those bastards!” But I’m more Petrine than I am Christlike and I can almost hear Jesus—the very same Jesus who was also murdered by the state—whispering in my ear: “Get behind me satan!”

My honest hope is that the death of Kelly Gissendaner is not in vain. I hope her testimony can be a wakeup call to the citizens of the United States of America. This country needs a shake up anyway! We need a redefinition of “justice”—retribution exchanged for restoration and reconciliation. We need to exchange our desire for sacrifice for a desire for mercy. We need to become peacemakers, not peacekeepers.

In short: we do not need any more scapegoats!!!

RIP Kelly Gissendaner. RIP Douglas Gissendaner. I pray that reconciliation between you both has already taken place. I also pray that the reconciliatory peace of Christ invades every soul immediately, transforming fear into love, hopelessness into hope, and violence into pure peace. Until that takes place, I pray that more and more of my brothers and sisters continue to work diligently toward creating this lasting shalom.

To death with the death penalty!


Image: Screen shot from YouTube: Audio of Kelly Gissendaner’s Last Statement by Gwinnett Daily Post.

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, October 6, another child of God, Kimber Edwards, is scheduled to be executed for a crime of which he might be innocent. You may read more about his case, and find out how to contact Missouri governor Jay Nixon as well as Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster in order to ask for a stay of execution and a reexamination of the evidence, here.

stop death penalty

Answering Death With Life

Kelly was on my mind Tuesday night as I fell asleep. I woke up yesterday devastated to learn that none of her appeals had saved her life. While hope resurfaced when the execution of Richard Glossip was stayed for 37 days, I still pray, knowing that only his method of execution, not his possible innocence, is being considered. I pray for Alfredo Prieto, who may die today despite arguments that he is intellectually disabled. And with a full and heavy heart, I also pray for Kimber Edwards, scheduled to die later this week for a crime of which he may also be innocent.

The death penalty must be abolished. Period. I am furious that no concern is shown for the possibility of innocence. I am disheartened that indefinite imprisonment with treatment is not considered sufficient for someone mentally ill. I am devastated that no mercy is shown to the contrite and repentant. But I also want the death penalty gone for those who are intellectually competent, remorseless, and guilty. It is a crime and an abomination. Far from deterring evil, it produces and perpetuates evil. There is no place for it in the world that Jesus Christ is rebuilding on a foundation of love.

While arguments will always be made for and against the death penalty’s deterrence of murder, I believe that the greatest deterrence of murder, and the greatest testimony to the worth of every human life, is the abolition of the death penalty in all of its forms. Faith tells me this. The science of mimetic theory tells me this. And my aching for peace compels me to strive, against all of my pressing doubts, for a world that operates on compassion.

No one is born a murderer. Murderers are formed in a world of violence. They develop in an interconnected web of life that links them with all of us, and the violence they wield takes root in a society that, despite its protests to the contrary, makes it clear every day that it does not consider all life sacred.

No human being has the right to judge any life irredeemable. All of our hands are bloody. This is what Jesus taught us by his life, death, and resurrection: that we are all entangled in a sacrificial system dependent on victims and enemies, a system that will devour us all if we continue on the trajectory of vengeance and retribution. The only way out is forgiveness. Put to death by religious and government authorities, Jesus exposed our wrath and our fear, but also the depths to which Love will go to heal us and save us from this hell of our own making. Jesus is not our only victim; rather, he became our victim to show us what we do to all of our victims. His resurrection ripped a hole in the foundation of the world built on violence, exposing it as the graveyard of the victims who upheld civilization by their deaths. Those who argue in favor of the death penalty say that it keeps the balance of justice in tact, but Jesus forever disrupted that balance (which was never as stable as we would like to believe) when we killed the innocent and he pardoned the guilty. We all spilled his blood, and the blood of so many others, and we have all been forgiven. At least for those who profess Christ, as do so many in Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Missouri, and throughout the nation, there is a clear mandate to forgive as we have been forgiven.

When there is so much for which we must be forgiven, we cannot rely on our terribly imperfect judgment, or the judgment of the state, when it comes to deeming someone else unforgivable. We need so much mercy because we are apt to be so wrong so often. We live on land stolen from its native inhabitants. The American economy was built on torturous slave labor. Racism and sexism and homophobia destroy lives. Our tax dollars fund the largest killing machine in the world. We often hurt people even when we have the best of intentions, and we can all name a time we have hurt someone deliberately. We are desperate for mercy. Forgiveness and reconciliation are as crucial to life as the very air we breathe.

What does this have to do with the death penalty? Jesus equates anger with murder. We know that to varying degrees we have participated in acts that have diminished life. We know that we play active roles in systems that destroy life. We are guilty of the murder of Jesus not simply through direct acts of killing, but through infinite small cuts of cruelty, dehumanization, and indifference. These small acts together build systems of selfishness and sacrifice that keep the world running right over its victims. None of us are without sin, and none of us have the moral authority to cast stones.

The death penalty, like any other murder, is the product of a violent world. It is the contagion of vengeance enshrined in law. It is judgment pronounced by a state blind to its own need for mercy. And when we are blind to our own need for mercy, we are also blind to the harm we do to others. When we fail to show mercy, we fail to be transformed by the mercy available to us. The death penalty perpetuates violence by eroding the souls of those who enforce and execute it, deepening the morass of cruelty that consumes us.

The only cure to the contagion of violence is mercy. Abolition of the death penalty is an act of mercy that overpowers violence. It makes a clear declaration that no evil is strong enough to overshadow the image of God implanted within each of us. What stronger way could there be to rebuke death than to affirm life?

Abolition of the death penalty cannot be confined to the criminal justice system. People are condemned to death by war and diversion of resources, by apathy and greed. We must cease all killing, by abolishing the death penalty and war and replacing them with methods of conflict resolution that aim to respect human dignity above all. And we must reinforce human dignity by reorienting our policy goals from concentration of wealth and power toward distribution of resources and services. Such a reorientation could not be confined to our policies but must take root in our hearts and transform our actions. Just as moment to moment acts of cruelty build systems of sacrifice, moment to moment acts of empathy build systems of compassion. We must continue to turn from instincts that return violence for violence and follow the one who met cruelty with forgiveness, pain with healing, hate with love. With every such act of mercy and kindness, we build up life for others and immerse ourselves deeper into the abundant life we receive in Jesus.

Building up life, building up a world of mercy, building up the kingdom of God, is the best way to deter the violent crimes that the death penalty can only compound. The best way to honor the victims of violent crime is to help build a world in which no one else will be victimized. Those who kill are in need of healing, not death. We have already received the answer to death when Jesus poured upon us an abundance of mercy and love. To spread this healing to a violent world desperate for grace, we must go and do likewise.

Image: Stock photo from

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.”

Stay in the loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!


Black Forgiveness, the Hypocrisy of White America, and Atonement

“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

Those words of accountability and forgiveness were spoken to Dylann Roof at his bond hearing by the daughter of one of his victims.

How are we to understand such radical forgiveness?

The spirit of forgiveness and accountability was on full display during the bond hearing by the family members of the victims. Many have seen that forgiveness as shallow, even calling it a “parade of forgiveness [that] is disconcerting to say the least.”

Forgiveness isn’t disconcerting. What is disconcerting is a hypocritical response from white America.

Many white Americans interpret black forgiveness as absolution for the racist attitudes that led to the attack. We distort that forgiveness in a way that doesn’t hold us accountable for changing the racist political, economic, and educational structures that infect our country.

If white America celebrates the forgiveness that was on display in Charleston but refuses to be transformed by it, then we are hypocrites. If that forgiveness doesn’t break our hearts to make them grow bigger, if that forgiveness doesn’t become a model for white America to follow, if that forgiveness doesn’t make us work for racial justice and make us more gracious and forgiving in our lives, then we are just a bunch of hypocrites.

When we celebrate black forgiveness but refuse to be accountable to that very forgiveness then we are doing nothing more than creating an aura of deniability. By celebrating black forgiveness of those persecutors like Dylann Roof, we can safely deny that we participate in and benefit from racist structures that persecute black people. In other words, we can so twist the blessed act of forgiveness that we manipulate it to deny that we are persecutors, too.

In her Washington Post article, Stacey Patton speaks to the hypocrisy of white America. We celebrate and even demand black forgiveness in the face of violence, but we do not offer our own forgiveness to violence committed against us. She connects it to 9/11, “After 9/11 there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks … As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coats noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheading.”

Patton and Coats are absolutely right when they point to the hypocrisy of white America when it comes to forgiveness. Black people aren’t allowed to show rage, to be “an angry black man.” But white rage in the face of violence is thought to be a perfectly normal response.

What’s true about forgiveness on a personal level is true about forgiveness on a national level. We are the “angry white man” who too often responds to violence with mimetic violence of our own. The “angry black man” stereotype is a projection of our own white anger and hatred.

Atoning for White Racism

In the Christian tradition, Atonement happened on the cross when Jesus offered forgiveness to those who killed and persecuted him. The Atonement was about changing hearts, but it wasn’t God’s heart that was changed. Jesus didn’t appease a wrathful god; he appeased a wrathful humanity. But he didn’t just appease a wrathful humanity, he transformed a wrathful humanity into a more loving humanity. The Atonement doesn’t absolve us from the harm that we’ve cause. Unless we are hypocrites, it leads us to take responsibility for changing our lives so that we work for justice, healing, and love.

The consequences of that Atonement are best seen in the story of the conversion of St. Paul. Before his conversion, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian community. Like all persecutors, he was blind to his victims. He thought he was keeping his way of life safe from his enemies. But on the road to Damascus, the resurrected Jesus came to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was then blinded by scales that covered his eyes, which were symbolic as a sign to his blind persecution.

Saul would soon repent of his violent persecution and the scales that blinded him fell from his eyes. His name would change from Saul to Paul as he took on a new identity. Instead of persecuting the early Christian community, and Jesus who identifies with all victims of persecution, Paul became one of them. And he worked within that community for justice so that all people – Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free – were included into a community of love and acceptance.

White America needs to have our Saul moment – and I pray that in the wake of the terrorism in Charleston that we are having it. The scales need to fall from our eyes so that we can clearly see the harm we have caused through the racist structures that permeate the United States. Like Paul, we need to hear those words from Jesus, “Why are you persecuting me?” because when we continue to uphold racist structures in America we are persecuting black people and we continue to persecute Jesus who identifies with them.

The blessed forgiveness that was on display in Charleston is the same blessed forgiveness that was on display on the cross. If white America doesn’t allow that forgiveness to hold us accountable to the transformation of our lives and the racist structures of the United States, then we are mere hypocrites who don’t truly believe in the Gospel.

May the scales fall from the eyes of white Americans. For we are blind persecutors, forgiven, and in need of transformation.

Image Credit: Vigil for the Charleston 9 (Photo: Flickr, The All Night Images, Creative Commons license, some changes made.

Stay in the Loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!



An Honest Prayer

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

A change of mind is needed in America. In Greek, the word is metánoia. Racism is alive and well, regardless of what some may say. The list of victims our country is producing is growing by leaps and bounds.

Freddie Gray

Eric Garner

Walter Scott

Unfortunately, we now must add Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson to that list. From what I have witnessed in the news, the victims and their families, as well as the many members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, have all displayed a beautiful model of how to forgive even those who commit the greatest harm. I believe our Lord would say, “Well done, good and faithful servants” (Matt. 25:23).

Now, what I want to say in the following will likely upset some people, but it is what I believe to be true. In the second sentence above, I mentioned that it is our “country” that is producing victims. I did not flippantly suggest that. We, as a nation, produce victims. Sure, the white man who murdered those nine black people is responsible for his actions. He should face consequences and he needs to repent. However, he is not solely responsible. Anthropologist René Girard coined the term “interdividuals” to explain the way in which humans should define themselves. We are our relationships and all of us, for better or worse, beautiful and disgusting, are our brother’s keeper. When Cain asks the Lord “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the implied answer is “Yes!” So, when a white man kills 9 people in a black church, he is not a lone gunman, but rather, a product of systemic racism.

Take a look at the drug laws in America. Huffington Post columnist, Saki Knafo, reports that blacks make up 45% of those in state prisons for drug offenses, compared to 30% for whites. And yet, the rate of drug use amongst blacks is lower than that of whites. John McWhorter, of the CATO Institute, writes:

If the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all.

Many of the stereotypes large groups of white people have about “black people committing more crimes” are in some way caused by the War on Drugs. It is a racist war and is directly correlated to an increase in violence. Thus, any accusation that “blacks are more violent than whites” is a false cause fallacy; as violence is caused by the coercive nature of the War on Drugs, as well as its racist underpinnings.

And now there is this business with the Confederate flag. The fact that we are even having this “debate” on whether the flag should stay or go tells me one thing: racism is so much a part of our culture that many would rather hold onto some symbol of supposed “heritage” than have empathy for the black people against whom it has been used as a racist, destructive image. The Swastika is a symbol with a storied past that predates Nazism—thousands of years even—yet we do not hear people arguing some extra-Nazism heritage to justify it flying proudly over a state capitol. Let’s drop the bullshit and get rid of any racist symbols, even if there are alternative meanings behind them.

Racism does not develop out of some lone wolf. Rather, it manifests because of hundreds of years of history built on a foundation of an “over and above” mentality. It is time we move forward as a country and as a species. We must end all of the satanic “powers and principalities”, as Paul would call them, that have plagued us for far too long. The systemic sins of this country have lead to far too much blood. We can be silent no more.

Black lives matter.

All lives matter.

Here is my honest prayer—I hope you will join me.


Please comfort the families of those who were murdered in cold blood in Charleston, SC. Please overwhelm them with your loving presence, healing the broken and bringing peace to those who mourn today. I pray that my fellow brothers and sisters in this giant family step up and step up big to aid in comforting those who grieve the most.

I pray that the citizens of that city, state, the citizens of the country I live in, as well as the citizens of a planet I share residence with—every single person—renounce the satanic principle of racism and bigotry. We have seen too much hatred and violence, too many scapegoats, too many “others”, too many victims, too much blood, too many families destroyed, too much pain, too much grieving, too many tears…all of it must end.

Please help us all to see the satanic systems that are in place for what they are—human constructs meant to oppress and hold down, accuse and blame, destroy and destroy well. Please give us the courage to confront these powers and principalities boldly.


 MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”


His Soul Wrapped In A Confederate Flag

At the bond hearing, grieving loved ones forgave Dylann Roof. This was reported as news, but it was so much more than that. It was the light embracing the darkness.

And white America absorbed this forgiveness through the eyes of the 21-year-old terrorist, who watched the proceedings on a video screen from his jail cell. Whatever he heard and felt is unknown, but beyond him, in the world he believed he was saving, something gave. The solidarity of whiteness — the quiet assumption of white supremacy — shuddered ever so slightly.

The flag, the flag . . .

The fate of this symbolic relic of the slave era is now the big story in the aftermath of Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans. He acted in such clear allegiance to the Confederate flag that politicians everywhere — even Republican presidential candidates — are demanding, or at least acquiescing to, its removal from public and official locations, such as in front of the South Carolina State House.

Not only that, “Walmart and Sears, two of the country’s largest retailers, will remove all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores,” CNN reported.

This is what atonement looks like in a consumer culture.

“The announcements,” according to CNN, “are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic in the aftermath of a shooting last week at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

A few days later, Amazon and eBay also announced they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their sites. No longer available, CNN reported, would be such flag-decorated items as folding knives, T-shirts, blankets or (God help us) shower curtains.

Oh Lord. The news so quickly becomes theater of the absurd. Roof’s act of terror has forced mainstream America to begin consciously disassociating itself from the lethal margins of white solidarity, to wake up to what it really means. But this waking up, so far, seems limited to the symbolism of Confederate paraphernalia. All our guilt is being dumped here, while the pain that Roof’s act of terror has caused ebbs and slowly vanishes from the social mainstream.

In fact, an undead racism still stalks the American consciousness and it will, once again, regroup, Confederate flag or no Confederate flag. What this moment of awareness calls for is true atonement for our history.

“I forgive you.” These are the words of Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Atonement begins with cradling the pain.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, who was not only present in the church during the murders but the mother of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest of those killed. As we cradle the pain, we must cradle this as well: the open souls of the murder victims.

What do we value as a nation? Do we value such openness? The killer — who was, as he entered the church, simply an unknown young man — did not go through security clearance as he walked through the open door. He had complete freedom of movement as he entered the historic African-American church, where he was accepted simply for his humanity. Yes, such openness and acceptance are also part of who we are as a nation, but . . . do we value these qualities? Do we have the least faith that they matter now more than ever, now that they’ve been so violated?

A participant at one of the vigils last week for the murder victims “noted how a church’s doors are always open, especially to those in need,” a Daily Beast story reported. “She wonders now how churches can square their mission of public service, charity and acceptance with security concerns.”

Roof’s act of terror has opened a gaping hole in the social fabric. Can we no longer pray together?

But all such questions lead back into the depth of American history and the need for atonement and transformation. A Reuters story, addressing the segregated nature of most American churches (11 a.m. Sunday is “the most segregated hour in the nation,” Martin Luther King once said), pointed out: “The story of this division began in America’s earliest moments, when slaves and freed African-Americans alike were often expected to pray in the same churches as whites, but in areas cordoned off, often called ‘slave galleries.’”

Imagine praying in a setting that defines you as semi-human. Now imagine Dylann Roof walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a gun in his backpack. Roof was the self-defined semi-human in the church that night, his soul wrapped in a Confederate flag.

The U.S. is enslaved by its past. That’s what no one has said yet. One hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to lower the flag that symbolizes this enslavement.

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


The Theology of a Biker Gang


Five rival biker gangs descended upon a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas on Sunday. Hundreds of gang members began stabbing, beating, and shooting each other. Weapons included chains, knives, clubs, and guns. When the fight ended, 9 people were dead, 18 were sent to the hospital, and more than 170 people were arrested.

Waco police Sargent W. Patrick Swanton stated, “In my nearly 35 years of law enforcement experience, this is the most violent and gruesome scene that I have dealt with.”

One of the biker gangs is called the “Bandidos.” They originated in Texas during the 1960s. In 2013, federal law enforcement produced a national gang report that identified the Bandidos as one of the five most dangerous biker gang threats in the US.

And they have a theology and an anthropology that you should know about. They’re summed up in one of their slogans:

God forgives. Bandidos don’t.

We can easily dismiss that slogan as a biker gangs attempt to intimidate, but do not dismiss it. That pithy statement tells a profound truth about both God and humanity.

Anthropology of a Biker Gang: Bandidos Don’t Forgive

Let’s start with the anthropology. When it comes to forgiveness, we are all much more like a biker gang than we’d like to admit. Take what happened in Waco, for example. A group of rival gangs come together to fight because they have a relationship based on hostility. They refuse to forgive because biker gangs respond to violence with violence. That’s the pattern that they have developed.

It’s not just biker gangs who have that violent pattern. We all do. Violence is a human problem. For example, our political and judicial systems are based on that pattern. The same principle of retaliation that consumes biker gangs also consumes our culture.

Biker gangs such as the Bandidos are a violent and evil menace to society precisely because they refuse to forgive. And whenever we refuse to forgive, we become just like a violent and evil biker gang that is a menace to society.

Bandidos don’t forgive because we don’t forgive. Whenever someone insults us, we tend to insult back. When someone hits us, we tend to hit back. When someone attacks our country, we attack back. That’s the reciprocal pattern we tend to fall into when it comes to violence. For example, will our society respond to Sunday’s biker gang violence with forgiveness? No, we will respond with violent punishment of our own – maybe even the death penalty. Which leads me to ask some question:

How would the biker gang situation be different if one of the gangs decided to respond with forgiveness?

How would my life be different if I responded to insults with forgiveness?

How would the world situation be different if on 9/11 the United States decided to respond with forgiveness?

We will never know the answer to that last question. But what we do know is that our violent response didn’t solve the problem of violence that we face; in fact, it may only have perpetuated it.

Theology of a Biker Gang: God Forgives

And here’s the good news: God forgives. The theological truth of the Bandidos slogan is that God isn’t like us. God doesn’t hold on to grudges. God forgives.

But please understand that God’s forgiveness doesn’t make violence okay. Rather, it stops the cycle of violence by refusing to play the game. The best example of God’s radical forgiveness is on the cross. Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

God forgives.

That’s true. But the truth that the Bandidos biker gang doesn’t understand, and what we so often fail to understand as well, is that God calls us to participate in a culture of divine forgiveness, as opposed to a culture of human violence. The first step is to realize that we all have a tendency toward violence in thought, word, and deed; and so we are all in need of receiving God’s forgiveness. Then, as we receive from God’s well of abundant forgiveness, we are able to share that forgiveness with others.

There is an urgency in our current situation. What happened between 5 biker gangs in Waco is a microcosm of our world situation. Our hope in the face of violence is in following the God of radical forgiveness. As René Girard prophetically says in his book The Scapegoat, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be enough time.”

Maria’s Choice: Dr. Montessori’s Struggle to Balance Career and Motherhood

A woman balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

A mother balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo)

Dr. Maria Montessori loved children, yet the story of her only child seems to indicate that she loved her career more. In the late 1890s, just as her success at reforming the treatment of prisoners, insanity, mental retardation and child delinquency was garnering her world-wide fame, she became pregnant by a colleague. Maria and her lover, Guiseppe Montesano, were both doctors, both radical reformers, and both dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet the reality in Italy at the turn of the 20th century was that when a woman married she was expected to leave the workforce. A married woman’s place, no matter her skills or level of education, was in the home, not the surgery or hospital, not teaching at university or advising governments on social programs. Though we cannot be certain, it seems that to protect Maria’s career the lovers took a vow not to marry and to raise their child together, but in secret. When Guiseppe betrayed Maria by marrying someone else, all that remained of their vow was the secrecy.

Dr. Montessori concealed her pregnancy and gave birth to her only child, a son, sending him to a wet nurse in the country. It was during this time of personal crisis that her career path took a dramatic turn. Maria shifted her focus from the institutionalized population of criminals and delinquents to the education of normal children. They became her passion and she dedicated her life to improving the health, education and well-being of children. What she could not provide for her own child in his formative years, she longed to guarantee for the children of mothers all over the world.

The choice between work and motherhood, Maria’s choice, is still faced by women today. I imagine that Maria felt what so many of us feel – whether at home or work, we feel guilty, divided, and teetering on the brink of failing at both motherhood and career. I’m in the midst of doing research on Dr. Montessori’s life and work with the hope of producing a novel or bio-pic that does justice to her genius. I recently came across some of Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on the differences between the work-a-day world and life spent in the company of children. Careers are spent in an atmosphere of competition and selfish self-promotion. Becoming a parent requires something quite different. She explains it this way:

The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal of renunciation, of unselfishness – virtues almost unreachable outside family life. What businessman, in a position to acquire some property he needs, will ever say to one of his competitors: “You can have it. I am leaving it for you!” But if hungry parents are short of food, they will deny themselves the last crumb of bread rather than have the child go hungry.

Dr. Montessori witnessed this self-denying love herself. Her medical career and her early work with children was among the poorest of the poor in Rome and so she saw the virtue of selflessness in action. Of course, she was all too familiar with self-serving patriarchal attitudes of women’s inferiority. The male dominated professions of medicine and education often patronized and dismissed her innovations without serious consideration. But she was undaunted and achieved much for which the children of the world owe her a debt of gratitude.

But what of her love for her own child? She seems not to have been able to achieve the ideals of “renunciation” and “unselfishness” that she so admired in others. Her story of motherhood does have a happy ending, though. When her son was about twelve, she took him into her life and under her care, though she did not publically acknowledge him as her son until near the end of her life. They had a warm, loving relationship and Mario worked tirelessly by her side, continuing after her death to work on behalf of the Montessori Method.

Maria’s choice to give up her son for the sake of her career was a difficult one for her and her son, but somehow they found forgiveness and redemption. Perhaps this is the lesson of her life. All moms know that we will make mistakes, especially in difficult situations, but Maria’s choice reminds us that the story of a mother and child isn’t over until love writes the ending.

“So we see,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “there are two kinds of life.” We have our careers and our motherhood, and a woman “is privileged to share in both. [But] the better of the two is that with children, for nearness to them brings out our best side.” Dr. Montessori knew the truth – our children make us better people. As we make the daily trek between our two worlds, let’s be mothers first, even at work. What better tribute to offer our children who love us for better or worse.

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ: How to Overcome the Place of Shame

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had the same experience. Their shared experience could have defined their lives. It could have made them bitter. They could have sought revenge. But they didn’t. Instead, they invited us to change. They invited us to live into a better world.

Monica Lewinsky and the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both occupied the place of shame. In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture.  In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.

The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”

But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”

And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:

The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors… that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created.

A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over-and-against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!

Sure, Monica made “wrong turns.” But by shaming her, we gained a false sense of moral superiority that is rooted in our lack of self-esteem. After all, deep down we know that we have made wrong turns, too. We have all compromised ourselves morally and ethically. Shaming allows us to project our own sense of shame upon another. When it comes to shaming, it’s not really about them. It’s really about us.

Monica’s statement is prophetic because she is putting the price of public shaming where it belongs – on us. We are all responsible for the culture of shame. By claiming that “we have created” a culture of shame, Monica admits that she also needs to take responsibility for her part in participating in that culture. But she is also taking responsibility for transforming our culture of shame. Monica explains how we can change that culture,

Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop. And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. The shift begins by… returning to a long held value of compassion and empathy.

That’s the key. Yet, typically we respond to shame and humiliation by mimicking shame and humiliation. We shame the shamers. We scapegoat the scapegoater. We project our own shame upon someone else. When we do this, we have only reinforced the spirit of shame that permeates our culture.

The answer to shame is not more shame. It’s more compassion, more empathy, and more love for others and for ourselves.

Jesus Christ and the Place of Shame

jesus teacherJesus and Monica were both publicly exposed, shamed, and humiliated. Of course, Jesus’ public humiliation didn’t happen on the Internet; it happened on a cross. Jesus hung on the cross, naked, exposed, and humiliated for everyone to see. The cross was a place of torture and shame.

Jesus didn’t make “wrong turns” as Monica did. He was innocent. And yet the cross reveals that innocence doesn’t matter. He was still mocked, shamed, tortured, and killed.

The remarkable thing about Jesus is the same thing that I find remarkable about Monica Lewinsky – neither are defined by their experience of shame. Neither want revenge. Rather, both invite us into a new reality where the cycle of shame stops and a new cycle of compassion and empathy begins.

Jesus invites us into a new life – a new way of being in the world. Unfortunately, human cultures run on shaming a scapegoat. As James Alison states in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, we humans would much rather someone else occupy the place of shame than we occupy that place ourselves. And so we point the finger of accusation and shame against others so that we can feel safe.

But when we play by the rules of shame, no one escapes life without experiencing it. Everyone, whether we make wrong turns or not, experiences shame. The good news is that we don’t have to play by those rules. In fact, we can learn an entirely new game.

Jesus called that new game the “Kingdom of God.” He based that game on two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Your neighbor, Jesus reminded us, might just be your enemy, the one who shames you. While that often hurts, Jesus gives us the freedom to respond to shame with compassion and empathy.

Even more important, Jesus invites us to take responsibility for the way we all participate in the culture of shame. We all stand in need of forgiveness and Jesus hung on the cross to offer that forgiveness. In the face of human violence and shame committed against him, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

How Monica and Jesus Overcame the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both reveal that we can overcome our experience of shame. The place of shame is overcome not by projecting our own sense of shame upon another or by the revenge of shaming those who shame us. Rather, it is overcome by responding to shame with compassion and empathy for ourselves, our neighbors, and even those we call our enemies.

Our culture is run by cycles of shame, but we don’t have to be. By receiving the forgiveness and compassion of God, we can run our lives by different rules. The only way to transform a culture of violence and shame is to play by different rules – the rules of self-giving love and compassion.

Caterpillar’s Surprise: An Easter Play For Children (And The Young At Heart)

josh and Pete

“Here, take my last carrot. Whenever you eat it, you can remember me.”

Editor’s Note: This is a puppet show with Easter themes that I wrote a few years ago for a church fundraiser. Because the fundraiser was open to the wider community and there were many different faith communities represented in the neighborhood, I do not directly reference scripture, but the parallels are easily recognizable. Parents are invited to share with their children, especially during Holy Week and Easter, and talk about themes of resurrection, forgiveness, and new life! 


On a warm afternoon on the last day of May
Two animal friends were happy at play.
Josh Caterpillar and his bunny pal Pete
Were frolicking in meadows of flowers so sweet.

Pete was a small rabbit with long ears and bright eyes
But Josh was an insect of enormous size!
For a caterpillar, he was nearly as big as a cat!
And lots of the animals teased him for that.

Crowd of animals (mockingly): “Oooh, look at the big scary caterpillar!” “Ick, a giant bug!” “Big fat caterpillar, big fat caterpillar!”

Pete R. Rabbit: “My friend isn’t fat! He’s perfectly proportionate!”

Josh Caterpillar: “It’s okay, Pete. Don’t engage them. They don’t know what they’re saying.”


But Pete knew his friend Josh was a bug among bugs
With the power to heal in his multi-legged hugs.
So he stayed by his side through all kinds of weather.
Wherever they went, they were always together.

And on this fine day they were having such fun,
Splashing in puddles and drying off in the sun.
And as they sat down to their nice picnic lunch,
Pete said to Josh, as his carrots went “crunch,”

Pete: (Garble something unintelligible as bits of carrot fly out… “blargle glarble…”)

Josh: Pete, come on! How many times do I have to tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”

Pete: “Sorry Josh! These carrots are just so yummy! I was just saying, this is so much fun. I hope we can have days like this everyday!’


But Josh just sighed sadly and gazed in the distance.
Pete asked what was wrong, and at his insistence,
Josh answered, “Pete, I have something to say.
In just a short while, I must go away.”

Pete: “I don’t understand.”

Josh: “I have to leave you for a while, Pete. I’m sorry. I knew this day would come, and even I was a little afraid of it. But I must go away for a time. Here, take my last carrot. Whenever you eat it you can remember me.”

Pete: “But I don’t understand! You’re my best friend! I stood up for you when all the other animals made fun of you for being so freakishly huge!”

Josh: “Hey!”

Pete: “And now you’re just going to abandon me? What’s up with that?”

Josh: “I’m not abandoning you. I’ll come back to you soon, but for a while, I must go away. And when I come back, things will be a little different, but I’ll still love you.”

Pete: “What do you mean, ‘things will be different?’

Josh: “You’ll understand everything in time.”

Pete: “You’re talking in riddles again! Why are you so confusing? Why do things have to change? Why do you have to go? You can’t just leave me all alone! I – I’m gonna miss you, man!”

(Josh wraps around Pete in a big hug.)

Josh: “There are things I can’t explain now; you’ll only understand when you see for yourself. I have to go now. But everything’s going to be okay. I promise.”

Pete: “That’s it? You’re leaving? Well, fine, go then!” *sniff* “Who – who needs you anyway?”


So Pete turned in grief and sped fast down the lane
While Josh crawled on slowly, full of sorrow and pain.
Some animals saw him, and as he passed by,
With mocking voices, they jeered and they cried,

Crowds of animals: “Where you going, big guy?” “Where’s your silly little rabbit friend?” “For such a big guy with so many legs, you’d think he’d move faster!”

But Josh just crawled on, ignoring their sneers.
In his heart he forgave all their taunting and jeers.
He climbed up a hill and he came to a tree
And up the tall trunk he crawled silently.

Pete ran a good distance and then turned back to see
As Josh slowly made his way up the great tree.
He looked on as Josh vanished into the leaves
But just as poor Pete sat himself down to grieve

The animals found him and said to him, “So
You’re that friend of that Caterpillar. Where did he go?”
And Pete shook his head, and pretended to doubt,
And said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Animals: “Sure you do. You were friends with that giant caterpillar, right? We saw him slinking away all by himself, pouting like a giant baby. What happened? You guys were always together.”

Pete: “He’s not a giant baby! I mean, uh, I guess… not that I would know. I, I’ve never even seen him.”

Animals: “Look, he’s trying to pretend he doesn’t know him! Maybe he finally realized what an enormous anomaly of nature he was and now he’s trying to make us forget he had anything to do with him.”

Pete: “No! I swear, I never knew him!”

Animals: “Hey, take it easy buddy. Maybe we should leave you alone to chill out.” (Animals leave)

Pete: (Sadly) “After all we went through, he left me all alone. I really didn’t know him at all.”


But when Pete saw his carrot, he thought of his friend,
And he said to himself, I should go make amends.
And so, without wasting anymore time,
He hopped fast to the tree that he saw his friend climb.

Pete: “Josh! Josh, are you there?”


Pete yelled and he shouted but he heard no reply.
He shook his head and he tried not to cry.
When he looked up, he saw, in the light of the moon.
Hanging from a branch, a big Josh-shaped cocoon!

But Pete didn’t know what the cocoon was for.
You see, he had never seen one before.
So he cried, “Josh, come out! Please come play with me.”
But still he heard nothing as he stared at the tree.

It was too high to climb, so Pete just had to wait.
He worried and wondered about his playmate.
Hours passed, and still Josh stayed hidden away.
Still Pete stayed and waited, day after long day.

One morning Pete woke to a shocking surprise.
When he looked up, he couldn’t believe his own eyes.
Hanging from the tree on that morning in June
Pete saw only a shredded and empty cocoon!

Pete: “Oh no! Josh’s sleeping bag is all ripped! And he’s not there! What happened? Did the birds tear his house apart? Did he get eaten by a giant squirrel? Where could he be? Josh! Josh!”


In panic and sorrow Pete looked all around
But his bug-buddy Josh was nowhere to be found!
But just before Pete hung his head down to cry,
Down from the tree flew a huge butterfly!

Butterfly Josh: “Little bunny, why are you crying?”

Pete: “My, my best friend left me all alone… He was a caterpillar, see… And– and he climbed up that tree and crawled into a sleeping bag and I was waiting and waiting for him to wake up but now his sleeping bag is torn and he’s gone and I’ll never see him again and –”

Butterfly Josh: “Pete, it’s ok.”

Pete: “How can you say it’s ok? You didn’t even know him; it’s not o– Hey, how did you know my name?” (Pete stares at Josh). “Your eyes… they look so familiar…”

Josh: “Pete….”

Pete: “Josh! It is you! It’s really you!” (Humongous hug!)

Josh: “I told you I wouldn’t abandon you!”

Pete: “Oh Josh! You’re back! You’re… different… You’re so… beautiful!”

Josh: “I missed you, Pete! Come on, we have so much fun to catch up on! Hop on my back and let’s go see the world!”

Pete: “Yay!”


So with Pete on his back, Josh soared way up high.
O’er tall trees and rooftops they flew through sky.
And when they looked down on the ground, they both saw
All the animals staring up at them in awe.

Animals: “Pete! Pete, is that you? Who’s you’re amazing new friend? That’s the most beautiful butterfly I’ve ever seen!”

(Josh and Pete land.)

Josh: “Hi guys. Don’t you remember me?”


When they recognized Josh, they all cowered in shame,
But Josh wasn’t one to hold a grudge or place blame.
So as they said “We’re sorry,” and trembled with fear,
Josh smiled, and his voice rang out, sweet and clear.


“I forgive you, my friends, and I hope you will see
That this new-found kindness should not end with me.
When someone is different, look past fur, scales and skin
Because a creature’s true beauty always comes from within.”

Animals: “You mean you forgive us just like that? You’re not gonna hurt us?”

So away they all flew to make friends far and wide...

So away they all flew to make friends far and wide…

Josh: “Of course not. Making friends is so much more fun than staying enemies, don’t you think?”

Animals: “Well, Josh, you’re a bigger man than all of us.”

Pete: “You can say that again!” (The animals laugh.)

Josh: “Come on guys! There’s room for everyone! Climb aboard and let’s go make new friends all over the world!”

Animals and Pete: “Hooray!”


So away they all flew to make friends far and wide.
In wonder and joy, creatures flocked to their side.
They befriended new creatures of all shapes and sizes.
And learned that life’s full of sweet, happy surprises.

The End.