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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.