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The Naked Mole Rat Foundation

We chose the raven for a symbol because it is a scapegoat  — a harmless bird still associated with evil. But ravens aren’t the best scapegoats; many people think they’re cool! So we’ve found an animal so off-putting that it makes everyone recoil. Therefore, we are transitioning to “The Naked Mole Rat Foundation.”

APRIL FOOLS!

Seriously, we know our readers are smart. We doubt any of you were actually fooled.

But the truth is, we fool ourselves all the time.

We humans are creatures of self-deception, much more than we would like to admit. We build up myths about who we are and what we do, and live according to false, incomplete, or clouded understandings of ourselves and the world. All too often, our narrow viewpoints are not only fundamentally deceptive but dangerous. Like walls built for protection that instead entrap us, we humans have a tendency to enclose ourselves – whether in tribes or families, nations or ideologies – away from “others.” Over time, our skewed perspectives have made our beautiful but fragile planet a violent, volatile place.

I want to explore three basic myths that are so deeply entrenched in our cultural DNA that, even as I attempt to expose them, I myself am susceptible to them. These are myths of identity, judgment, and violence.

Identity:

We live in a culture of hyper-individualism. We think of ourselves as singular persons complete unto ourselves. Yet though we have individual bodies, we are more deeply and fundamentally connected than we realize. And despite our socio-cultural emphasis on independence and autonomy (at least for adults), we need each other.

As mimetic creatures, we, more than any other species, have transcended being ruled by instinct to learning by imitation. As infants we learn what foods to eat, what to touch, what to say, what to do, from the adults and older children in our lives. Learning from others never stops! And beyond what we need for mere survival, we learn desire from one another. We learn to want what others want, and to pursue an identity from the values we perceive that are manifested in innumerable ways in the people who surround us.

Learning from imitation does not mean we are carbon copies of one another. We would be more alike if we were guided by the same instincts for the same basics of survival. As it is, we are unique amalgamations of experiences and relationships, and our ability to learn from and imitate one another make connection, empathy, and relationship possible. Our need for each other is fundamentally good. And yet our shared desires – for material possessions, for identity, and sometimes for people – are also sources of conflict and often the roots of violence.

So we deceive ourselves when we underestimate the influence of others and when we imagine ourselves fundamentally different from those with whom we are in conflict. We like to think we have nothing in common with our enemies, but we share fundamental yearnings, often beyond the material. And in the midst of hostility and violence, one thing we share with our enemies is an increasing desire for security, for protecting our loved ones, for insuring safety and freedom… and this very desire keeps us fighting! The more we fight, the more any differences we once had fade away as we lose ourselves in the violence. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus meant when he said that those who seek to save their lives will lose them.

Judgment:

Our judgment is skewed by our skewed understandings of ourselves. The less we are aware of our dependency on others, the more likely we are to judge with severity and without compassion. When we deny our own vulnerability and need, we reduce our capacity for mercy; yet our own need for mercy never ceases.

We marginalize, other-ize, push aside, criminalize and harshly punish through a lack of understanding. When we are on the receiving end of such treatment, we may think to ourselves “If only they knew the ‘real’ me.” We are hardly aware of ourselves when we extend the judgment to others that we hope to be spared from them. When we’re cut off in traffic or annoyed by someone squeezing into a check-out line ahead of us, we become angry and judgmental. Of course, we are guilty of the same offenses!

With our limited understanding of ourselves and each other, our judgment, which can be put to good — even wonderful – use, can be warped from a tool of justice to injustice. Judgment in practice is often the opposite of compassion, but for judgment to function for good requires mercy. A deeper awareness of our interconnection would help us to understand a collective responsibility for each other that would draw us together, helping us to dismantle systems of poverty fueled by indifference and punitive judgment. A deeper awareness of our vulnerability would foster the compassion so desperately needed to transform a world of violence into one of mutual care and concern.

Violence:

Directly connected to our skewed judgment, which comes from a limited perspective of not only others but of ourselves as well, is our propensity for and our understanding of violence. Judgment against others is often a form of violence in itself, and the path from violent thought to violent action is clear.

We have a dangerous tendency to justify and mythologize our violence. We know, of course, that violence, when wielded by others, is wrong, but we justify it, or even refuse to recognize it as violence, when we wield it ourselves.

I have already discussed how the sources of violence are often our similarities rather than our differences, and how the differences we do have tend to dissolve in the fog of our violence. And just as our skewed judgment can lead to violence, violence itself further skews our judgment so that we fail to recognize how we perpetuate the vicious cycles that destroy others and ourselves.

Of course, we are often the victims of wrong, sometimes deliberate and more often not. Just as we ourselves commit wrong, sometimes deliberately but most often not. We may believe we have a “right” to our violence when we are wronged. But only forgiveness stops violence in its tracks and prevents us from perpetuating further wrongdoing. Of course, forgiveness is hard. But it can facilitate greater understanding, repair  relationships, and ultimately restore justice. Many people think forgiveness is naive. In reality, it is not only a path to peace… it is the only path to peace.

Changing Perspective

So the picture at the beginning of this article may not have fooled you. But we are all fooled by fundamental misunderstandings about who we are, how much we need each other, our sources of conflict and the righteousness of our violence.

At Raven, we seek to deepen and broaden our own perspective, even as we share what we learn and what we believe with you, dear Readers. We are continually learning and growing, seeking to more deeply understand what it means to be human in a deeply interconnected world. With the fully, truly human one — Jesus — as our model, we seek to deepen our awareness of our interconnection, that we may live for (rather than over and against) each other and together build a vibrant and lasting peace.

And while we strive to change our own perspective, we are making other changes as well! You may have noticed our header, “Change is Coming,” as well as our countdown clock. Stay tuned, as later today we will have more information. And it would be foolish of me not to thank you, dear Reader. We are in this work of peacemaking together.

 

Image: “Naked Mole Rat in a zoo” by Roman Klementschitz. Available on Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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The Resurrection is No Myth, But It Is Dangerous

The resurrection is often packaged around cute little bunnies and plastic Easter eggs full of candy.

But resurrection isn’t soft and cuddly. Resurrection is dangerous. It is risky. It is not safe.

Resurrection is dangerous because it transforms how we relate to our fellow human beings, specifically to our enemies. And it transforms our understanding of the divine.

Throughout human history we have been caught up in cycles of violence – and we thought the gods were caught up in the same cycles of violence.

For example, the resurrection of Jesus is often compared to myths of resurrected gods throughout the ancient world. One such myth is about an Egyptian god named Horus and his father Osirus. Horus is portrayed as a good god that fought against the forces of evil, namely, an evil god named Set, who killed Horus’s father, a god named Osirus. Fortunately, Horus and his mother were able to resurrect Osirus. But the question remained, what should they to do about Set?

The resurrected Osirus asked Horus a question, “What is the most glorious deed a man can perform?”

Horus answered, “To take revenge upon one who has injured his father or mother.”*

And that’s what Horus did. Once he defeated Set in violent battle, Horus was acclaimed to be “lord of all the earth” and “once again established order and justice.”

There is a certain amount of truth within this myth. Throughout history, humans have thought that the only way to contain evil and violence is with our own violence. Horus wanted to destroy Set in order to establish peace, order, and justice. But the myth is honest about another motivation – no matter how good and just our violence seems to be, it always carries with it a motivation for revenge.

Ultimately, violence cannot be contained. It always escalates into cycles of increasing revenge. We see this cycle in ancient myths, but we also see it in the modern world. Just like the violence between Horus and Set, the United States believe that the way to deal with evil is to violently defeat our enemies. How does the United States respond to ISIS? We seek revenge by killing them.

In other words, Horus is our divine model.

The resurrection of Jesus tells a radically different story than the myth of Horus. Jesus was resurrected not to seek revenge against his enemies. No, the resurrection of Jesus is not a violent myth. The resurrection of Jesus is the Good News that God isn’t out for revenge. Rather, Jesus was resurrected to reveal God’s radical offer of peace and forgiveness.

After his death, the disciples were consumed with fear and locked themselves in a room. The resurrected Jesus suddenly appeared to them. While there, Jesus repeated the phrase, “Peace be with you” three times.

Why did Jesus have to repeat that phrase? Because if this was a myth like other resurrection myths, the disciples would have thought that the resurrected Jesus would seek revenge. The disciples had a lot to fear; after all, they just betrayed, denied, and abandoned Jesus to his death.

But the resurrection of Jesus was no myth. It was Gospel. It was the Good News that God doesn’t hold our sins against us, but forgives us, offers us peace, and invites us to extend that peace to others.

Most of us don’t believe in Jesus. We believe in the gods of myth. We believe in Horus. We believe in violence. Whether our next president is Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Hillary Clinton, if our enemies hit us, we will hit them back. And we will fool ourselves into believing that we will hit back so hard that our enemies will never even think about hitting us again. And the cycle of violence will continue. And Horus will be our god.

Unless we decide to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But faith in the resurrection is dangerous because the resurrection is God’s alternative to the myths of violence. When you believe the resurrection of Jesus, you can no longer fight violence with violence in the name of God. Rather, you “fight” violence with forgiveness. You don’t engage evil with more evil, but with love. Resurrection is dangerous because our enemies may respond to our offer of peace with violence. That’s the risk of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

But that risk is also our greatest hope for a more peaceful world.

*Told in World Mythology, second edition, edited by Donna Rosenberg, pages 165-168

Image: Flickr, “Resurrection 60,” by Waiting for the Word, Creative Commons License, some changes made

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The Political Subversion of Palm Sunday

Make no mistake: the Gospel is political.

Politics refers to “the affairs of the city” and “influencing other people on a civic or individual level.”

Throughout his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was political. He influenced people to live into the politics of the Kingdom of Heaven. For Jesus, Heaven is not essentially some place off in the distance where you go after you die. No, Heaven is a way of life to be lived right here, right now. We see this clearly in the prayer he taught his disciples:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt on Palm Sunday, he was performing a political act of of subversion.

Let’s contrast the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Rome spread its Gospel, its “good news,” in a very deliberate way. As Fr. John Dear points out,

We’re so used to that word “Gospel,” that it’s lost its original meaning. But in those days, when the Roman empire went off and conquered another land in the name of their god Caesar, and killed all the men, raped all the women, and destroyed all the homes, the soldiers would come back parading through the land announcing “the Gospel according to Caesar,” the Good News of the latest victory of Caesar, that another land has been conquered for their god Caesar, and that Caesar’s enemies have been killed.

Now, I don’t want to pick on ancient Rome because ancient Roman politics was essentially like the politics of every other nation. Ancient Roman politics was about influencing others through power, coercion, and violence.

In spreading its Gospel, Rome was spreading the Pax Romana. Rome genuinely believed that it was spreading peace and its method for spreading peace was violence. They praised their gods that they were able to kill the enemies of Roman Peace.

That’s the politics of Rome.

But that’s not the politics of Jesus.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus revealed an alternative way of being political. A political ruler’s entry into a city was of great importance in the ancient world. Roman rulers would enter a city on a powerful war horse to show their domination. Jesus rode on a colt – a young horse that had never seen war.

As Jesus rode the young horse, a large crowd spread their cloaks on the ground and waved their palm branches as they shouted “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” The Jewish Annotated New Testament states that the cloaks and branches were meant “to connect Jesus to the kingship of Israel.” The term “Son of David” was also a clear messianic reference that hoped for a new political ruler, but just what kind of king was Jesus?

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was revealing that the reign of God is in stark contrast to the reign of Rome and every other political system that seeks triumphant victory by influencing people through violence and coercion.

The Gospel of Jesus subverts the politics of violence because the Gospels is the politics of humility, service, forgiveness, and a nonviolent love that embraces all people, but especially those we call our enemies.

Tragically, we tend to live by the politics of Rome, not the politics of Jesus. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, American or Russian, whenever we seek to influence others through coercion and violence, we are following the politics of Rome.

Fortunately, Jesus revealed the alternative. He called it “The Kingdom of God.” It’s a political way of life based not on triumphant violence, but rather humble service. The politics of Jesus makes sure everyone has daily bread, it seeks to forgive debts and sins, it avoids the temptation to commit evil against our neighbors, and it calls us into a life of forgiveness.

But this is risky. We know that the politics of Jesus led him to Good Friday, where he suffered and died. And yet he stayed true to the Kingdom of God, speaking words of forgiveness even as he was murdered, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The Kingdom of God is not just a call to a personal ethic; it’s a political ethic. Indeed, the politics of Jesus seeks to influence our personal lives, but it also seeks to influence our political lives. Wherever personal or political systems use violence, power, and coercion to be triumphant and victorious, Jesus beckons us to follow him into a different kind of politics – into the Kingdom of God that lives and dies by love, service, and forgiveness.

Image: Painting by Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842. Public Domain.

A version of this article appeared in 2014.

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Risen & SNL: Is Jesus Out for Revenge?

Note: “Risen” will be released in movie theaters later today. I look forward to watching and writing a review next week, but I thought this would be a good time to remember why the resurrection is so important. In that spirit, here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about a Saturday Night Live sketch called DJesus Uncrossed, a parody of Djengo Unchained. It’s about the resurrection, but this time Jesus is out for revenge. Its over the top violence shows the foolishness of believing in a violent Jesus, while at the same time it points us toward the total love and nonviolence of God revealed in the resurrection. May “Risen” do the same!

Whenever I talk with people about Jesus and nonviolence, a curious thing often happens. Someone raises his hand (and it’s usually his hand), call me a wuss, and then accuses me of making Jesus-Christ-Our-Lord-And-Savior into my own wussy image.

First, the accusation that I’m a wuss is totally true. No one can surpass my wussiness. I run from confrontation and if I ever get into a fight my money is on the other guy.

Now to the second accusation that a nonviolent Jesus is a projection of my own wussy imagination. That is false and, in fact, the reverse is true – a violent Jesus out for revenge is an idol, a god made in our own violent image. As a self-professed wuss, I would love a bad-ass-machine-gun-toting Jesus who violently defends me against my enemies. I want the Jesus depicted in Saturday Night Live’s sketch DJesus Uncrossed. (A sketch about the resurrection that satirizes Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.)  As David Henson brilliantly states in his post DJesus Uncrossed: Tarantino, Driscoll and the Violent Remaking of Jesus in America, the sketch “pulls back the curtain and shows us just how twisted our Jesus really is: We want a Savior like the one SNL offers. We want the Son of God to kick some ass and take some names. Specifically, our enemies’ names.”

David goes on to quote Mark Driscoll, a former mega church pastor from Seattle whose theology of hate has had a major influence on American Christianity. Driscoll states,

In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

But there’s a big problem for Driscoll and all Biblical inerrancy believing Christians who quickly go to Revelation 19:11-16 to proof text a violent return of Jesus. If they’re going to honestly hold to Biblical inerrancy then they have to deal with that nagging passage in Hebrews that insists “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). Hebrews continues, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace.”

It is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by violence. The point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is precisely that the Christian version of God Incarnate was beaten up, crucified, and killed by human hands. As James Allison says in his course The Forgiving Victim, “there is an angry divinity in this story, needing sacrifice, and it is us.” Jesus resurrected, not to enact violent revenge (what we often call “justice”) against his enemies, but rather to offer God’s grace, peace and forgiveness to those who betrayed him. Anything else is a strange teaching that Hebrews warns against.

But let’s take it a step further than “strange.” Jesus’ disciples actually had a lot in common with Driscoll and much of American Christianity. They protested when Jesus began to act like a hippie, diaper wearing, halo Christ that they could beat up. Jesus said that he would have to suffer and be killed. Then Peter rebuked Jesus, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). I don’t want to scapegoat Driscoll on this point. After all, Peter didn’t want to worship a guy he could beat up, either.

Jesus, never one to mince words, replied to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The word Satan has two meanings: Adversary and Accuser. Please notice the distinction Jesus sets out between “divine things” and “human things.” Satan is the human thing, the human desire to accuse one another, to cause suffering to others rather than endure it for others, to kill others rather than be killed for others. Satan divides humanity into warring camps of “us” and “them.” When we do this we become adversaries and hurl satanic accusations against one another, all too often in the name of God.

When Christians use Jesus to justify violence by dividing the world into us and them we no longer worship Jesus. We worship Satan.

Jesus, the One who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the One who offered peace and forgiveness to those who betrayed him, is the same Jesus yesterday and today and forever. That’s what the resurrection reveals.

Still, what should we make of that passage in Revelation? What we need to know, contra Driscoll’s violent fantasy, is that Jesus does not carry the sword in his hand. This is Revelation’s symbolism at its best, because the sword comes from his mouth. The sword that Jesus carries is the spoken Word of God. There can be no doubt that a day will come when Jesus will judge the world with that sword. His words of judgment will cut through our lies, hatreds, and betrayals. The Word of God will pierce our souls with words of forgiveness that embrace everyone, including our enemies.

Will we resent God’s forgiveness? Will we continue to make accusations against one another? In the face of God’s universal forgiveness revealed in the resurrection, will we continue to demand violent justice against our enemies? If so, we risk damning ourselves to a satanic hell of our own making.

The only way out of the possible hell then is to follow Jesus by practicing nonviolent forgiveness now.

 

(For more on Satan, listen to this great discussion called “the satan” between Michael HardinBrad Jersak, and Raborn Johnson in the Beyond the Box podcast.)

Image: DJesus Uncrossed (Saturday Night Live, Screenshot from Vimeo)

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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!

Selah.

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.

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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 123rf.com.

The Girl and Emperor Palpatine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Star Wars Myth

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

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

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

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

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

How to Defeat Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way to defeat evil is to forgive it.

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

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

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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.

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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.

Father,

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.

Amen.

 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.

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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 koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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