How Not to Scapegoat Tom Brady: Reflections on Deflate Gate

Tom Brady discussing Deflate Gate. (Screenshot from YouTube.)

Tom Brady discussing Deflategate. (Screenshot from YouTube.)

I have so many reasons to hate Tom Brady.

As I said after he beat my beloved Seahawks in the Super Bowl, I have one primary reason for hating him. My wife thinks he’s hot.

Yup. I hate Tom Brady.

But there’s another reason to hate Tom Brady. “Deflategate” is back in the news. The controversy centers on Patriot’s footballs being deflated after they were approved by NFL officials prior to the AFC championship game in January.

Brady has asserted his innocence, but an independent investigation found that “it is more probable than not” he was aware that the locker room attendant and equipment manager altered the footballs.

So, not only does my wife think Tom Brady is hot, he’s also a cheater.

I hate him.

Of course, there is some equivocation in the report. “More probable than not” isn’t a definitive answer. It’s actually quite a disappointing answer to those of us who want to hate Brady with a perfect hatred. The report leaves room for doubt. “Maybe he’s innocent,” the report says. “We can’t be sure.”

But my hatred of Brady was recently put into perspective by New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden, who appeared yesterday on CBS This Morning. Even though it’s “more probable than not” that Brady is a dirty cheater, Rhoden reminded me that my hatred of Brady for cheating is an act of scapegoating. Charlie Rose asked Rhoden, “So, what’s the worst thing about this?” Rhoden’s response was illuminating,

The worst thing about this is that a guy who’s on top of the world, who seems to have everything – great family, a legacy, Super Bowl – still feels so much pressure and the need to cheat. That’s what blows everybody away. You didn’t have to do this. Why does someone who seems to have everything need to cheat? And that speaks to a large societal problem. Why do people on Wall Street, why do people who seem to have all the money, need to have even more money?

This isn’t just about Tom Brady. As much as I may hate the guy, he and I have some things in common. Rhoden is pointing to a crisis that all humans face. No matter how successful we appear, we all face the same existential lack of being. I can have all the success and money in the world, but I will still feel an emptiness in my soul.

Why do we experience this lack of being? Because we are constantly comparing ourselves with others. This comparison leads us to believe that we aren’t enough, that we lack something within ourselves, and so we try to obtain something that will fill the void within our soul.

But we don’t just want to obtain “something.” We want something that another person has, or wants to have. The competitive nature of this dynamic means that we easily fall into the trap of lying and cheating our way to the top.

You don’t have to be an NFL quarterback or on Wall Street to be infected by this competitive trap caused by our lack of being. I experience it, and from my years of ministry and counseling, I can tell you that nearly everyone is tempted to fill the void by cheating.

So, Tom Brady isn’t alone. My hatred of him actually comes from my own lack of being. As with all of my scapegoats, I put him down so that I can feel better about myself.

So, how do we stop scapegoating people like Tom Brady? As Rhoden states, Brady’s cheating “speaks to a large societal problem.” This is bigger than Brady. This is about me. This is about you. This is about a society obsessed with success and comparison with others, which leads to a sense that we lack something within ourselves.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the lack of being that we experience. The solution involves a complete change of mind – what the Jesus and the Hebrew prophets called repentance. Instead of relating to others by competitively grasping for success over and against them, we can learn to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

That feels like a death. And it is a kind of death. It’s a death to the old competitive way of life that leads us over and against our scapegoats. But that death leads to new life. It’s a new life based on joy and love. It’s based on living in a community that isn’t over and against one another, but that actually celebrates and mourns with one another. It’s based on the realization that any of us can find ourselves in situations where we are tempted by societal standards of success to cheat, and so we begin to empathize with those who do. We begin to forgive. And our hearts begin to move away from hatred and toward love.

Repent For Lent: Renewing Our Minds With Mimetic Theory — Family

Image from

Image from

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. – Jesus (Luke 14:26)

Well, let’s jump right in, shall we? For the rest of my “Repent for Lent” series, I aim to wrestle, like Jacob in the Jabbok, a blessing from some of the most difficult scriptures in the Gospels. This week I chose Jesus’s shocking words on family, ironically, on behalf of my husband. As I was talking to him about this series, saying that I wanted to approach some of the scary and seemingly violent sayings of Jesus from a pacifist, Girardian perspective, I asked if he could think of any sayings of Jesus that made him uncomfortable. Immediately, he replied, “Yes! What was that thing about hating your family? That seems to go against all that nonviolent stuff you talk about!”

It does, doesn’t it? What in the world are pacifists supposed to do with these blunt and uncompromising words? How could the one who tells us to love our neighbors and enemies, who preached against divorce and said “let the children come to me,” ask us to hate our families? Clearly, there must be something more going on here. After reading the scripture in context, considering other sayings of Jesus, and researching the work of friends Michael Hardin at Preaching Peace and Paul Nuechterlein at the Girardian Lectionary, I think I have found an abundance of blessings in the midst of some very difficult challenges.


I have heard priests claim Jesus does not actually tell us to hate our families, but simply to prefer him over them. This explanation calls to mind another time the word “hate” (or actually, in this case, “despise”) was used – in Genesis 25, when Esau sells his birthright for a lentil stew. The passage ends, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He didn’t “despise” it in the sense that we understand the word, but he was willing to give it up.

Are we willing to give up – or risk losing – our families to follow Christ? One could rightly ask, “Why would we have to? What kind of God makes us choose against our families?” But in the context of his life and ministry, following Jesus was not without consequence. Jesus is warning us to consider the risk and inviting us to count the cost.

To declare Jesus Lord was to renounce the Pax Romana for the peace of Christ. And for first century Jews, to be a follower of Jesus was not only to deny Roman authority, but also to adopt an interpretation of Torah that went against popular understanding, ultimately leading to a view of the Messiah and even God that would appear upside-down to the dominant culture. What did it mean to declare a poor itinerant preacher – who touched lepers and ate with sinners and taught forgiveness of enemies – the Messiah? It meant breaking rules taught to you from childhood. It meant “hanging out” with the crowds your parents warned you about. And it meant relinquishing a faith that might have sustained your family through generations – faith in liberation through violent revolution under the protection of a warrior God. Jesus knew that all of this could lead to alienation from family, and that a reluctance to take such risks might stem from family loyalty. Jesus honestly admits that those who follow him run the risk of losing their families and even their lives.

But what risks do we take today to follow Jesus? Likely, far fewer than we should. To reach out to the outcast is still to risk being shunned. To forego vengeance is to risk being accused of weakness. To take a stand for peace against weapons and war is to risk insult, arrest, and even death depending on how much you are willing to cross the line. To actively love our enemies is to be liable for treason. While worshipping Jesus is popular, following him, by and large, is not. And when we honestly assess how far we would go to follow Jesus, are we willing to risk the strange glances of our families? Are we willing to speak truth not only to power, but to loved ones who might not want to hear it? And even if we have all the familial support we desire, are we willing to risk hurting them by putting ourselves at the risk for the sake of Christ’s peace?

When we ponder the costs we are willing to incur for the sake of Christ, we might admit that any risks we take on ourselves may also affect our loved ones. Acknowledging the truth of this might help us make sense of this verse, but it is still uncomfortable. “Hate” is still such a strong word. Is there more to Jesus’s use of it? I think so.


One key to understanding the word “hate” is to juxtapose it against the way we understand “love.” If “hate” means “being willing to give up” (as we saw in the reference to Jacob and Esau), then “love” could mean “desiring to acquire.”

Mimetic theory has a lot to say about acquisitive desire. It tells us that we desire according to the desires of others, that as imitative creatures, we learn what we want as we perceive others wanting it. This kind of “love” seeks to build up the self in relation to others, often against or in rivalry with others. This imitative phenomenon is usually unconscious; unless we really examine ourselves, we think our desires are entirely our own. Moreover, the things we love – even if we may love them because of years of conditioning, advertising, social pressure, etc. – are part of our self-understanding, part of our identity. This is even more true of the people we love; we need them to be who we are. There are wonderful things about this relational love, being formed through relationship with others. But there is also a scary and pernicious side to this love if it makes us jealous, possessive, or controlling. When we want to make someone our own to gratify our desires, love can become stifling. If obsessive, possessive love is what the world understands, perhaps Jesus needs to use shocking language to make us understand how we love our families, and what “loving” our families at the expense of self-giving love for all (manifested in Jesus) looks like.

Or to put it another way, consider the great hymn in Philippians 2.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Jesus’s self-giving love stands in stark contrast to the possessive love that too often drives our desires. In Paul’s testimony to Jesus’s humility, he says that Jesus “emptied” himself. Did he despise his identity as one who was in the form of God? Not at all, and yet is that not how it appeared to those who understood God’s holiness as being set apart from the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the unclean? Did he not appear to be a blasphemer and sinner by claiming to love those God was thought to hate? Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved Son is denied by those who crucify him in the name of the God they believe to be on their side.

Jesus loses everything for love of everyone. His love is not one that grasps but one that lets go. He went without wealth, home, or status. Even his identity, though secure in God, was turned upside-down in the eyes of the world. Though I can only guess, I wonder if losing his loved ones hurt most of all. For he is betrayed, denied and abandoned by those to whom he was closest, with a few notable exceptions. In the end, he must look down on those he loves from the cross as they endure the pain of letting him go.


I’m thinking now in particular of his mother, Mary. If the model of self-emptying love in Jesus seems too hard to follow, it may help to consider his mother, whom Emmanuel McCarthy of The Center for Christian Nonviolence has called “The Lamb’s Lamb.”

She loved her son, but with a love that had to let him go. I wonder what she must have thought as she heard of him hanging out with the “wrong” crowds, angering authorities, overturning the sacrificial system of the Temple. I am sure she was proud of him. But as she saw him get into deeper and deeper trouble until the weight of the law came down against him and crushed him, what must she have felt? Did she ever try to steer him away from his radical and subversive way of love, for the sake of his own safety?

When does protective love become possessive love? It can be a fine line. We do not know from scripture if Mary’s love ever straddled that line. But we do know what Jesus said to Peter when he decried the notion of Jesus being put to death: “Get behind me, Satan!”

The truth is, we will not only be hindered from fully following Jesus by our families, but we will also be tempted to hinder our family members from fully following Jesus. There are times when protecting is the most loving thing we can do. But when we are tempted to protect ourselves or our loved ones from the ridicule, burden, and danger that following Jesus may incur, dare we trust in a love far greater than our own to provide a deeper security? Ultimately, Jesus had to trust in this love from his Abba. I believe Mary trusted in this love too. She trusted it when she said “yes” to the Holy Spirit and bore Jesus in her womb, and she trusted it throughout his lifetime as she anticipated the “sword that would pierce her own soul.”


This risky, costly, self-emptying love will not leave us unfulfilled. As Jesus looked upon his mother and his beloved disciple from the cross, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” and to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!” Thus he mediated a new family for those who loved him, tenderly and intimately beginning to fulfill what he promised to his disciples:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  (Mark 10:29-30)

To those of us anxious about losing loved ones to follow Christ, these words may be poor reassurance. Our families are irreplaceable. But for those shunned by their families, such a promise of belonging is a blessing. A family can be the ultimate “in crowd,” except for those who are cast out. But Jesus ever calls us to reach beyond the margins.

Jesus deconstructs the traditional family, with its exclusive boundaries, and rebuilds a family around himself, around unconditional love, that reaches out through the arms of the church (his body on earth) to include all of humanity. Risking our relationships with our family to follow Jesus will eventually bring us back to them as we expand our definition of “family” from our immediate loved ones to the children of God – that is, the whole world.











Chapel Hill, Atheism, and the Worship of Violence

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

It’s been a few days since the tragic murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were cut short. They were murdered, shot in the head, by Craig Hicks.

Hicks is an avowed atheist. Prominently displayed on his Facebook page is a meme that claims,

Of course I want religion to go away. I don’t deny you your right to believe whatever you’d like; but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.

“As long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.” The tragic irony of that meme is palpable. You may be surprised to know that, as a Christian, I greatly appreciate atheism’s critique of religious violence. Religion should be critiqued whenever it is used as a justification for violence.

But atheism can be very religious in its violence. At its core, religious violence unites adherents in the faith that violence can solve our problems. In other words, many religious people don’t actually have faith in God; they have faith in violence.

Hicks reveals something crucially important about atheism. Do not be fooled by the term “atheism.” Like many religious people, many atheists have the same idolatrous faith in a violent god that justifies their violence.

The religion of violence creates a spirit of hatred and accusations. Notice how the blame game started very quickly after the horrendous murders. Religious people used Hicks as a justification to accuse atheists of violence. Atheists then doubled down and accused religion of “divinely sanctioned violence.” These mutual accusations against one another are themselves violent and only provide further evidence that each side worships at the throne of violence.

Blaming another for violence is a convenient way of projecting our own violent tendencies upon someone else. Religious people and atheists begin to mirror one another in our accusations: “We aren’t violent. We are the good guys. We are for peace. They are the violent ones. If we could just get rid of their violent belief system, the world would be a much better place.”

There is only one way out of the trap of the violent religion that unites us against one another. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summed it up best when he said,

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But 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?

The evil that cuts through their hearts is the evil that cuts through our hearts. Religious people and atheists can now unite in our condemnation of Hicks as an evil man. That’s far too easy. The fact is that Hicks is much more like us than we’d like to admit. He is a product of our cultural worship of hatred and violence.

And so, by condemning Hicks for violence, we condemn ourselves because the hatred and violence that runs through him also runs through us.

The solution to our cultural worship of violence is to stop blaming someone else for it and start taking responsibility for our own violent impulses.

The greatest problem facing the world today isn’t atheists or Christians or Muslims. Our greatest problem is the violence that infects us all. Religious violence, secular violence, economic violence, emotional violence, and spiritual violence threaten to destroy our communities. Why? Because we can’t control violence; violence controls us.

The best alternative to violence is nonviolence. The Qur’an’s nonviolent teachings should be highlighted in this conversation. For example, the Qur’an explains that “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.”

If we want to blame anything, then blame violence. But let’s not primarily condemn the violence “out there.” Let’s take personal responsibility to stop worshiping at the throne of violence. Let’s take responsibility for the violence that exists within ourselves. And let’s start taking responsibility to repel evil with what is better by loving our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

Hatred In The Nuclear Era


Image from:

Before nuclear weapons, after nuclear weapons . . .

“The latter era, of course,” writes Noam Chomsky, “opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.”

We’re not even close. Or so it seems on a bad day. “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” asked columnist Colman McCarthy. Well, for one thing, we don’t wrap illiteracy in a shroud of glory and call it war or self-defense or national security; nor have we developed a multi-trillion-dollar industry called the Illiteracy Industrial Complex (or maybe we have, and call it television). In any case, the human race has a demonstrated ability to pull itself out of an instinct-driven existence — but now finds itself at a suicidal impasse, unable, or uncertain how, to commit to taking the next step upwards, beyond violent conflict resolution and the mentality of “us vs. them,” and into a fuller connection with the universe.

This moment, as we straddle the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a time to reflect on what happens next. Violence — disorganized and, of course, highly organized and extraordinarily sophisticated — remains humanity’s obsession, preoccupation and primary distraction. Despite the ability we now possess to destroy ourselves and most life on this planet, we have barely begun to question our reflexive violence. Doing so requires looking courageously inward.

If there’s a guiding principle in this journey, perhaps it begins here:

“. . .  conflict escalates — that is, moves increasingly toward violence — according to the degree of dehumanization in the situation,” writes Stephanie Van Hook, executive director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, summarizing the work of Michael Nagler, who wrote The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action. “Violence, in other words, doesn’t occur without dehumanization.”

This is simplicity itself, is it not? As long as we respect the person or group with whom we’re in conflict, both sides, eventually, win. It gets tricky, however, when one side adamantly refuses to show respect, and even more so when there’s an imbalance of power involved — and when one’s life is in danger. What does “showing respect” even mean in such circumstances? It could mean “turning the other cheek,” but two millennia on, this concept remains misunderstood as passive compliance and buried six feet deep in cynicism.

Gandhi re-energized the idea and called it “satyagraha”: seize the truth. That is to say, refuse either to dehumanize the other person or let the other person do it to you. Stand with courage and change the world. But the popular understanding of this idea is precarious. The media extol violent elimination of conflict — poof! evil loses — and capitalism caters to every side in almost every global feud. Ongoing dehumanization of one’s enemy is a source of unending profit, if not an economic necessity.

And this, I repeat, is the situation in a nuclear-armed world.

“Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestation?”

These are the words of Gen. Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, keeper of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, who, post-retirement, became haunted by the work he did and turned into a zealot for nuclear disarmament.

In his essay, “Death by Deterrence,” Butler noted that, “from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it.”

The conclusion I draw from this observation, by a man who has stared into the nuclear abyss, is that the temptation to dehumanize “the other” — whoever that may be — and keep the world, as it were, safe for violence, surmounts the rationality of survival. Continuing to develop nuclear weapons, generation after generation, means that one day they will be used. And in a world festooned with dehumanized people, such a day will be sooner rather than later.

It’s easier to hate than to love. We can maintain hatred for “the other” and remain certain of who we are. To love — especially beyond our obvious self-interest — is no small feat. Every religion reaches toward this peak of being in its teaching, but falls short of it in its practical application. Indeed, sustaining hatred for an enemy creates group coherence. And violence sustains the hatred, because without it, one would have to accept the blame for every murder committed in the name of that hatred.

As Rabbi Michael Lerner recently wrote: “. . . one of the primary victims of the war between Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held together for several thousand years.”

I think we do have the moral and intellectual capacity to control our worst instincts, but I don’t know if we have the will, or the time, to rebuild our lives, and our global civilization, around the best of who we are. Another anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us that the clock is ticking.

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


Why I Love To Hate Alex Rodriguez

Photo by: The Associate Press

Photo by: The Associate Press

I have a long history of hating the-man-who-shall-not-be-named. In fact, my wife no longer lets me watch the Yankees. That’s because we have children and she doesn’t want them to hear me launch f-bombs at the television whenever my arch-nemesis stands at the plate.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to love him. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so the Seattle Mariners are my favorite team. He began his career with the Mariners, but after a few years of stardom, he let it get to his head and he joined the Texas Rangers. “It’s not about the money,” I remember him saying. But that was disingenuous. The Rangers crippled their team by providing him with the biggest salary in baseball history.

It was heartbreaking. I once heard that whenever hearts break, they either grow bigger or they become calloused. Well, my heart calloused. Along with other Mariner fans, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing that the Rangers, now led by the-man-who-shall-not-be-named, were horrible. In his three years in Texas, the Rangers were one of the worst teams in baseball and never ended a season above last place in their division.

And I loved it.

Then he was traded to the Yankees. There’s only one thing you need to know about baseball fans and the Yankees – either you love them or you hate them. I’ve always hated the Yankees. In fact, I love to hate the Yankees, and ever since man-who-shall-not-be-named became a Yankee, I love to hate them even more.

The player I love to hate joined the team I loved to hate.

Since joining the Yankees, his career has been mired in drug allegations. Yesterday, Major League Baseball suspended him for an unprecedented 211 games. He’s fighting with an appeal, indeed, he says he’s “fighting for his life” – an overly dramatic statement that makes me hate him even more.

And yet, if mimetic theory has taught me anything, it’s to be honest about my feelings of hatred. Alex Rodriguez (ahhh, I said his name!) has become a mimetic lightning rod for collective animosity. I’ve always had a vulgar sense of glee in being part of that subsection of baseball fans that hated him and the Yankees.

Alex-Rodriguez seattle

Why did you leave?

But hatred is dangerous because it’s mimetic – it spreads from person to person like a contagious disease and allows us to unite over and against our scapegoat. Yes, he’s guilty of doping and of other less grievous offenses (we had something good in Seattle, Alex!), but a guilty scapegoat is the best kind because guilty scapegoats allow us to feel justified in our shared hatred against them.

The problem with our justifications for hating guilty scapegoats is that it allows us to pretend we are innocent bystanders. The truth is that all scapegoats are a product of our culture. This doesn’t excuse him, but Alex is a product of an American culture that is obsessed with money and success, so should we be surprised if he is obsessed with money and success?

I don’t think so.

Because of mimetic theory, I love to hate Alex Rodriguez a little less because I know there’s a little bit of Alex Rodriguez inside of me. Of course, I haven’t used performance enhancing drugs  or demanded my employers pay me $28 million a year. But, neither can I honestly insist that if I were in his shoes I wouldn’t have done something different.

(For the record, I do know bloggers who enhance their stats in questionably ethical ways…and I’d be fine with just $1 million a year…)

And so I no longer hope that he fails. Rather, I hope he admits his mistakes and stops running from them. I hope he’s able to heal from this chapter of his life. And I hope he finds the best kind of success – the kind that is based on honest, healthy relationships of trust.

But Doesn’t God Hate Sin?

god hates those who claim to knowLast week I wrote an article in response to SNL’s skit DJesus Uncrossed. Basically I argued that Jesus reveals a God who doesn’t respond to violence with violence, but rather with forgiveness. A friend shared it on his Facebook page and a lively discussion ensued. A few commenters defended the article, while others stated it was compromised by “bad theology,” “bad biblical interpretation,” and an overall sense of “wussiness.”

Those negative comments made me smile like this J.

I fully admitted in the article that I’m a wuss and it isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of having “bad theology” and “bad biblical interpretation.” I like those comments because they mean I’m getting my point across.

But one statement stood out above the rest:

“God hates sin.”

Sure enough, the notion that God hates sin can be found in the Bible, but I’m suspicious of people who emphasize this point. What people usually mean when they say “God hates sin” is that God hates the sin committed by those people. Rarely do people who insist that God hates sin mean that God hates my sin or our sin. This god who hates is a god who justifies our hatred against others. Worshipping a god like this allows us to know we are loved by god because we know who this god hates: those evil sinners. In other words, we know we are righteous and loved because we know they are sinners.

I’ll admit that anyone can look to biblical verses and find that god lurking between the covers of their Bible. The Bible was written by humans and all humans have a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them,” “good and evil,” “righteous and sinner.”

But God doesn’t divide the world that way. God is uniting the world in reconciliation.

Let’s explore this theological principle through the life of Paul. Before his conversion, Saul (Paul’s pre-conversion name) persecuted the followers of Jesus and threatened them with murder. Paul was the ultimate sinner who had trespassed against God, Jesus, and the early Christians. If God hated sin, God would certainly confront Saul’s sin with hatred.

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio

Seething with violent rage against the early Christians, Saul and some of his friends traveled on a road to Damascus to persecute Christians when suddenly he saw a flash of lightning. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say, “Saul! Saul! You’re a jerk! I hate your sin! And I hate you too! You are an abomination unto me and you are going straight to hell if you don’t change your ways and believe that I am the Son of God!!!”

Okay. That’s what Jesus would say if he was a hater. What Jesus actually said was, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me … I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” Saul was blinded by the experience, so his friends led him to the city. There he met Ananias, an early follower of Jesus. Ananias had his own vision of Jesus, where Jesus told Ananias to lay his hands on Saul, that he might heal Saul’s blindness. Understandably, Ananias protested, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” Ananias was afraid Saul might persecute him, but Jesus insisted that Ananias heal Saul’s blindness, saying “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Ananias put his hands on Saul and said these remarkable words of grace and forgiveness

Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Saul wasn’t confronted by God’s hatred; rather, Saul was confronted by God’s forgiveness. Receiving God’s forgiveness doesn’t mean that we can go on doing whatever we want and that’s okay. It means our lives will become transformed like Saul’s life was transformed. Saul had a new identity in Christ. After his conversion he changed his name to Paul and he was launched into a ministry that would change the world. As Jesus said to Ananias, Paul would suffer years of imprisonment under the Roman Empire, and he was eventually killed by the Romans. But notice that Saul the violent persecutor became Paul the nonviolent persecuted. Paul, as a follower of Christ, could not defend himself with violence because he now had a nonviolent understanding of God.

Paul’s theology transforms from a god of hate who justified his hatreds to the God of Jesus who includes everyone in an embrace of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul makes this point clear in his second letter to the Corinthians when he wrote in chapter 5 verse 19 that

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us.

If God hates sin, then Paul got it wrong. If God hates sin then God would count our trespasses against us, but that’s not what God does. In Christ God comes to the world not in the demonic spirit of hate, but in the nonviolent Holy Spirit of forgiveness, love, and reconciliation.

God doesn’t hate sin; we do. We hold trespasses against one another in the spirit of revenge; God doesn’t. God is reconciling the world to God’s Self, not counting our trespasses against us, and looking for people to participate in that reconciliation.


(For more on the Paul and Ananias story see Lisa Hadler’s wonderful article “A Different Kind of Love Story” at her blog Mime Tic Theory.)

Addicted to Hate: Guns and Other Stuff

My readers in Europe see one thing more clearly than we in the States do – that Americans have a gun obsession. No matter your position on gun ownership or gun control, guns are larger than life. Either they are necessary and good, delivering protection from forces of evil that can be arrayed against you without warning, or they are evil itself, the cause of all that we need protection from. I am not writing to position myself on one side of the gun debate in order to persuade you to join me in uniting against the other side. I am writing to persuade you to see that both sides are barely distinguishable from each other. Despite their attempts to establish their differences from their opponents using the starkest language of good vs. evil, for both sides, guns possess an almost totemic power to situate evil in someone or something that is nothing like us.

I am talking here about what author and theologian Brian McLaren calls hostile identities. Relying on mimetic theory in his most recent book, McLaren illuminates a fundamental human reality: our identities are formed in relationship with others. We do not spring from the womb as fully formed human beings but go through an extended maturation process in which parents, family, friends and the wider culture induct us into a particular identity rooted in time and place. If I were born, say, a few centuries ago or a few continents away, it is safe to say that I would be a different person than the one I am today. This is not rocket science, but what often escapes our attention is that while we receive identities from others we can also secure or solidify our identities against others. In particular, to know we are good people, worthy of love and friendship and membership in our communities, we use evil people to compare ourselves to. It’s reassuring to locate evil in another culture, another religion, another political party or, as is our topic for today, in the other side of the gun debate. Finding evil somewhere completely outside of who I believe I am allows for a simple, comforting logic: if those guys are evil, and I am not those guys then who could argue that I must be good! That is what McLaren means by a hostile identity – our goodness depends on hating another.

Hostile identities galvanize around objects that we can argue over, but the object itself is barely relevant. Once an object like gun ownership has triggered the momentum of hostile identities, the hostility escalates and energizes each side equally. When this happens, the triggering object recedes further and further from view until it is a speck on the horizon of the debate. All that’s left is a red-faced anger that thrives on hurling accusations of evil against the other, while the issue itself is never discussed let alone resolved. When I take up an issue like this one, my aim is always to try to wean both sides away from their shared addiction to hostility. Being gripped at the level of identity by hostility makes them mirror images of each other and prevents them from achieving what both sides say they want: in this case, a sane and safe gun policy.

You can make the same argument about hostile identity over any number of issues today. Wherever “guns” appear in this article, substitute taxes, abortion, marriage rights, education policy, urban poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran – plop in the issue that gets your blood boiling and you have the same dynamic – the issue will never be addressed until both sides stop using it as a foil to establish their own goodness over and against the opposition. To be authentically good we cannot use the shortcut of hostility. Authentic goodness emerges when I am willing to risk the possibility that I might be wrong, that my opponent might have something valuable to say, and that the issue we are all shouting about might be more important than my need to bolster my fragile sense of self-worth. Authentic goodness requires kindness towards the other not hostility, hospitality toward adversaries not exclusion, and sincere questions not close-minded accusations.

Chicago, the big city near my home, could provide an excellent test case for the practice of authentic goodness. The unfortunate truth is that our murder rate stands at 400 this year, up 25% from last year. And since 2001, we have logged more than 5,000 gun related-deaths. Many in Chicago have found the comparison to a war zone sobering: in the same 11 years since 2001, there were 2,000 military deaths in Afghanistan, 40% of Chicago’s total.  It is past time for Americans in Chicago and across the nation to honestly address not only gun policy, but poverty, racism, welfare, education, housing – all interrelated issues that we falsely isolate so that we can pepper our public landscape with reasons to hate one another. Americans want to claim the mantle of goodness on the world stage – let’s do it at home first. There’s plenty to work on here.


Hating the Sin

I recently wrote a blog titled, “A Christian Support of Same Sex Marriage.” I posted it on Facebook and received a few favorable replies, but there was one somewhat negative response. My Facebook friend posted this:

Love the sinner, hate the sin
You’ve heard the statement countless times, I’m sure. It’s a cliché. This may surprise you, but I have a certain amount of respect for clichés. Phrases usually become clichés because there is at least a hint of truth in them. Still, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a cliché that always rubs me the wrong way.

Here’s my question – Is it possible to “love the sinner, but hate the sin”?

I have my doubts. Let me explain be describing a prevalent tendency I see in American culture. When it comes to “sin” we are trained to associate people with their actions. We could phrase it another way – In American culture we tend to reduce others to their sin. For example, if someone commits a crime, he is labeled a criminal. If someone is addicted to alcohol, she is labeled an alcoholic. If someone is caught lying, he is labeled a liar. There are many other examples, but you get the idea.

Because these labels associate the person with the sin if we hate the sin, then we also hate the sinner. The phrase is then a self-defeating trap that actually justifies our hatred of “sinners.” And it’s an addictive trap, because hate provides a sense of superiority over others. The phrase is a way of distancing ourselves from “sin” by only seeing sin in the “sinner.” We think we are good and righteous because we can compare ourselves with a sinful “other.”

Still, there might be some truth in the cliché.

One truth might be to disassociate the sin from the person committing the sin. If you can do that – well, go for it. I cannot. It takes a spiritual discipline that is beyond my powers. The other truth of the statement could lead us to an awareness that we are all sinners. If we are to “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” then we must recognize the sin that infects us all. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 1-2. In chapter 1, Paul wrote about a litany of sins committed by those people who “were filled with every kinds of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

That’s how Romans 1 ends, and that’s usually where we end, too. But Paul didn’t end there. “Therefore,” he continued, “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” Paul warns that our judgments against “sinners” make our hearts “hard and impenitent.” In labeling others as sinners we make a judgment against them that blinds us to our own sins. Paul goes on to claim that among humans there is no distinction between “sinner” and “non-sinner” since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is important for Paul because any judgment against another that provides a sense of superiority over them (what Paul frequently calls “boasting”) is a sign that we are caught in sin.

What’s the way out of the trap? I think Paul’s advice is good – becoming aware of our own sin makes room for humility when it comes to the sins of others. But Paul also advises us to move beyond our preoccupation with sin and evil. “Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul wrote in Romans 12:21, “but overcome evil with good.” Evil overcomes us when we get caught up in labeling others as sinners. We overcome that evil when we do good for others, especially those “others” our society labels as “sinners.”

Tebowing, Cruzing, and Bradying – The Admiration of a Football Fan

That’s mimetic.

The “Tebowing” and now “Cruzing” and “Bradying” phenomena are evidence of humanity’s mimetic nature.  As René Girard has put forth in developing the “mimetic theory,” humans are the best imitators on the planet.  We are so good at imitating, most of the time we don’t even know we are doing it.  This non-conscious imitation is how we learn from others.  Girard calls the “others” we imitate our models – we admire our models and want to be like them.  We want their success, fame, prestige, or fortune.  For example, as the above video shows, our culture has begun to dance the salsa in imitation of Victor Cruz’s celebrations after scoring a touchdown.  As the announcer in the video says, “The salsa is spreading like an internet virus.”  Babies, teenagers, and adults (even a dog!) are imitating Cruz’s victory dance.  Not only are we imitating Cruz, but we are imitating others who are imitating Cruz – hence the baby and the dog.

Even Madonna isn’t immune from imitating Cruz.

According to Girard, this imitation is a positive thing because it’s how we learn, but he also claims there is a dark side to this imitation.  It can turn very negative.  As we imitate one another in the desire for success, fame prestige, or fortune, we can easily fall into rivalry with one another because we desire the same things.  Two football teams, let’s take the Giants and the Patriots for example, want the same thing – to win the Super Bowl.  After winning, the Giants can celebrate by dancing the salsa, but how do the Patriots feel?  Envious.  Why?  Because they want what the Giants have – success.  And here’s the scandal: If you are a Patriots fan, you have a secret admiration for Giants fans.  You admire them because they have what you want.  Sure you feel a sense of hatred, but behind every hatred is a sense of admiration.

When the other team has what we want, we get frustrated.  And frustration always finds an outlet.  If we don’t deal with frustration in a positive way, the need for an outlet will either cause internal strife within our community as we blame one another for a loss, or we will find an external outlet.  As the video shows, a group of frustrated Patriots’ fans were congregating in Boston after the game.  A Giants fan did a little salsa dance, and the group turned into a mob.  Its frustrations coalesced on the man and “as he continued to taunt the crowd, he got sucker punched.”

Yes.  It was a stupid thing to do.  But he was imitating his model, Victor Cruz.  Every celebration after a touchdown will be interpreted by the other team as a taunt.  As a bit of mockery.  In essence we’re saying, “I have what you want.”

And then the ultimate taunt – “Nananananana!”

We imitate winners, but we can also imitate “losers.”  Imitating losers can be a positive thing, if we imitate them in order to share in their pain.  But it can also be a negative thing, as I think is the case with the “Bradying” phenomenon.  Imitating losers is often a way of mocking them – but we only mock those we secretly admire.  We admire our models and our rivals.  In fact, our rival is also our model, for we want what our rival has.  Football fans admire Tom Brady because he has the success we all want.  Playing in five Super Bowls and winning three of them is an amazing career.  We envy Brady because we want the success he’s had.  And so when he fails we mock him.  We imitate one another in mocking him in order to keep him down.  For when our rival is down, we are up.

We admire both our models and our rivals.  We want what they have, which can lead to rivalry, and even to violence.  Now, you may be searching for an answer to all of this negative imitation that’s going on.  Fortunately, there is an answer – but, I’ll tell you up front, few people like it.  It’s not glamorous.  And it’s hard work.  If you want to transform this negative imitation into a positive imitation, the answer is in identifying with cultural “losers” in a way that feels their pain.  Few people want to do that.  We’d rather do a salsa dance – and keep others from dancing with us.

Giants and Patriots fans, after all, don’t dance together.



The Redemption of the Grinch

“Give me your grinchiest look,” I said.

And he did.

My kids are watching the shows I grew up with.  Is it shallow to say that this is one of my greatest experiences as a parent?

Birth.  And then the Grinch.

I. Love. It.

My Wife has this call and response thing going on with our Youngest Son.

She’ll start, “You’re a mean one…”

And he responds, “Mr. Grinch!”

It’s one of those beautiful family moments that make us all smile.

Now that I’m watching these shows as an adult, I interpret them in a different light.  Let’s stay with The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  “Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not.”

You know the story, but here’s a little refresher:  The Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.  We are told that no one know just why, but most likely because his heart was two sizes too small.  And those Whos down in Whoville, they were so loud in their Christmas celebrations, which drove the Grinch nuts.  He hated the Whos.  The Grinch devised a plan to stop all that Who noise.  He came up with an awful idea, a wonderful, awful idea.  He tried to stop Christmas from coming by stealing the Whos’ presents, Christmas trees, and food.  Well, you know that by the end his heart grew and he was transformed.

But how did it happen?

I’d like to explore with you how Dr. Suess could have told the story.  After the Grinch stole Christmas, the Whos could have united in hatred against the Grinch.  You can imagine the Whos coming together and yelling, “The Grinch hates us!  Well we hate the Grinch!”  That’s how hate works.  Once hate is unleashed, it spreads like a contagious disease, infecting ourselves and our relationships.  United in their hatred the Whos could have come after the Grinch with pitch forks and guns.  (Can you imagine little Cindy Lou Who running after the Grinch with a glock?)  The Whos could have gotten a little Who justice.  They could have taught the Grinch a lesson by locking him up in Who jail.

MSNBC would have loved that!

Lockup with the Grinch.

Of course, the Whos reflected hatred of the Grinch would have only increased his hatred for them. He would have become even grinchier … and then the Whos hatred of the Grinch would have increased even more until soon Whoville would have suffered from Who Armageddon!

Dr. Seuss could have told that story, but, fortunately for us, he wanted to tell a story of redemption. Anthropological genius that he was, Dr. Seuss shows us the only way to redemption.  You see, hate can spread throughout a community, but so can love.  In order for our hearts to grow, we need to see the big, loving hearts of others.  The Whos didn’t fall into the Grinch’s trap of hatred.  They didn’t allow his hate to infect their lives.  Rather, they modeled a different way of life: A life of community, joy, and love.   When the Grinch saw their Christmas joy as they stood hand in hand welcoming Christmas, his heart grew.

And when the Grinch brought back their toys, Christmas trees, and food, the Whos made space for the Grinch.  He joined their Christmas celebration and he ate at their table.

Near the end of the movie, the Whos sing in the presence of the Grinch, “Welcome Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

In part, that’s what Christmas is about.  Making space for the Grinches in our lives and hoping that maybe, just maybe, even our own Grinchy hearts will grow.

(You can watch Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas below.)