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Star Wars and Theology Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Good and Evil

One common critique of the Star Wars saga is that it holds a simplistic view of good and evil. For example, Star Wars makes it easy to tell the difference between good and evil. The distinction is as plain black and white. The Jedi are good and the Sith are evil. The Rebellion is good and the Empire is evil. Even the costumes point toward a simplistic understanding of evil – the Stormtroopers are white, while the main villains, Darth Vader and now Kylo Ren, wear black. And, of course, their humanity is hidden by the fact that they wear masks.

Unfortunately, this simplistic notion of good and evil doesn’t just exists in the movies. It’s alive and well in our culture today. Once we eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we are the force of good in the world, thus, they are the force of evil. We then tell mythical stories about the evil other. These myths lead to radical examples of claiming to be good while scapegoating others.

The latest example of this patently false myth are the “evil” Muslims who are out to conquer the United States. Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, recently held a rally in South Carolina. In good mythical fashion, he turned to the dark side by accusing Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country of “probably” being members of ISIS. You know, because they are Muslims. In response to Trumps remarks about Syrian refugees, a Muslim woman at the rally stood up in silent protest as she wore a shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.”

Despite her silence, the crowd turned against her, shouting at her to leave by chanting, “You have a bomb. You have a bomb.” For his part, Trump claimed, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred; it’s not our hatred.”

Trump and many of his supporters live in a mythical world. A world where the distinction between good and evil is as clear as the distinction between night and day, between Christian and Muslim. They are a force for good; whereas silent Muslims wearing “Peace” shirts are full of hatred. Of course, I can easily split the world into good and evil. As I critique Trump and his supporters at the rally, I risk doing to them the same thing that they are doing to Muslims. I risk making a mythical claim to be a force of goodness over and against their force of evil.

Fortunately, Star Wars offers us an alternative to that myth. The critique that Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil is false. Stars Wars constructs the myth of good and evil only to deconstruct it.

The deconstruction of the mythical understanding of good and evil emerges in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. As he runs and flips around the swamp-like forest with the little green alien on his back, Luke asks the mythical question, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda replies, “You will know, when you are calm, at peace.”

But Luke discovers a greater truth about knowing the good side from the bad. The Force leads him into “The Cave of Evil.” As he enters the cave, he asks Yoda what’s inside. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda responds. Luke took with him his fear of the dark side; his fear of confronting Darth Vader.

A few moments after entering the cave, Luke has a vision of Darth Vader walking towards him with his lightsaber extended. Their sabers strike three times, then Luke slices off Vader’s helmet. It rolls to the ground, stops, and the mask exploded, only to show Luke’s face in the helmet staring straight at him.

In that scene, Luke discovered the truth about good and evil. In Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of evil in cinematic history, Luke sees himself. Even before he knows that Vader is his father, Luke learns that his identity is connected with Darth Vader. That’s because the evil that we see in the other is the evil that is inside ourselves. But we’d rather not see the evil within ourselves, so we suppress it by projecting it onto others. And so, at this moment in the Star Wars saga, Luke begins to discover that the distinction between good and evil is not primarily a distinction between himself and Darth Vader. Rather, the distinction between good and evil is a distinction that exists within himself.

Luke’s spiritual awakening is in the fact that he didn’t banish the darkness from within himself. He didn’t scapegoat the fear and evil within his own soul. When we do that, the fear and evil within only grows bigger and more menacing. Rather, Luke acknowledged the evil within himself. Later in the saga, after he slices off Darth Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi, Luke stares at his own mechanical hand. Once again he becomes aware of the darkness within himself. He was able to resist the dark side not because he made a distinction between the good in himself and the evil in his enemies, but because he learned how to manage the darkness within his own soul.

Kylo Ren has a similar experience in the Force Awakens. He feels the tension between the light and the dark within himself, but manages it in a different way. Kylo holds his Grandfather’s helmet and offers a prayer, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the dark.” Luke and Kylo both feel the light and the dark within themselves. The difference is that Luke was able to incorporate the light and the dark. In doing so, Luke made peace with the darkness within. But Kylo felt tormented because he resisted the light that shined in the darkness of his soul.

The truth is that we are all a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. The great Russian novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn warned that, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus taught this lesson, too. He asked his followers, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Jesus and Star Wars both challenge us with the difficult spiritual practice of examining the darkness that lies within ourselves. Taking the log out of our own eye is painful work; I’d much rather point to the speck of evil that’s in my neighbor’s eye. But Christianity reminds us that we are much more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. We learn from Jesus, but we are much more like the disciples who abandoned, betrayed, and turned against Jesus during his darkest hour.

But the good news is that like Luke never gave up on his father, Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He resurrected to give his disciples a new mission. That mission wasn’t to locate evil out in the world and destroy it. Rather, Jesus’ mission is to “feed my sheep.” The great adventure that is Christianity is not to fight violence with more violence, but to care for those in need and to love even those we call our enemies.

More about that in the next part of this series.

Images: Luke Skywalker after defeating Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (Screenshot from YouTube) and Kylo Ren praying to Darth Vader’s helmet (Screenshot from YouTube)

Other parts of this series:
Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure
Part 2: The Myth of Good and Evil


Doing Good, Becoming Evil: The Pope, Elijah, And Moses

How do we oppose what is evil without becoming its mirror image? That’s the question I’ve been pondering since Pope Francis said this to Congress:

We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

The Pope’s call to be alert to different types of fundamentalism struck me as the message America needs to hear. We often forget that fundamentalism can appear in economic, political or ideological garb. It can be as secular or political as it is religious, but it is within religion that we find deep resources for understanding and combatting fundamentalism in all its dizzying variety.

The Idolatry of Anti-idolatry

Girardian scholar and professor of Jewish studies at Purdue University, Sandor Goodhart, says that the Old Testament is troubled by a type of religious fundamentalism, what Goodhart calls “the idolatry of anti-idolatry”. The ancient Hebrew zeal to witness to the one true God, Goodhart explains, at times turned the truth of God into an idol. What does that mean? That the dynamic, creative, unknowable God can become hardened into an idea that we think we own and represent in all its fullness.

When we believe we are in possession of complete knowledge of God, then it endows our actions with unassailable goodness. Even actions that we condemn when performed by our opponents will appear good and noble to us when we do them. A wonderful illustration of this comes from 1 Kings 18 where we are told that Queen Jezebel, the Baal worshipper, has been “killing off the prophets of the Lord” (18:4). To demonstrate that the Lord, not Baal, is God, the prophet Elijah miraculously ignites a sacrificial fire that humiliates Baal’s prophets. Elijah then “seized them; and Elijah brought down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” (18:40)

I’m not sure we are meant to applaud Elijah’s murderous rampage. I think the Biblical text is inviting us to see the similarities between Elijah and Jezebel, despite their insistence on how different they are from one another. They are both so strongly in the grip of religious fundamentalism that they condemn each other as murderers while celebrating murder as justified by their god. Nothing can dissuade them from their belief in their own goodness, not even the blood of their victims. This is what James Alison is referring to when he says that “our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.” When we cling to our sense of ourselves as good, despite evidence to the contrary, we have turned our goodness into a sacred idol.

The Elijah Trap

But isn’t killing bad people good? Nothing could be more good and righteous than defeating the worship of Baal, which took the form of routine child sacrifice (Jeremiah 19:5). If so, then the response “Thanks be to God!” after reading 1 Kings 18 would be more than justified. And yet I hope the thought of thanking God for the murders committed by Elijah makes you every bit as uncomfortable as thanking God for Jezebel’s murders.

Of course we no longer have to combat Baal worshippers. Yet we are at war with an enemy whose evil we do not question. So here’s the question I think the Biblical writers want us to ask ourselves: Should we “thank God” for the murder by drone or bombing campaigns, for example, of suicide bombers or religious terrorists? After all, did they not celebrate the victims of the 9/11 attacks? Do they not call for the destruction of the Great Satan, as they call us? But if we celebrate and thank God (or whatever name we give to ‘goodness’) when we kill them, have we become like Elijah, unassailable agents for what is good and right who fail to recognize the Jezebel within?

Unwavering belief in our own goodness has infected our politics as well. Political discourse has deteriorated to such an extent that we treat the opposition party as if they are modern day Baal worshippers. The political battlefield has become no different than a real one: no compromise, no surrender. Only the defeat and annihilation of the enemy will satisfy our thirst for justice.

Have we become the very thing we oppose? Pope Francis wants us to consider that question because just after his comments on fundamentalism he added this:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Sadly, polarization is our new normal. At home and abroad, we radiate the “hatred and violence of tyrants” in the name of our own brand of goodness. The Pope is right to call us to reject the Elijah trap of dividing the world into good and evil. In such a world we celebrate our own violence, condemn the violence of our enemies, and guarantee that we are a stubborn part of the problem.

The Moses Solution

Peace. Nonviolence. Freedom. How can we work for our cause without imitating the thing we are against? Pope Francis began his address to Congress with an image that may help. Here’s what he told our representatives:

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Pope Francis wants our representatives “to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Every human face, he said. Not just American faces. Not just the faces of legal immigrants. Not just rich faces. Not just white faces. Not just Christian faces. Pope Francis wants us to see the image of God in every face, black and white, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, terrorist and terrorized. Even the face of our enemies.

There is nothing more paradoxical than the use of violence in the name of peace, yet that is the very thing America is doing. When no one, not even the self-proclaimed champions of goodness, will relinquish their right to violence, the quest for global peace is doomed from the start. But renouncing our right to be violent is a scary proposition. It most likely will demand that we drop our defenses, rather than prop them up. Or maybe it means that we begin to see what makes for peace and security in an entirely new way. But dropping our guard may be exactly what is required to make us, and the world, a safer place. We won’t know until we are brave enough to try.

Image: Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress. (Photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN YouTube channel)


Why the Elf on the Shelf Can Stay

It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong – he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.

After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so from December 1st to December 24th that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up – noticeably earlier in December than any other month – they look for him. Yup, it’s hide and seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the NSA Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.

Truth be told, my children love it. I mean they Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.

“Daddy! Daddy! We found the Elf! Do you want us to show you where he’s hiding?” they ask me as I begin to wake up.

“No” I think to myself. “It’s 6:00! I don’t care about that damn Elf. Let me sleep.”

“C’mon, Dad!” They yell as they tug on my shirt. “We’ll show you where he is!”

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My boys joyfully pointing to the Elf.

Everyone in my family loves the Elf on the Shelf, so maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon. “Bah humbug to that little Elf,” I used to think. “Quit messing with my sleep.” But, alas, my wife keeps the Elf tradition alive in our house. She brings him out of his 11 month hibernation and she hides him every night from December 1st to the 24th. Well, she forgot one night, but fortunately she woke up at 3 a.m. all worried about something…then she remembered about our little Elf, got out of bed, and flung him on top of our refrigerator.

So, why do I feel some parental guilt about the Elf on the Shelf? While some claim that the Elf encourages good behavior, it feels to me like this whole Santa/Elf myth manipulates good behavior. It says, “You must be good or no presents this Christmas! You better be good…The Elf is watching…The Elf is always watching…

Yep. It’s a little creepy.

I worry that this manipulation of good behavior teaches children to grasp onto goodness. This is a problem because humans are social creatures and because we are social, when we grasp onto goodness, we tend to grasp goodness away from others. How do we know that we are good? By being better than someone else, which means we have to put someone else down. And that’s where blaming comes in. How many times have parents heard this scenario:

Daaaaad! Billy just hit me!

No fair! Johnny punched me first!

It’s counter-intuitive, but being “good” is one of our biggest problems. Theologian James Alison puts it like this in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “[O]ur self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.”

Our sense of goodness is dangerous to ourselves and to others because we constantly grasp onto goodness over and against one another. The fact is, this is not good because it puts us in a position of rivalry with one another as we grasp onto goodness.

“Goodness” is such a dilemma. Even as I write this I’m aware that I’m putting myself in a position of goodness and moral superiority over those who have no problem with Santa or the Elf on the Shelf. CAN’T YOU SEE WHAT THIS MORALISM OF GOODNESS AND REWARDS IS DOING TO OUR CHILDREN!?! STOP!!!!!

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Elf in the Garbage Can would not go over well in the Ericksen house.

Listen, parenting is hard. I’ve made many mistakes and have many regrets. Is the Elf on the Shelf going to do permanent damage to any child? Of course not. So, despite my reservations that he’s bringing a pernicious moralism into the Ericksen household, he can stay. After all, wouldn’t it be moralistic of me to change his name from the Elf on the Shelf to the Elf in the Garbage Can?

I’m even beginning to admit that the Elf brings a sense of joy and wonder to my children. That joy and wonder is an important part of the Christmas season, which is ultimately about love. Christmas tells us that as social creatures, we don’t have to grasp onto goodness over and against one another. We can be social creatures who freely love. The freedom to love in a way that isn’t based on others being naughty or nice is especially important when it comes to parenting. As parenting and educational expert Alfie Kohn says in his book Unconditional Parenting, “What kids really need is love without strings attached.” That, I think, is the whole point of Christmas.

Christmas is not about being good enough to receive gifts. It’s about God entering into the world to show us that whether we are “naughty” or “nice” is not the point. The point is that we are loved. And that is a joyful and wondrous thing.

For more Santa, see Suzanne Ross’s article God and Santa: A Story for Pre-Schoolers

Edward Snowden: Traitor or Whistle Blower?

Edward SnowdenIs Edward Snowden a traitor or a whistle blower? It’s been a point of debate since Snowden leaked classified National Security Agency (NSA) information. The documents reveal, as first reported in The Guardian, that the NSA “has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants… [as] part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.” The communications companies are denying their involvement and the government is accusing Snowden of espionage and compromising national security. At the same time, others are defending him as a whistle blower who exposed serious violations of the US constitution, such as former Senator Gordon Humphrey and Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey and senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel.

The Good and Bad of Moral Arguments

Whether you think Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy may have less to do with the facts of this particular situation and more to do with your moral values. Social science research suggests that if you value loyalty highly, then you may be prone to viewing Snowden as a traitor. If, however, you value fairness highly, you are apt to look sympathetically on whistle blowers in general and Snowden in particular. But whether the social science research is true or not, the Snowden question is a moral question in this sense: We mistakenly believe that moral codes govern our behavior. Before we act or form our opinions, we consult our moral compasses and value systems and act accordingly. The problem is that that formulation of human behavior has it completely backwards. We don’t act on our values, we act first and only later do we come up with explanations in terms of morals or values to make ourselves look good. Why? Because the most important thing of all to any of us is not loyalty or fairness or privacy or security but our own reputations. In other words, moral arguments are less about knowing if someone like Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy and much, much more about making the case that we and our group are the good guys. Moral arguments are self and group justifying narratives.

Winning or losing those arguments have real life consequences because the outcome determines whether we can maintain our sense of ourselves and our group as the good guys. No one wants to be a bad guy, which is what’s so wonderful about human beings! Not even those we label as bad guys think of themselves as bad guys so we all tend to go through a lot of mental gymnastics to avoid seeing or hearing evidence which might disrupt our narratives. The question is: Can we put aside our deep seated need to be good long enough to arrive at an honest assessment of Snowden?

Seeking the Truth

I’m going to make a bold suggestion which may get me in hot water, but here goes: I do think we can make a determination about Snowden if we can shift the conversation from values to truth. I know, I know. The “truth” thing always gets people worked up, and I get that. Most people use the truth as a weapon but what I’m suggesting is that instead of clinging so strongly to our moral codes, we put our fear of not being the good guys aside long enough to actually listen to what Snowden is saying. He is a young man who has apparently conquered his fear big time. He has given up a comfortable six figure salary, a home in Hawaii, a long-time girlfriend and his family for the life of a fugitive. Perhaps we don’t want to listen to him because by contrast our fearfulness and desperate need for belonging looks the teeniest bit shameful.

If you care to take a listen, here’s what I transcribed from a video interview he gave to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the story. It was just days after the world got word that the US government was amassing a vast database of personal communications of people like you and me who were not under suspicion of any wrongdoing. Snowden was in Hong Kong at the time and offered this explanation of how he decided to do what he did:

Snowden: You can’t take on the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they are such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time. But, at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that is important to you. And if living un-freely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept and I think that many of us are – it’s human nature – you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for very little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.

Greenwald: Why should people care about surveillance?

Snowden: Because even if you are not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year, consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You have to just eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call and then they can use the system to go back in time and they can scrutinize every decision you ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrong doer.

If we cling to our moral codes and our belief in our own goodness we may convince ourselves that we will be exempt from the risk of our “innocent life” being misinterpreted. Snowden risked everything he has, including his belonging to family and nation, so we will see the truth that no one will be exempt from that risk. Not even me. Not even you. Truth is hard to live with, but truly good guys find the courage to do it.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell and Abortion on Trial

Wolfgang Palaver on our need for social interconnectedness -- a reflection on viability and the abortion debate

Wolfgang Palaver, author of “René Girard’s Mimetic Theory,” on our need for social interconnectedness

When is an unborn baby viable? The question is central to abortion law and to the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion provider. Dr. Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia for the murder of fetuses at his abortion clinic, forcing this question back to the political front burner: When is terminating the life of a fetus murder? According to this professional legal services website, abortion law in the U.S. is a state-by-state affair. The site explains, “Virtually all states begin with the presumption that abortion is a crime […]” Each state then sets out the particular conditions by which an abortion can be conducted legally in that state, though some general principles apply across the country: “Legal abortion is universally defined in terms of the mother’s convenience or health. Though few definitions mention the life or health of the fetus, many refer to its ‘viability’ as a standard for when an abortion may be performed with impunity, and without further attempt to define the term.”

The Good on Both Sides of the Abortion Debate

I believe that the failure to define “viability” is an ethical failure on a grand scale, yet I’d like to take time out from finger-pointing and political posturing. Please accept this premise for the sake of argument: There are no wicked people among “right to life” advocates or “abortion rights” proponents, only sincere people trying to protect victims and alleviate suffering. Each group attempts to protect a potential victim. For right to life advocates, the victim who needs protection is the unborn child. For abortion rights proponents, the potential victim is a pregnant woman. No matter what you think of this contentious debate about victims, my point is, both sides are comprised of good people trying to do the right thing.

But how do good people remain good as they act on their beliefs? In other words, how do good people keep from doing bad things? Honest self-criticism is the only way. If, despite our best intentions, good people on either side of the debate discover they have been the cause of harm, then the only way to continue to be good is to accept the truth of our complicity in that suffering. Being good requires moral courage. In the case of abortion, being good requires looking squarely at this word “viable” despite the risk that we may, in the process, indict ourselves.

Gosnell on Trial for Murder

So let’s begin modestly. Merriam-Webster’s definition of viable is “capable of living; especially: having attained such form and development as to be normally capable of surviving outside the mother’s womb <a viable fetus>”. In the Philadelphia trial, Dr. Gosnell is accused of performing late-term abortions in which the fetus gave signs of life such as jerking an arm or drawing a breath. Then he or his medical assistants severed the spinal cord with scissors. It is this last act, the severing of the spinal cord outside the womb, that is the subject of the murder charges. That he injected a drug to stop the heart of the fetus inside the womb, a drug that apparently failed regularly, is not part of the legal proceedings. The New York Times poses the thorny ethical issue this raises, asking why is “an abortion procedure performed in utero legal, but a similar act a few minutes later, outside the womb, considered homicide”?

Viability: Legality Meets Science

The question of legality depends on how viability is determined. Aborted children are not supposed to be “viable”, but what does that mean? The most common cut-off point for legal abortion is 24 weeks gestation, a line that seems to have been chosen for medical reasons. Even though the 24-week-old fetus would not be able to sustain its own life outside the womb, it can survive with medical assistance. Is this, then, a good definition of viable: capable of living with artificial help? If so, why is artificial help privileged over the biological support the mother was providing in the womb?

I find it paradoxical that the protection of women’s rights involves the devaluing of our bodies in this way. When our bodies support the life of the fetus, the fetus can be killed with impunity. When a machine supports its life, then the life of the fetus is protected by law. Why is the effort of a machine protected by law and not the effort of a woman’s body? I think it would be more reasonable and respectful of a woman’s capacity to support life to define viable as “capable of surviving with natural or artificial help.” But this would mean that, from the moment of conception, every unborn child is technically “viable.” In that case, every abortion would be illegal.

Full-Term Newborns Are Never Viable

This conclusion about viability is one that defenders of abortion rights are loathe to make. But unless we include some form of help or assistance in our definition, no newborn could possibly be considered “viable” because there is no such thing as a newborn who can survive without help. Babies cannot feed themselves, protect themselves from danger, or even regulate their own body temperature without help. This “natural” help provided by a caregiver is just as “natural” as the biological help provided inside the womb, and just as necessary for the baby’s survival as the artificial help given to prematurely-born infants. No newborn is viable by itself; every “viable,” full-term newborn depends on help to survive. In fact, being viable cannot be divorced in any way from the reality of natural or artificial assistance.

Are Adults Viable on Their Own?

How did we become so confused about what it means for fetuses to be “viable?” I think it is intimately connected to the false idea of adult autonomy. We adults in the post-Enlightenment West are enamored with the concept of our independence. We believe we can and should go it alone and do it ourselves. Asking for help is a sign of weakness; depending on others (family, friends or public aid) for support is condemned as parasitic. I have even seen fetuses described as parasites living off their mothers’ bodies. The truth is that no human being is viable without biological or emotional assistance.

Who we are, what we believe, what we desire – all that we are has been given to us by the culture into which we were born as unviable, dependent, helpless newborns. If as adults we were to find ourselves stranded, lost, isolated from all others, our survival would be as tenuous as an infant’s. Even if an infant’s physical needs are met, if left without human contact they can wither and die. Remember the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway? He created a companion from a volleyball he called Wilson to prevent dying from loneliness. It’s not so far-fetched a thought. People who have friends and social connections live longer than those who are alone. Like the unborn fetus and the newborn child, adults are not viable on their own.

How to Be Truly Good

It is a failure of logic and ethics to condemn a fetus because the help it needs is different than the help needed by adults. This attempts to construct a difference where there is none. If viability is a precondition for murder, we are left with a baffling paradox: Since no human being is completely viable on their own, then no murderer could ever be convicted of a crime. If “viability” requires complete autonomy, Dr. Gosnell will be acquitted and abortions will remain shrouded in the legal haze of an ill-defined term.

If we accept that viability is always entangled with some sort of support, then we may be able – as a nation of good people, state by state – to see that our attempt to alleviate women’s suffering has caused unintentional harm not only to their unborn children, but to women as well. Our shared commitment to goodness demands that we be honest about our collective inability to be viable on our own, both in the womb and outside it. Where will we go from that realization? I don’t know, but not knowing is not an excuse for the status quo.

North Korea, Syria, U.S.: Violence Rules

Does violence rule our species? The barrage of international conflicts now in the headlines seems to suggest that violence may be the one language we have in common. Though we all speak it fluently, very few of us learned it in school. We didn’t have to study its “vocabulary” and “grammar rules” – no, it was much easier than that. Humans pick violence up by immersion and so we are all native speakers. From Syria to Korea to Pakistan to Iraq to the U.S., the language of violence is so natural to us that we couldn’t recite one of its “grammar rules”.

A rebel fighter in Syria (Photo: Photo: AFP/The Telegraph)

A rebel fighter in Syria (Photo: AFP/The Telegraph)

Sadly, ignorance of language rules does not diminish fluency. The odd thing is that if we stopped to learn the rules governing our fluency in violence, it would actually make us less fluent. Why? Because the rules of violence reveal an unpleasant reality: We don’t use violence; violence uses us.

Rule #1: Violence escalates

When we employ violence, it is impossible to return the same or a lesser amount of violence than what we believe we received. We always return more violence. Our adversary then does the same.

Real world application: Should we arm rebels fighting for freedom? When deciding how to answer this in a particular situation such as Syria, it’s vital that we remember Rule #1: Arming rebels will create the conditions for an escalation of the conflict.

Rule #2: Only good people use violence

Anyone who employs violence does so in the name of some good or noble cause. We justify violence as necessary to defend ourselves against an evil other, and the one we identify as the evil other is doing the same thing.

Real world application: Whose side are we on? When deciding who the good guys are in a particular situation such as Israel/Palestine, it’s vital that we remember Rule #2: Both sides believe completely in their own goodness, especially when they are using violence.

Rule #3: Violence destroys goodness

This is the paradoxical corollary to Rule #2. While everyone employing violence believes in their own goodness, goodness itself is destroyed by the violence. Violence is a means to an end that becomes the end in itself.

Real world application: Should the U.S. invade a country militarily? When deciding whether or not to deploy our massive military might in a particular situation such as North Korea, it’s vital that we remember that the death and destruction caused by violence drowns out our rhetoric. What will it matter to the dead, displaced and grieving to learn that the damage was inflicted by a good and noble nation? Indeed, would they be able to hear us speaking at all?

Violence is a language that escalates from whispers to shouts, that believes its own propaganda, and destroys the noblest of goals. Every time we employ violence to achieve our ends, violence refuses to be an obedient instrument. It takes over, runs the show and speaks through us, making mindless slaves of us all.  Once we realize that these are the rules of the language that currently rules the world, perhaps we’ll decide it’s time to go to school and learn a new vocabulary.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Politics

As the summer winds down, we will enter the campaign season in earnest. Both political parties will hold their nominating conventions and do their best to frame the political decision facing us as a choice between good and evil. The fate of the nation, they will insist, hangs in the balance and good people must choose wisely or evil people will lead us down the road to perdition.

Maybe they won’t use those exact words, but I don’t think I’m guilty of overstating the sentiment. Look, I have never denied that such things as good and evil exist. What worries me is how awful we are at telling the good from the wicked. And when it comes to politics, we are utter failures. So let me offer a chapter from my book about the musical, Wicked, as a sort of users guide to the extreme rhetoric of the political conventions. You don’t have to have seen the show for my discussion of good and evil to make sense to you. If you have a chance to see the company that is currently touring cities in the U.S., by all means go. They provide their audience with an entertaining, inspiring and transformative experience – something our political conventions rarely achieve.

Chapter 2 is called Pulling Back the Curtain. If it intrigues you, I encourage you to read the entire book; it’s called The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things. If there’s one thing good people need to be able to do it is to know how terribly easy it is for good people to do wicked things without ever doubting our own goodness. I hope you enjoy the read – please share your ideas of how to be truly good during this campaign season with me. And join the live conversation about transforming hostile religious and political identities during this heated campaign season with best selling author and theologian Brian McLaren on the next edition of Voices of Peace Talk Radio, September 6 at 11 a.m. CT.

Political Nudity: Becoming Un-Ashamed

Be Ashamed.”

That’s the title of Erick Erickson’s post. Erickson, the popular conservative blogger at, wants you to be ashamed. I have a very different reaction: I don’t want you to care. In fact, I think we should become un-ashamed.

This time, Erickson’s call for shame is directed toward his fellow conservatives. Sunday night published an exclusive story titled, “Exclusive: FBI probed GOP trip with drinking, nudity in Israel.”

Naked Republicans in Israel! Shame, shame, I know your name!

Erickson wants his fellow conservatives to be ashamed of these actions, stating:

Today comes word that a bunch of Republican Congressmen got drunk, naked, and jumped in the Sea of Galilee. No doubt a few of them, given the religious significance, peed in the holy waters while swimming. Many conservatives are greeting it with a yawn, a “the media is out to get us,” and a “no big deal.”

I think that’s the perfect response! Conservatives and liberals should yawn at this story and treat it as “no big deal.” Because we should always be suspicious of outrage like this. We need to ask some questions and not accept this at face value because outrage is a political game and those who play it well gain political (and blogging!) points. If you approach this story with a healthy dose of skepticism, here’s what you find out from the Politico report:

A year ago, around 33 Republican members of congress were invited to Israel to visit sacred sites and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli dignitaries. They also met with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister. The trip was sponsored by the American Israel Educational Foundation, a pro-Israel advocacy group. According to Politico, “The AIEF trips are a fixture of Washington” and “a rite of passage for members of Congress.” The AIEF was pleased with the Republican members of Congress during their visit, claiming that they were “substantive and rigorous” and that “As part of the trip, and after a day of meetings including with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and briefings on Hezbollah and the border with Lebanon, trip participants traveled to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.”

And that’s where, according to Erickson, things went horribly, actually, shamefully, wrong. Imagine this, Erickson says, “American lawmakers behaving badly as if they were starring in a Girls Gone Wild video”! Oh, say it ain’t so!

It’s not.

After meeting with Prime Minister Fayyad, 20-30 members of Congress, along their senior aids and some family members, went to dinner and then went to the Sea of Galilee. The FBI investigation discovered that while on this excursion into the holy Sea of Galilee “participants, including the daughter of [a] congressman, swam fully clothed, while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who were participants on the trip.” These lawmakers gave several reasons for their late night dip in the water. Some claimed “the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day. Several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in.” But in its investigation, the FBI found “no inappropriate behavior” and no “formal allegations of wrongdoing.”

So, why is Erickson in a tizzy? Apparently, the most “shameful” part of the story is played by Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas. Yoder became a little over-zealous in his religious experience and went into the holy Sea of Galilee the way the Good Lord made him – Naked.

Because of the outcry of shame directed at Yoder, who has become the scapegoat for the 30 member group, he was forced to make a public apology in an attempt to save his political career. In a statement to Politico he said:

A year ago my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit. It is my greatest honor to represent the people of Kansas in Congress and [for] any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.

The problem with this event is not the guilt or innocence of the 30 members of the congressional GOP, or even the guilt or innocence Yoder himself. I mean, adults drinking and skinny dipping! Why should we care? I really don’t know. What I do know is that the problem is not with them. The problem is with us. The problem is with our addiction to shaming others. We love shaming others because it gives us a sense of moral superiority. Whether we shame our friends, neighbors, members of our family, co-workers, celebrities or politicians, it always provides us with a sense of moral superiority. Please notice the word “we.” When I shame someone, I want others to join me in shaming that person, too. That way, we bolster one another’s sense of superiority as together we shame our scapegoat.

So, when it comes to politics, I want us to become un-ashamed of these types of events. Be skeptical of liberal and conservative politicians and bloggers who want to get us all riled up in the shame game. Because not only does shaming others provide us a false sense of superiority over and against another, but it also distracts and hinders us from actually working together on the real problems facing our nation: Problems with the economy, with health care, and with the physical, emotional, and verbal violence that plagues our cities.

The best way we can solve those problems is by becoming un-ashamed; by free ourselves from our addiction to shaming others. Only then can we work together in the context of our political, familial, neighborhood, and religious circumstances to pursue the things that really matter.

Discovering God at an Atheists’ Convention

Sometimes you discover God in the most unlikely places.

This belief was confirmed as I listened to an episode of NPR’s program “All Things Considered.” The particular episode was called “From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith.”  NPR’s Barbara Hagerty interviewed Teresa MacBain, and, as you can guess from the title of the episode, MacBain is a former minister who became an atheist.

It brings up an interesting question: Why would a minister reject Christianity and turn to atheism?

Haggerty explains MacBain’s turn like this: “MacBain … was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. Her dad was a pastor and she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible, for example, or the role of women. She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.”

Over time, MacBain began to ask more questions. “Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?” Those questions haunted her, until one day she rejected God and realized that she was an atheist.

The theological questions that led to MacBain’s atheism are certainly worth exploring, but I want to explore something else that fascinates me about her. Haggerty followed her to this year’s American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, MD. MacBain decided she needed to say something to the conference’s 1500 atheists. She only had a few moments onstage. What she said during those moments was powerful:

“My name is Teresa. I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church – at least up to this point – and I’m an atheist. I was on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell. And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.”

Her fellow atheists cheered as MacBain left the stage. One man was moved to tears as he claimed that her speech was “one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years.”

Now, I’m no atheist. Yet, I’m moved by MacBain’s words, too. I find them powerful. And I think faithful Christians (and faithful adherents of other religions) should listen to her words for two reasons.

First, she makes a great point about human nature. “I was on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell.” It’s true that many of us Christians tend to have faith that we are on the right track because we know others are on the wrong track. We identify ourselves as “good” people by identifying others as “bad” people who are going to burn in hell. We reinforce our sense of goodness by uniting against others. These “others” could be Jews, Muslims, atheists, or even (maybe especially) our fellow Christians of a different stripe. There is an unfortunate paradox here. As strong as we Christians may seem when we fall into this trap of faith, we are actually quite weak. The reason many of us are so stridently against some “other” is because in order to feel worthy we need to faithfully unite with one another against a common enemy.

And that is a faith worth losing.

But there was a second thing that really moved me about MacBain’s statement. It was the sentence, “And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.” That resonated with me because it’s a powerful statement of solidarity. Instead of threatening others with hell, MacBain states that she will go through hell with them.

Ironically, as MacBain stood there at the Atheists’ convention and publically embraced her atheism, she was closer than ever to discovering the Christian God.

Here’s why: the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation makes a radical claim. First, it states that God is not somewhere out in the universe, far away, aloof and uncaring about humanity. Rather, it claims that God is fundamentally present in the world, especially in the places where humans suffer. Because humans (tragically, Christians aren’t the only people who do this) tend to gain a sense of goodness by uniting against others, we tend to make those others go through hell on earth. Jesus reveals that God doesn’t work that way; humans do. As humans forced Jesus to suffer through hell on earth, as Jesus hung on the cross, God revealed through Jesus that God stands in solidarity with all who suffer. It is there, on the cross, that we discover the God of solidarity. The God who goes through hell on earth with us.

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God says, “I’m going to burn with you.”

Faith in that God, and in that way of life, is a faith worth keeping.


Evil and Justice in a Broken World: The NCAA and Penn State

Good people want justice. Good people know that the world is broken and most of that brokenness is due to people committing acts of evil. When good people desire justice, they desire to set the world right from the consequences of evil.

Justice is a good thing. But it is also a complicated thing. There is truth you might not suspect in the cliché that “Justice is blind,” because our desire for justice can blind good people to unintended consequences.

For example, let’s examine the judgment yesterday by the NCAA against Penn State University. A terrible evil was committed by an assistant football coach of the university. That evil produced multiple victims, victims who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. Even more evil, though, was the giant cover up made by top Penn State officials, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno. Those officials knew about the evil, and yet allowed it to continue for years.

Good people are horrified. They see the evil of that kind of system and we want to make things right. We want justice.

And so at a press conference yesterday the good people at NCAA provided some justice. The organization announced six penalties against Penn State, all of which the University agreed to without contest.

Upon my first reading, the punishments seemed just. One punishment that I thought was particularly just was that “PSU vacates all wins from 1998-2011. The loss of 111 career wins drops Joe Panterno from atop the all time wins list to 12th.” Since Joe Paterno seems to have known about the evil acts beginning in 1998, I thought this was a just punishment against his legacy.

But then I read this tweet made by Adam Taliaferro, a football player at Penn State who sustained a career ending injury during the 2000 season: “NCAA says games didn’t exist. I got the metal plate in my neck to prove it did. I almost died playing 4 PSU. Punishment or healing?!? #WeAre [Penn State]” 

Taliaferro reminds us that justice often has unintended consequences. Our pursuit of justice, our pursuit to set the world right from evil, blinds us to the evil our justice causes. Taliaferro asks, “Why am I being punished for crimes I didn’t commit?” And then there is the reaction in the video below of current Penn State students as they heard the breaking news yesterday. “Why,” they wonder, “are we being punished?
Of course, many good people are quick to remind us that the real victims in this case are the children. And, of course, the children are real victims. But I wonder, does our pursuit of justice require good people to become blind to the victims of our justice? Does justice require us to pit victims against each other – claiming that one set of victims is more “real” than another?

If that’s what justice requires, then “good people” should acknowledge that there is an element of evil within our pursuit justice. Abraham Heschel claimed that “More frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty, and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of good.” A justice that seeks to set the world right, but creates other victims, is a justice that doesn’t really set the world right. It creates more victims that we justify by claiming that justice sometimes demands more victims.

Justice is a good thing. Setting the world right is a good goal. But the pursuit of justice is a dangerous endeavor because it is a good where evil can thrive. It is a good thing that is likely to produce more victims. The victims of justice naturally become resentful because they desire the exact same thing that good people desire: justice. Taliaferro, along with his fellow Penn State football players of the last 15 years, and current Penn state students are right to claim it is unjust that they are being punished for crimes they didn’t commit.

Justice is complicated. Frankly, I don’t envy the good people at the NCAA for making a decision about this case. For the most part, our culture believes that justice demands some form of punishment. And so that’s what they did. They punished those responsible for this horrendous act of evil. Unfortunately, that punishment had unjust consequences that affected many innocent people. And so good people must ask, Is that just? Does that set the world right? Or does it add to the injustice of the world?

Good people should not be blind to the consequences of their pursuit of justice. Good people know that true justice is universal. It’s for everyone. True justice doesn’t produce more victims. Rather, true justice would set the world right for everyone. Good people seek to protect innocent victims. And good for the NCAA for attempting to do just that. But good people don’t turn a blind eye to the suffering caused by their decision, especially the suffering caused by their decisions in the name of justice.