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sharing god

The Truth about God and Interfaith Relationships

Can we share God?

Because for many of us, God is something that we refuse to share. In fact, human history shows that we will fight over God. God, after all, is truth. And we all like to think that we hold the Truth. But what happens when others claim that they hold the Truth about God? We get caught in a rivalry, even killing over who possesses the Truth.

But believing that we hold the truth about God is to turn God into an idol. That’s because we don’t hold the truth about God. None of us hold the truth about God. Rather, God holds the truth about us. And, according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Long Island, NY, the truth is that God holds us in the spirit of love, justice, and service.

Members of these three major world religions come together at Brookville Church to share sacred space. Brookville’s slogan is “Where our doors are always open.” Indeed, the church’s doors are open to Jews and Muslims. But they do much more than simply use the church building as a place of worship. At Brookville Church, Jews, Christians, and Muslims intentionally build friendships with one another. They learn from one another, they serve their community with one another, and they care for one another.

It’s a radical experiment, especially when we consider that leading presidential candidates are proposing to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and they are proposing to force police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Those candidates are the most vocal about their faith in God, but they worship an idol. They worship a god that erects political systems of fear, exclusion, and death.

But the true God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam doesn’t lead to fear, exclusion, and death. The true God leads to relationships like those formed at Brookville Church. The true God subverts the politics of fear, exclusion, and death. The true God transforms our relationships from rivalry into love.

In doing so, they show that they don’t hold the truth, but that the truth holds them.

Image: Flickr, Destination God, Hatim Kaghat, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Clearing the Confusion about God, Transgender, and Bathrooms

I’m going to be honest with you. I’m confused – and I know that many of my fellow cisgender male friends are confused, too. I even hesitate to use that word … cisgender … it’s so new to me. I think it means someone who identifies with the gender they were given at birth. At any rate, I identify as a male, which aligns with the gender I was assigned at birth, which makes me cisgender.

Now that I’ve cleared that up … let me clear up another part of the confusion for my cisgender friends: We are the ones confused. My transgender and fluid gender friends aren’t confused about their gender. For them, once they claim a transgender or a fluid gender identity, it’s like coming home.

So, what should we do with our confusion? First, let me tell you what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t create legislation that prohibits the transgender community from using bathrooms of the gender they identify with. We shouldn’t go along with that legislation because the logic is demonically flawed. That’s right. I said demonically flawed. As Erin Wathen points out in her brilliant article “10 Things Scarier Than a Trans Person in Your Bathroom,” the logic is that our women and children will be put in danger by transgender women using the woman’s room.

But here’s the thing. Do you know how many times a transgender person has attacked someone in a bathroom? 0. That’s right. It’s never happened. Ever.

The transgender community is being labeled as violent sexual predators. Whatever our confusion about the transgender community might be, we cannot stand by while the transgender community is falsely labeled as sexual predators. Let’s clear the air of any confusion; where the transgender community pees is not a “public safety issue.” If cisgender men want to have a real conversation about the safety of women, then as Erin says, let’s talk about rape at college campuses. “Let’s talk about the military. Let’s talk about football players and domestic violence. Let’s talk about a culture that worships masculinity, objectifies women and glorifies violence—all adding up to a pervading world of male entitlement that is, always and everywhere, a danger to your wives and daughters.”

Some might think this is male bashing. But it’s not. It’s evidence that we are dealing with scapegoating, which is a satanic mechanism that assigns blame onto an innocent victim. The Hebrew word “satan” means “accuser.” The accusation that the transgender community poses a threat is absurdly, satanically, false. The transgender community poses no threat. They are not the violent ones they are being made out to be. In fact, 2015 “set a record number of transgender murders.” I’m not confused about this point – the transgender community doesn’t pose a violent threat to anyone peeing in a bathroom.

Scapegoating protects accusers from the painful task of owning up to their own guilt. Cisgender males don’t know what to do about our violence against women, so we project guilt upon the harmless and largely defenseless transgender community, who tragically have been victimized by others, including cisgender men. They experience constant threats of violence, exclusion from their families and their religious institutions. And now we’re debating about which bathrooms to exclude them from because they are the threat?

But here’s what cisgender people should do with our confusion. Realize that our confusion is about us, not about transgender people.

One of the most shameful parts of this whole debate is that it’s mostly Christians who are leading the crusade against transgender people. As a Christian, I feel compelled to speak up. This is not what Christianity is about.

Jesus destroyed the barriers that divided people so that they could find reconciliation. Gender even played a role in this. The closest we get to our modern concept of transgender in the Bible is the eunuch. There was a religious law that relegated eunuchs to outsider status.

But other aspects of the Hebrew Bible sought to include eunuchs into the religious community. Jesus, as always, stood within the tradition that sought to include those who were marginalized by religious laws. He brought eunuchs into his community, saying, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Someone will protest, “But eunuchs and transgender are not the same thing!” That may be true, but look in the Bible and you will never find the word “transgender.” But you will find gender variant “others” who generated a confused, violent, and scapegoating response from the community. The point is this: What did Jesus do with people who were born with a gender variant? Whereas a religious law excluded them from full participation in the community, Jesus included them as full members into his band of followers, the very people through whom Jesus founded the church.

One of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, baptized an Ethiopian eunuch into the early Christian community. And Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built the church, received the message from God that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean,” saying “I truly know that God shows no partiality.”

Philip may have been confused. Heck, Peter was always confused! But he didn’t let that confusion block him from the truth that – no matter what religious laws said – he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean.

So, to my cisgender friends, we may be confused, but God isn’t. God shows no partiality. God doesn’t care where his beloved transgender children go to the bathroom. And neither should we.

Image: Flickr, Samir Luther, “All Gender Restroom Sign,” Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Theology and Sacrifice in Batman v. Superman [Spoilers]

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

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

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

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

Superman, Jesus, and Sacrifice

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

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

Superman and Evil

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

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

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

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

Jesus and Evil

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Photo: Screenshot from YouTube.

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

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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)

Lincoln

A Movie For Lincoln’s Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Divine Revenge? Islam and Khamenei’s False Doctrine of God

Iran and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties yesterday after a weekend of escalating violence. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed a popular Shiite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who angered the Saudi Royal Family by calling for their removal in 2011. The Saudi Royal Family claims that the execution was an act of national defense, because it accuses Iran of creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.

In response to the execution, Iran requested that the Saudi ambassador condemn the execution. Saudi Arabia said, “Hey, two can play that game” and requested that the Iranian ambassador “vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation” of the execution.

Then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter (as apparently you do when you are a supreme leader) to proclaim God’s vengeance! “Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.”

Ouch.

There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine.

Girard claimed that humans are mimetic, and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. In other words, humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But the violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow. In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings. According to Girard, humans tend to believe that,

Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating. Everyone wants to strike the last blow, and reprisal can thus follow reprisal without any true conclusion ever being reached. (Violence and the Sacred, 26)

Throughout his long career, Girard revealed the human aspect of violence. Like the Saudis and Iranians, it is we who condemn one another with escalating threats of condemnation and violence. According to Girard, violence is purely human.

Which means that God has nothing to do with violence or vengeance or revenge.

Girard was a Christian who claimed that the long trajectory of the Bible reveals the distinction between human violence and God’s nonviolent love. He challenged any notion that God is associated with violence. Girard only made a few comments about Islam during his career, but I’d like to show how the Islamic tradition offers a similar challenge to associating God with violence.

Because I want to be clear that I am not imposing my Christian theology onto Islam, I’ll tell you about Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster in Germany. As with the Bible, Khorchide knows that there are different images of God in the Qur’an. For him, the question is, “Which image of God are we talking about?” Khorchide says that some Muslims choose to believe that God is a dictator who acts like a violent tribal leader that cannot be challenged.

Political leaders, like the Ayatollah, promote this understanding of God because they view themselves as “shadows of God on earth.” Khorchide says, “This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God.” This makes God into a tribal deity, who pits “us” against “them.”

Of course, one can read any holy book, including the Koran and the Bible, and find images of a violent tribal deity. But Khorchide asserts that the God of the Koran is not like that. “I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful?’ There has to be a reason for this.”

The reason is that the God of the Koran is Grace and Mercy. For Khorchide, “The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and a child.” The God of Grace and Mercy radically transforms the human understanding of God and violence.

Khorchide talks specifically about the Islamic concept of Hell. For many, Hell is the ultimate example of God’s violence and revenge. This is where evil doers will burn forever as a result of divine vengeance. But Khorchide states that idea is a complete misunderstanding of Islam’s view of Hell. “Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without.”

The Ayatollah is wrong to associate God with revenge. And so are we whenever we associate God with violence. The God of Islam has nothing to do with revenge. Rather, the God of Islam, the God of Mercy, wants us to stop the cycles of vengeance that threaten the future of our world. In fact, God wants us to transform our bitter enmity with friendship. As the Koran states that God’s goal for human relationships is reconciliation – “Good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).

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Image: Flickr, Khamenei poster in Persepolis, by Nick Taylor, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Advent Meditation 2: The Way to Peace, or Seeing Muslims Through Advent Eyes

Editor’s Note: This Advent meditation is based on the Gospel text for the second week of Advent, Luke 3:1-6. Although I applied the text specifically to seeing Muslims through Advent eyes, as Muslims are targets of foreign policy violence and aggression by politicians, media, and even Christian leaders, the Gospel message of seeing God in victims and enemies could apply to any person or group used by another as a scapegoat.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” I hear the cry go up through the wilderness of barren souls, souls laid bare of compassion by a spirit of fear rushing like an evil wind harshly biting ‘neath the skin.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” I hear, as people prepare their armaments, as gun sales soar and more and more we see nation after nation heading for war.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” I whisper, “Prepare me, prepare we, prepare the way of the Lord.” I take a breath to inhale the Spirit of Love that utters these words and exhale the spirit of the age that prepares for every kind of violence but never for reconciliation. I let the decree fill me, focus me, open me, urge me, guide me. In a wilderness of fear and hatred, where the howling voices of politicians and generals and profiteers demonize some and call others to arms, I contemplate what it means to prepare now, in the midst of jingoistic bells tolling for battle, the way of the Prince of Peace.

Because to prepare the way of the Lord is to prepare our hearts and minds and whole selves to live into what was revealed 2000 years ago, a revelation that is obscured by calls to arms and theologies of glory. God comes among us not in the form of the powerful, not with wealth and weapons, but humbly, meekly, mildly. God is found in the servant, the outcast, the vilified. God is in those whom we reject, those whom we abandon, those we mock, those we scapegoat, those we kill.

And in 2015 – when bombs and missiles fall in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, when people cower under threat of flying robotic weapons of death, when they are made to flee their broken countries, homes destroyed, family members murdered, cramming themselves into boats and camps to escape a living hell only to get doors slammed in their faces, and when the land of the free has become the belly of the imperial beast and citizens must endure the hatred and distrust of their neighbors – we must see the face of God in our Muslim sisters and brothers.

We can’t make a highway for Peace by leveling land with bombs. The mountains that must be made low are the blockades around our hearts, the towering egos and pillars of pride that block our vision. We can’t pave the way for Love by filling the valleys and ditches and missile-made craters with dead bodies. The low places that must be filled with hope and joy and welcome reside in the hearts of those who have been forgotten in the rush to destroy an enemy that can only be strengthened by violence, because violence itself is the true enemy. The collateral families, those who weep and mourn cradling their beloved – weak and war-weary, injured, deceased, in their arms – these are the people who must be uplifted, embraced, comforted with the assurance that they and their loved ones are cherished. The men and women who privately weep in silence after enduring one more insult, one more injury, these are they who must be enfolded in our friendship.

Victims of missiles abroad and malice at home prostrate themselves on the ashes of land blown apart or fire-bombed mosques while we dare to wonder if the god they worship is too violent.

How the log in our eye blinds us!

Triumphalist Christianity is a hall of distorted mirrors, a discordant echo chamber, cheering American aggression. As we make roads on land for legions of soldiers and turn skies into aerial pathways for drones, we steer ourselves through a dark and narrow world that shuts out the light of Christ. We know not who we are or what we do. Our way of violence makes way for vengeance. Moving in circles on this crooked path, entrapped within the walls that shut others out but cannot box Christ in, we are blinded by our fears to the terrors we inflict.

The way of the Lord must lead away from our skewed and narrow perspectives. If we prepare a highway by paving over others, we are our own stumbling blocks and it is our hearts that must be cleared of thorns and brambles. He is with those we have deemed enemies and it is our own hearts he still must reach.

We open the door to the Prince of Peace when the truth of our victims’ humanity pierces our hearts with unbearable light that shatters the fragile façade of sacred violence on which we build our lives. As he walks and the light illumines the darkness within us, our hearts are washed in tears of repentance. It is then we recognize that whatever name we use for the Holy One, however we pray, we are united in worship to the true God when we love one another, and united in idolatry to the false gods of violence and fear when we condemn each other with hate. When we let the Lord of Love pave a way through our hearts, we will embrace our sisters and brothers in Islam and every creed. We will lay down our arms, taking our security in the Love that reconciles us and our enemies into Love’s own self. We leave ourselves vulnerable to those who do not understand, but God’s love will eventually pierce their hearts too, and in our non-retaliation and offering of love we become instruments of God’s peace.

The way of the Lord cuts through barriers and labels, paved by instruments of peace who come from all religions and no religion at all. All who show mercy, compassion, generosity and love across barriers of human divisions bear the fruit of a new world ushered in by the Prince of Peace. When others taste and see the goodness of this fruit they bear it in themselves too, until the old world of violence is drowned and reborn again in the waters of Love’s womb. And all shall see the salvation of God.

Image: Copyright Jorbasa Fotografie via Flickr. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerives 2.0 Generic license

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The Posture of Yes

Our posture matters. In fact, it potentially makes all the difference. If our initial stance or attitude toward a new ideology, whether religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise, is negative, then we will experience the universe dissimilarly than if our posture is positive. As I see it, there are essentially two types of people. On one hand, there are those who are open to new ideas—new ways of seeing and being—and they will often experience the world with wonder. It becomes a magical place; an ever-intriguing mystery that never becomes dull or stale. On the other hand, there are yet others who are too quick to label, good or bad, positive or negative, in or out, us or them, and they inevitably see the world through a glass, dimmer even yet (1 Corinthians 13:12). Their ego becomes fed by the delusion that they possess “capital T truth.” Often, and sadly, this “truth” is simply the product of promulgation by others—a parent, pastors, et al—but rarely, if ever, is it the product of a 40 day quest in the desert.

We witness this sort of short sightedness, most obviously, within the confines of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists, regardless of faith tradition, relies on pieces of information—sometimes great, sometimes small—that are derived from sacred texts but not on a posture that is positioned toward saying yes to the universe that was created by God. And if there is but one true God of the universe, and I believe there is, to have faith in God is to say yes to God, yes to his creation, and yes to experiencing both. True knowledge is tacit after all. Many fundamentalists, though, do not live by faith in God but faith in their correct knowledge about God. And so, they are postured in such a way that ensures they interpret themselves as elect, as chosen. What better than to “plainly” read one’s self as a sheep and others a goat? As a vessel of mercy and not a vessel of wrath? As Jacob and not Esau? This is to say: the fundamentalist is always “saved.”

Contrary to this type of thinking is one who postures herself toward discovery, not defending truth with mere bits of information (as if truth resides in mere information), but remaining open to it, wherever it presents itself. Faith, then, is built upon this posture. Faith is allowing the Christ in all of us (John 1:1–5), to lead where it may and to trust the Spirit is to trust the wind, for it blows where it chooses (John 3:8). The only way to experience this is to have a posture of openness, to be a pasture void of fences . . . the human constructs that they are!

In Christianity, we have a name for the Spirit that moves through all things. We call her the Holy Spirit and she indeed goes where she pleases. She transcends cultures, languages, and religions and no matter what label we give her, she is never bound by our human constructs. She cannot be contained in a box made of words and ideas. She is indeed free.

This is why, when you listen to the mystics of the various faith traditions—those whose posture is affirming—they all say compellingly similar things, albeit through their own cultural lens. Islam has the Sufis, Judaism has Kabbalah; Buddhism and Christianity has their respective mystics. They all say that the Divine runs in and through all of humanity, nay, through the entire cosmos. Unanimously, God is said to be always merciful, always gracious, always compassionate, and always, always, always loving.

Let me point to a few of the more prominent voices from a few of the various traditions. Gandhi, who was not a born-again Christian and probably would not affirm the Nicene Creed, not only read the Sermon on the Mount daily, but he, more importantly, followed the path of life in the Way of Jesus. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk, teaches: “the practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” It seems that he understands the mission of the Christ as well as anyone. Sufi Islam author M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadden teaches: “Be good, have love, and be patient. Never think of harming others. Only think of helping people. Think that others should be made better and that you should be made better.” Indeed, as I have said, the Spirit moves as the wind and goes where she chooses. She always speaks the word of peace. Jesus used the word shalom. In Islam, they say salaam. The Buddhist may use the word “sāma,” or a derivation thereof. But it is all the same message. It is always affirming reconciliation, peace, and unity among humankind.

Brothers and sisters, remember to pay attention to your posture toward life, toward God, toward humanity, toward love . . . which is the reason for our very existence. Open your mind and heart to hear what the Spirit is teaching, for she is the most gracious of instructors. She will never let you down, just as Jesus never lets us down. In unity, the Son and Spirit reveal the Father’s plan for us as John 20:21 testifies to. Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The peace of Jesus will triumph and through the power of the Holy Spirit will continue to move through all of us until all declare that “Jesus is Lord.”

Salaam

 

Image: Via Pixabay.

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast Episode 6 with Dr. Jason Okrzynski on the Saints and Friendship with God

Dr. Jason Okrzynsi, M.Div., PhD, recently joined the RavenCast to discuss why Protestants should reclaim the saints as models of faith by helping us find friendship with God.

Jason is the Director of Christian Education for Children, Youth and Families at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, Illinois. Jason earned his Master of Divinity at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and his PhD in Christian Education and Congregational Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. He recently delivered a paper titled, “For All the Saints: The Cult of Saints and Theological Imagination in the Art of Liberal Protestant Youth Ministry.”

MP3

Video:

Show Notes:

  • God as gift giver.
  • Our response to God’s gift is our vocation, which is to be Christ in the world. The two primary places we do that is in our family and in our work.
  • The saints stir imagination that invite us to live out radical lives of love and service. The saints present a different picture than the consumer identity of the modern world.
  • Francis rejects the materialism and privilege of his youth and find joy in serving others.
  • Children and youth yearn for transcendence and the saints offer a witness to what that looks like.
  • For Martin Luther, our jobs are not about personal fulfillment, but is about offering ourselves to care for earthly needs.
  • The saints are called “friends of God.” They find friendship with God by intentionally detaching from certain material goods and gaining social status so that they can intentionally attach themselves to God.
  • Most of the saints carried great pain and sadness and struggled through incredible temptation. Most of them have skeletons in their closet. They are models because they are real people who had real struggles.
  • The Christian faith isn’t about making us try harder to be good or worthy. It’s about God giving God’s self. You can reject the gift, you can receive it poorly, but God gives the gift.
  • Liberal modernity tells us that we need to produce enough and be good enough. But the saints claim that we just need to receive the gifts that God offers to us.
  • We often want to know what we can do to produce holiness, righteousness and justice. But the saints ask what do we have to do to receive holiness, righteousness and justice.
  • Paul says “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” This is the perfect theology of the saints. It’s not that we need to be more religious. The point of claiming the saints is not to be them or compare our lives to theirs. It’s that here is one example of what it means to be a friend of God.

 

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Love Is…

Love is patient. Love is kind.

Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Love is not irritable or resentful.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love rejoices in truth.

Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things.

Love never ends.

 

Love does not keep a record of wrongs.

Love does not seek vengeance.

Love will only work for the good.

Love will never forsake you.

 

Love suffers everything.

Love gives everything.

Love perseveres through everything.

Love unifies everything.

 

Love is experienced.

Love is tacit.

Love is personal.

Love is the reason for existence.

 

Love is magical.

 

Love is gazing into your daughter’s eyes.

Love is kissing her cheek.

Love is tucking her into bed at night.

Love is holding her hand when she is scared.

Love is making her laugh.

Love is consoling her when she cries.

Love is listening to her with empathy.

Love is not condemning when she is wrong.

 

Love casts out all fear.

Love conquers death.

Love destroys hate.

Love wins.

 

Now, read God in place of love.

 

Image: by Ivan Kruk via 123rf.com.