Ahmed’s Clock: Islam, Mimetic Theory, And The Hope For A Better Future

Last week, Ahmed Mohamed proudly brought a clock he made to his school. Ahmed, a Muslim 9th grader at MacArthur High School in Texas, was excited to show his clock to his teachers. Despite the fact that Ahmed has never been in trouble, one of his teachers became suspicious and thought it was a bomb.

That teacher complained to the principal, who called the police. When the police officers arrived, they and the principal pulled Ahmed from his classroom and interrogated him for almost an hour and a half. During the interrogation, Ahmed asked if he could call his parents. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Ahmed describes the following experience,

“They told me ‘No, you can’t call your parents. You’re in the middle of an interrogation at the moment.’ They asked me a couple of times, ‘Is it a bomb?’ and I answered a couple of times, ‘It’s a clock.”

And if your heart hasn’t broken for young Ahmed yet, it gets worse. He continued,

“I felt like I was a criminal. I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called … In middle school I was called a bomb-maker just because of my race and religion.”

After the interrogation, the police handcuffed Ahmed and took him to the police station. The school suspended Ahmed for three days. He was soon released without charges, but the mayor, principal, and police all defend their actions against Ahmed. Chief of Police Larry Boyd claimed, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to schools.”

Fortunately, in the face of such fearful absurdity, Ahmed has received an outpouring of support. Social media posts with hashtags #IStandwithAhmed and #EngineersforAhmed have gone viral. Mark Zuckerberg, MIT, Harvard, even Barack Obama has supported Ahmed through social media.

The support lifted Ahmed’s spirit. But this is much bigger than one Muslim boy in Texas, and Ahmed knows it. He told ABC’s Good Morning America that,

“I was scared at the moment, but now I feel really happy. I’m getting all this support from all over the world. And the support isn’t just for me but for everyone who has been through this. I will fight for you if you can’t stand up for yourself.”

Ahmed’s Clock, Mimetic Theory, and Being Human

There are two important strands that run through this story. Both strands teach us about what it means to be human.

According to mimetic theory, humans are created in the image of an “other,” who become the model for our identity. James Alison calls this the “social other.” We become who we are through the eyes of an “other.” We receive our identity, our “selves,” through others.  For example, when we are constantly told by others that we are dangerous and to be feared, then we begin to learn that we are dangerous and should be feared.

Human identity is so interdependent that we begin to live into the expectations that others have for us. So, in a sad and tragic way, Officer Larry Boyd was right. We do live in an age where smart and proud Muslim boys can’t bring their clocks to school to show their teachers because a significant portion our society lives in absolute fear of Muslims. It’s not just mean middle school kids who demean Muslims with names like “bomb-maker” and “terrorists.” Those mean middle school kids learn that type of racism and Islamophobia from their models who gave them that fear. In other words, their identities are formed mimetically to fear Muslims as the “other.”

But we don’t have to be formed by negative and fearful models. We can choose to be formed by more positive models. Ahmed gives me hope because he is choosing to be formed by those models who support him. He is choosing to receive his identity from those who look at him through the eyes of compassion and support. The support he is receiving from around the world will do wonders for this boy’s sense of self. If every child was seen through the eyes of compassion and support, the world would be a much better place.

But there’s another step that we need to make in this story. Ahmed is a victim of a culture of fear. The teacher, the principal, the police officers, and the mayor have all been formed by that culture. They are simply fearful pawns in a chess match that is much bigger than themselves. What makes this story even more tragic is that as they turned against Ahmed, many in our culture have turned against them.

But aren’t we justified in turning against them? After all, aren’t they guilty scapegoaters? Yes, but treating guilty people with hostility doesn’t help. Scapegoating the scapegoaters doesn’t help because what’s true about Ahmed is true about those who turned against him. They are formed mimetically, by the social other. If we unite in hostility against them, they will learn that they are hostile people and our hostility against them will only reinforce their sense of fear.

Islam and the Solution to Evil

Fortunately, there is a solution. Those who turned against Ahmed need a better model – one that doesn’t reflect their fear and hostility back to them. And we find that model in Islam, Ahmed’s religious tradition. The Qur’an provides the answer to the negative cycle of fear that we can easily fall into when it states, “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” (surah 41:34).

Repelling evil with evil, violence with violence, hostility with hostility, only makes the world a more evil, violent, and hostile place. It will only lead us to a future of destruction.

The clock is ticking. We had better start repelling evil with what is better – with grace, mercy, and forgiveness – before it’s too late. That is our greatest hope for a better future.

Image: Ahmed Mohamed handcuffed at his school. (Photo: Screen capture from MSNBC’s Youtube Channel)

Farkhunda: Their Scapegoat… And Ours

Image from Flickr.

Image from Flickr.

A month ago, a brutal and horrific tragedy took place in Afghanistan. A woman by the name of Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry men. This is the story of a scapegoat, but it is also much more. Beneath the surface of this incident lies many layers of violence and humiliation. Reflexive rage against the killers, while understandable, would simply deepen the dark abyss of ignorance and refuel the caldron of hatred that can bubble over again at any time. As I mourn for Farkhunda, I have pondered many issues related to her death that I would like to share. It is my hope that as we reflect on Farkhunda’s courage and the violence heaped upon her, we will take meaningful steps toward peace and reconciliation. We all have work to do, for I believe her blood is on more than the hands of the mob; it is upon all of us.

Farkhunda’s Story

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old student of religious studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had visited the Shrine of the King of Two Swords the day before her death, bringing clothing for the poor. Upset by the superstitious practice of selling charms and amulets outside of a historic shrine, which went against her understanding of Islam, she criticized the shrine attendants and dissuaded visitors from buying. With business threatened, one attendant, Zain-ul-Din, sought to protect his livelihood by undermining Farkhunda’s credibility. He accused her of being an infidel who had burned the Holy Qur’an. Within moments, a mob descended upon Farkhunda, berating and beating her as she denied accusations and begged for mercy. Her cries fell on hundreds of deaf ears as the men continued to pummel her to death. Her bloodied body was then set on fire.

Rush to Judgment

Farkhunda’s story has all the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, complete with a false accusation and a mimetically-propelled mob. The mob was not made up of criminal thugs but regular, mostly young, men. They did not beat and kill her out of a sadistic desire to inflict harm; rather, they were propelled by a sense of righteousness as they struck her. We are most dangerous when we are convinced of our own goodness over and against someone else, especially when caught up in a crowd where self-righteousness is released like a drug into the very air we breathe. Many reading Farkhunda’s story in horror could easily be caught up in the same mob mentality; it is not endemic to Islam or Afghan culture but epidemic across humanity. Even so, such explosive violence can erupt spontaneously but not unconditionally. Tension, insecurity, and a buildup of hostility fuel a mimetic crisis for which the scapegoat is an outlet. Long-damaged by war and corruption, Kabul was a powder keg waiting to be ignited by Farkhunda’s false accusation. In some ways, her murder was more than thirty years in the making.

30 Years of War

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for over three decades. According to Political analyst Helena Malikyar,

Afghans are often praised for their resilience. In reality, they are a nation of survivalists. They are survivors of the communist regime’s brutalities in the 1980s, the mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, tortures, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and loss of loved ones. They are damaged goods.

Of course, all of this describes the state of Afghanistan before 2001 and the never-ending “War on Terror,” but the United States bears some responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan even prior to September 11th. The United States supported rebel Afghan groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, but the weapons we supplied turned against the Afghan people as civil war broke out in the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet retreat. During these years of war, not only did American weapons remain in Afghanistan, killing people on all sides, but the eyes of the American government remained upon Afghanistan as well. According to an article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Afghanistan’s geographic location is strategic to America’s interest in controlling the oil of Central Asia by way of an oil pipeline. Needing a “stabilized” nation through which to build the pipeline, the United States originally supported the Taliban takeover of the nation in spite of their brutal human rights violations, only turning against it when it was clear that the Taliban would not be asset to U.S. oil interests. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has never been in the interests of Afghan citizens but rather in the interest of profit at their expense.

Since American troops began occupying and bombing Afghanistan in 2001, many “official” casualty counts have underestimated the death tolls of Afghan civilians. According to another article by Nafeez Ahmed, the Washington DC-based Physicians For Social Responsibility have estimated that, since the 1990s, US interventions have been responsible for between 3 and 5 million preventable Afghan deaths. Night raids and drone strikes have made a vulnerable citizenry fearful, restless and insecure. In such an environment, Helena Malikyar writes that “today’s survivalist mentality … has no room for vital human virtues of compassion and tolerance.” We bear much responsibility for this environment. It is hard for compassion to take root in soil that has been blown apart by bombs and polluted by blood.

Thus, while individual soldiers may have good intentions, motivated to fight for humanitarian concerns, it is clear that American interests do not align with Afghan interests. The Afghan people have been suffering on behalf of American foreign policies, which have exacerbated corruption and civil unrest. The United States has helped to weave and is deeply entangled in the web of violence that has ensnared Afghanistan.

With the blood of so many Afghans on our hands, the mimetic crisis that fueled Farkhunda’s murder is largely on our hands as well. As my colleague Adam Ericksen said, we may not have cast the stones, but we did cast the bombs.

 The Role of Religion

 There are many who use this tragedy to denounce Islam, claiming that only an inherently violent faith could inspire such violence on its behalf. But any religion can be interpreted either peacefully or violently, and Helena Malikyar’s article makes it clear how a rigid, violent interpretation of Islam could be born in a climate of fear and insecurity. She writes that, “While [pre-war Afghanistan] was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity, tolerance and a code of honour. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, was moderate and tolerant of the “other”.” Yet a steady diet of war, deepening poverty, and exploitation can morph the shape of a communal faith from an arm of outreach to a fortress of refuge. Clinging to one’s faith as a defense against an enemy other can turn a religion that encourages tolerance and hospitality toward others into a pillar of identity that helps define oneself against others.

I believe this destructive use of religion as a defense in a time of insecurity fueled the hostile spirit of the mob when it focused its rage on Farkhunda on that terrible day. Unable to vent their frustrations against heavily-armed military occupiers or corrupt war lords, the men of the mob saw in Farkhunda a threat to Islam and all they held dear, not necessarily because of what Islam is, but because of the way Islam separates them from the enemy “other.” The role religion plays in forming our identities over and against others is insidious and often unconscious, but under certain conditions, it can be deadly.

The spirit of scapegoating violence can easily hijack any religion, for religion can easily be abused. When we claim to have possession of the “Truth,” we can easily be roused to judgment and condemnation over others. Lest we think Islam is unique in this terrible regard, we need not look far into Christian history to see the cross presiding over Crusades, pograms and lynch mobs. Any religion can be twisted against its own teachings of humility and compassion, just as the mob in their ignorance twisted Islam.

True Islam

Farkhunda, on the other hand, represented true Islam – true submission to God – when she put herself at risk to expose economic and spiritual exploitation masquerading under the guise of piety. Angered at those who would take advantage of pilgrims and worshippers, she spoke out, most likely knowing that jeopardizing a business would put her at risk (yet probably unaware of just how much of a risk she was in fact taking).

In speaking out against such exploitive and superstitious practices, Farkhunda was not only following her conscience and her understanding of God’s will. She was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who received the revelation of Islam when he searched out a place of solitude and refuge to pray on behalf of the poor. He saw the corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable and knew intuitively that the true source of life could not be the tribal gods invoked on behalf of the rich against the poor. In a world in which the strong and rich were thought to be favored against the poor and weak, the intuition that God cares the poor could only be born of exceeding compassion. This compassion prepared Muhammad’s heart for the revelation of Allah as the One, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, God of all humanity, rich and poor, weak and strong alike. And this compassion lies at the heart of true Islam.

Faith that bolsters our own identities against others is deadly. Faith that leads us beyond ourselves to the God of mercy and compassion is life-giving.

The tragic irony of Farkhunda’s death, then, is not simply that she was killed while upholding Islam by fellow Muslims who mistakingly thought they were defending the faith. It is also that in their rush to defend Islam and their identity as Muslims, they distorted the faith of Islam, submitting not to the will of the God, but to the principal of accusation, the satan.

The Shape of True Justice

Yet the challenge for those of us looking on from outside the borders of Afghanistan and Islam is not to define ourselves over and against the mob, falling prey to the same spirit of scapegoating and hostility, but to take responsibility for our own role in the violence. Just as the mob destroyed an innocent life in their defense of Islam, distorting their faith in the process, our tax dollars fund the destruction of innocent life in the names of security and freedom, perverting both beyond recognition. In both Farkhunda’s murder and the wars we fight, greed wears a mask of righteous virtue. Just as bystanders allowed the mob to run rampant, we too often stand silently by and allow injustices perpetrated by policies carried out in our name. Our violence feeds a spirit of mistrust and hostility that can erupt in tragedies like Farkhunda’s murder. Then we see barbarity in the “others” and further define ourselves against them. The cycle of violence churns on.

True justice would seek not the destruction but the repentance of the violent. Calling for executions, while understandable, would only further erode compassion where it is needed the most. Reparations should be made not only to Farkhunda’s family, but to the nation of Afghanistan torn apart by war and corruption. Our hands are all stained with blood, and the more we identify ourselves as good over and against the brutal, barbarous “others,” the bloodier they get. The members of the mob have much to learn about compassion and women’s dignity in Islam (a subject worth exploring in full but beyond the scope of this article). We, in turn, must learn that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war,” acknowledge our destruction, and rededicate our time, talent and treasure from warmaking to peacemaking. For the sake of Farkhunda, for the sake of victims of violence everywhere, for the sake of ourselves and for God’s sake, we must all turn from our self-righteousness and submit to the will of the One who is Love, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.








Relaxing into Lent: Identity and those Voices in Your Head

"The Temptation of Christ" by Ary Scheffer

“The Temptation of Christ” by Ary Scheffer

The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.

In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships – I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.

I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.

Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”

If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.

Lent and Identity

“Who are you?”

That’s the identity question the devil used to tempt Jesus, and it’s the question Lent poses to us. The answer involves our relationships. Human identity is always formed in relationships. But here’s the important point: we can take responsibility to choose our relationships.

When confronted with the temptation to doubt his God given identity as his Father’s Son, Jesus kept his faith by emphasizing his relationship with his Father.

In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen states that the words God gave to Jesus at his baptism are the same words God gives to everyone. “[T]he words, ‘You are my Beloved’ revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not.”

God’s voice comes to everyone and declares that we are all God’s Beloved children. That’s a beautiful insight, but Nouwen also knew that, like Jesus, we hear other voices that tempt to doubt our relationship with God. Nouwen wrote:

Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.

We all hear those voices in our heads. Like they did with Jesus, those voices tempt us into doubting our relationship with the God who loves us unconditionally. They tempt us into relationships that are based on proving ourselves worthy of love.

Relaxing into Lent

Don’t believe those voices. Nothing is more un-Christian than having to prove we are worthy of being loved.

Instead, believe in God’s voice that says, “You are my beloved.” The journey of Lent leads us to the truth that we are already loved. Lent isn’t primarily about giving stuff up. Only give stuff up during Lent if it helps lead you to the truth that you are loved just as you are. The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial. The Christian journey isn’t about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor. The Christian journey, including the Lenten journey, is about relaxing into the truth that God only relates to us like a parent who unconditionally loves her child. As theologian James Alison says, the Christian journey is about relaxing “into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about. It’s about being loved.”

Angelina’s Mastectomy Scandal

On Tuesday, Angelina Jolie went public with the news that she had a preventative mastectomy and we can’t stop talking about her. Which is nothing new – talking about Angelina is an American pastime. We have opinions – strong opinions – about Brad and Jennifer and Billy Bob, about her international adoptions, her humanitarian causes and sometimes we even talk about her movies. We enjoy loving and hating her in equal measure. She is a role model and an inspiration – or a seductress, home-wrecker and self-serving bleeding heart. But it doesn’t matter which side of the great Angelina divide you inhabit, because Angelina lovers and haters are bound to her in the same way – as a focal point for identity.

Angelina Jolie, right, just announced that she had a preventative double mastectomy. Pictured here in 2001 with her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died in 2007 at 56 after nearly a decade with breast cancer. (Photo:  Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Angelina Jolie, right, in 2001 with her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died in 2007 at 56 after nearly a decade with breast cancer. (Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Okay, not the only focal point. But enthusiastic gossip and passionate opinions are signs that something powerful is happening at the level of identity. When you applaud Angelina as a good person or fine actress, you are literally identifying with her. By being her fan, you can help yourself to a serving of her identity, boosting your sense of being good and valuable.  Maybe you even get a tattoo or have your lips plumped or consider adoption or become involved with refugee campaigns. She helps you become “someone” – not as big a “someone” as Angelina, of course, but someone, nevertheless, who is Good like her.

The same effect happens in reverse. When you condemn Angelina, you get an identity boost. By distancing yourself from her wickedness, you affirm your own goodness. You refuse to wear vials of blood around your neck, have an affair with someone else’s husband, or fake caring about humanitarian causes to boost your popularity. Why? Because you are a good person! And you know you are good because you are not like Angelina. So you see, whether you are an Angelina fan or an Angelina hater, your sense of yourself as good is achieved, at least in part, in relationship with her. That’s what explains the pleasure we feel when she gives us something really meaty to gossip about. Nothing thrills more than a good scandal because it provides a booster shot to our insecure sense of goodness.

So when Angelina went public with her decision to have a mastectomy, what she called “My Medical Choice,” we couldn’t stop relating to her as a source of identity. Everyone is taking sides, as is our custom. Whether we applaud or condemn her decision, either way we are not seriously discussing the issue. Because when it comes to Angelina the celebrity, our major issue is always getting an identity boost from her. It was probably a bit naïve for her to think that we would react in any other way. She is not our friend, after all, not a “person” in any real sense. She is a “personage,” a distant but tantalizing figure who captures our imagination and invades our identities.

Many people are wondering if Angelina did the right thing. I’ve been asked it a few times in the last 24 hours and my family and friends know I don’t traffic in celebrity gossip very often! Yet they want to know what I think and because I have not been either an Angelina fan or a hater, my reaction is subdued. I have nothing to win or lose by praising her or by trashing her, for that matter. I don’t feel scandalized or in a position to judge. She made a personal decision and because she’s a personage she went public with it; it’s as simple as that.

But if you are a woman facing the difficult medical decision to have a preventative mastectomy, and you are wondering what to think about Angelina’s decision, here’s what I’d suggest:

  • If you are a fan or a detractor, please seek advice elsewhere because the impact of her revelation on you is too problematic. You may over-identify and think that what’s good for Angelina is good for you. Or you may rebel and insist that you would never do what Angelina did just because she did it. Either way, you are not thinking clearly about what is right for YOU.
  • If Angelina gossip doesn’t do anything for you, then you can take her experience as a data point. You will be able to detect some hints of Angelina’s personality in her letter: that the death of her mother was a terrible loss, that her children are more important to her than her own body, and that she is the type of person who cannot bear to feel out of control. You will be able to see that all those factors influenced her decision and that different issues will influence yours.

Facing difficult medical conditions is never easy. If we can see through our Angelina love/hate daze, perhaps we can hear her words of advice without it being tainted by her celebrity:

I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.

She recognizes that her choice is not for everyone. She hopes that all women at risk for breast or ovarian cancer get good advice and make their own informed choices. Not necessarily Angelina’s choices, but options that work for them. So do I, Angelina. So do we all.

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.

Who's Your Daddy? In Search of Identity

Who’s Your Daddy? In Search of Identity

It’s a long flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Atlanta, Georgia. About 16 hours. And I still wasn’t done. Another flight stared me down. And I stared right back. Confident that I could take the hour-and-a-half flight from Atlanta to Chicago, I boarded the plane and soon arrived home. Just in time for Father’s Day.

My wife and three children picked me up at O’Hare. I gotta say, there is nothing more fulfilling in this world than coming home to the embrace of my wife and children. As I opened the door to our van, my five year old looked at me. His eyes widened and he yelled,


I live for that word.

For me, there’s a huge difference between the word “Dad” and the word “Father.” I don’t identify myself a father. Father seems so distant, so stern, so rigid. It’s filled with authoritarian baggage. I’m not a father.
I’m a daddy.

During the last few weeks, I’ve discovered on a whole new level that we dad’s are dependent upon our children. Of course, fathers are dependent upon their children too, but fathers tend to hide their dependency under an armor of machismo. We dads know the futility of hiding our dependency. We are open about it. Not because we are weak or excessively sentimental, but because we are honest about the truth. Dads know something that few macho fathers know: we are dependent upon our children.

The opposite is obvious, of course. It’s easy to see how children are dependent upon their parents. For example, if a newborn baby is abandoned by its mother, it will soon die. As the baby grows into a child, it will remain dependent upon its parents for growth and identity formation.

But here’s the thing: As a dad, I know that my identity is dependent upon my children. It’s a simple, obvious truth that without my children, I couldn’t identify myself as a dad. In fact, this is so obvious, why even bring it up?

Because there is a nasty, ugly myth that permeates our culture. This pernicious myth blocks our way to finding our authentic selves. The myth is called individualism. It claims that human identity resides somewhere deep inside our individual selves. The mythical narrative runs like this: Each individual was born with a “Self.” In order to find your “Self” you need to look deep inside yourself. Keep looking and you will eventually find it. And once you have found your “Self” you have found the truth about your identity.

But identity doesn’t work that way. Your “Self” is only found when you look outside of yourself to other Selves. The only way to know thyself is to know thyself in relation to other selves. When we are open to this truth we discover that our identity is not fixed. It’s fluid. Identity is always being formed and shaped by our relationship to others.

I don’t want to glamorize being a dad. It’s hard work and it’s easy to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my children is about forgiveness. Children are quick to forgive the mistakes of a dad. Yes, yes. My five year old can throw a pretty serious temper-tantrum. Which brings out my inner 33 year old stern, macho father who throws his own serious temper-tantrum. But, five minutes later, while my inner father is still stewing, the boy has moved on in the spirit of forgiveness. Which helps me understand something important about my identity – I know myself as a dad who has been forgiven because my child has forgiven me. I understand the forgiveness of my children to be a transformative sign of God’s forgiveness. This, I believe, is in part what Jesus meant when he placed a child among his disciples and said the kingdom of God is like a child. The kingdom of God is like a child who quickly forgives.

We parents often try to form our children into our ideal image of what a child should be. I think we have it backwards. We should open ourselves up to being shaped into the forgiving image of our children.

Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Adam explores the connections between the Cat in the Hat, Jesus and chaos.

For more on Jesus’ challenge to religious rules that create “good” people and “bad” people, see Richard Beck’s wonderful book Unclean.

Click here for a link to purchase The Cat in the Hat.

For more in the Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Series, see:

Part 1: On Beyond Zebra and the Restoration of all Things

Part 2: The Lorax, the Prophets, and the iPad

Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Rats and All – A Sermon on Graffiti Artist Banksy, Masters, Slaves, and Talents

Rats and All[1]

A Sermon Delivered on November 13, 2011

At the First Congragional Church of Wilmette, UCC

By Daniel and Adam

Based on the Work of Banksy and Matthew 25:14-30

Adam – I’d like to start with a brief story.  There was once a Jewish man named Paul.  He was one of the first followers of Jesus.  One day Paul went to a place the Romans called Mars Hill.  Mars Hill was dedicated to the Roman god of war, named Mars, but it was a place where Romans would go to talk about philosophy and religion.  Most Jews would have found it extremely offensive because there were many Roman idols there, but not Paul.  Paul went straight to Mars Hill and found an idol dedicated to an “Unknown God.” He went on to tell the Romans about that statue and relate it to the God he saw in Jesus.  This story tells us that God shows up in unexpected, maybe even offensive places.

And that’s what Daniel and I want to explore this morning!

We would like to introduce you to a man named Banksy.  Has anyone heard of Banksy?

Daniel –  Banksy is a British graffiti artist who is becoming quite well known.  His art has graced the streets of London, Paris, Madrid, and other cities throughout Europe.  His art has been in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  Although Banksy has been all over the world, no one knows who he is.  His identity is a mystery. Few people know his name.  He’s done one interview, and the interviewer was sworn to secrecy.  Some people think his name is Robin Cunningham. Some people think that there is no one person named Banksy, but there are multiple people doing this.  This is the only picture we have of him. It’s a picture of him holding up a picture of himself with his face blurred.   Banksy is an enigma.

Adam – Daniel and I would like to show you some of Banksy’s work. It tends to be a bit silly and irreverent, but his work often carries a profound message.  Here’s a silly one. He has a thing for security cameras. It could be about his paranoia, or it could be a warning about “big brother.”

Daniel – Here. I don’t know if all of you can read this, but it is saying, “The key to making great art is all in the compositio.” You see, composition is all about getting things centered – and this isn’t centered.  And yes, I do realize that jokes aren’t funny when you have to explain them.

Adam – Banksy paints a lot of rats.  We’ll get to more of that theme later, but here’s some good rat art.  There’s a guy painting over this giant rat and the rat is about to cut the cord.

Daniel – In his book called “Wall and Piece” Banksy relates a story from his childhood. He says, “My sister threw away loads of my drawings when I was a kid and when I asked her where they were she shrugged and said, ‘Well it’s not like they’re ever gonna be hanging in the Louvre is it?’”  Here is a surveillance picture of Banksy hanging one of his paintings in the Louvre.  And here is the actual painting.

Adam – The fascinating thing is that Banky’s art is now being taken seriously.  For example, Banksy took this rock and drew on it.  He then hung it in the British Museum.  It is now in their permanent collection. I’m not really sure if they realize that instead of an authentic cave drawing, they got a sharpie. And people are buying his art for a significant amount of money.  Brad Pitt purchased one of his paintings for over a million dollars.  The next day, Banksy posted some graffiti on his website that said, “What kind of moron would spend that kind of money on my art?”  He has this kind of irreverent, self-deprecating humor about himself that is just hilarious.

Daniel –Banksy has some off the wall stuff out there, but he also has art that that takes a darker, more serious path.  He seizes the images of violence, alienation, and exploitation and transforms them into something benevolent and even harmless. For example, this is the cover of his book “Wall and Piece.”  It looks like the man is rioting and about to throw a rock.  But on the back of his book you see the full image, which is this. The man is not throwing a rock, but flowers.






Adam – And here’s an image from the very violent movie Pulp Fiction with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta.  No longer are they shooting guns; they’re shooting bananas.

Daniel – This one is on the West Bank Wall, separating Israel and Palestine.  He braved gun fire to pull this off.  But, it truly is a prophetic message saying that we don’t have to live this way.  The world can be a beautiful place.


Adam – Banksy asks a lot of questions through his art.  Here’s one. Are we teaching our children to love violence and war?

Daniel – The Broken Window Theory. This summarizes what “experts” call the downfall of society. To paraphrase, the broken window theory states that in a neighborhood such as Bristol (where banksy does much of his work) a vicious cycle can be started with a single act like breaking a window. People walk by, and thinking that it is acceptable in this sort of neighborhood, will continue the sequence of “disgraceful” acts with such things as graffiti, or street art. Passersby will look at this graffiti, and continue the vicious cycle now dubbed “the broken window theory”. In my opinion, this is not only ridiculous, but completely devoid of rational thought. I propose that street art is not evidence of society’s downfall, but it is actually the advancement of spirit. It symbolizes the forethought of man, and the ability to question authority without blindly following. To quote Banksy’s book, “People look at a Picasso, and admire the use of brushstrokes. People look at street art, and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access.”

Adam – Banksy’s art can also be very spiritual and religious.  Here we see a boy kneeling and praying after he has painted some graffiti.  The words say, “Forgive us our trespassing.” Banksy has a message he wants to voice, but he’s not entirely sure about the way he is doing it.  He is tresspassing on other people’s property. So, Banksy prays for forgiveness.  He seems to be having an internal struggle with what he’s doing.

Daniel – Here’s another rat. This theme actually has sort of a moral significance for Banksy.  He wrote in his book, “If you are dirty, insignificant, and unloved, then rats are your ultimate role model.”  Banksy uses the image of rats as a metaphor for those human beings that society pushes to the edges.  The ones society finds “worthless.”  And he tries to give them a voice.  He puts the images of rats in front of us, to symbolize those human beings that we find uncomfortable to be around.  He asks us, “Are there people in this world that we treat like rats?”  Banksy throws these messages in front of us and reminds us that they too, are part of our human family and should be treated with love.

Adam – Here’s another spiritual one. Banksy asks, “What have we done to the message of Jesus?  Have we commercialized it?  Do we think the way to fullness of life is through consumerism?  Or through Jesus.”

Daniel – So, who is Banksy?  Why does he do it?  What inspires his message?  Banksy is very deliberate in everything he does.  So why, in the picture he chooses to send out, does Banksy wear a cross?

Adam – Who knows?  But honestly, we’re all wondering, What on earth does this have to do with our Gospel passage this morning?

Daniel – Well, Adam, I’m glad you asked.  You see, Banksy is a mystery.  Our Gospel passage is a parable.  And, as Stephanie has been teaching us this year, parables are kind of enigmatic (like banksy) *wink, wink*.  They are mysterious and can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Adam – Ooo, Daniel, I like where you’re going with this.

Daniel – Adam.  I’m not done yet, so hold on.  In our study of this parable the last week, we discovered that the dominant modern interpretation is that God is the master.  This is okay and makes some sense, up until the point where the master calls the third slave worthless and sends him to “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Adam – Yeah.  The master treats the third slave like a worthless rat.  Hardly an image of God I’m comfortable with.  You know, I often wonder how the people who first listened to this parable might have understood it.

Daniel – Well, Adam, two things.  First, it doesn’t really matter what kind of God you are comfortable with.  What matters is the kind of God Jesus presents us with.

Adam – That’s true.  That’s true.

Daniel – And you are right, it’s important to think about how those who first heard it might have interpreted the message.  The master is interesting because he comes from another place, gives three people some money, and then leaves.  Now, according to Jesus, does God come and go like that?  The answer is no.  For Jesus, God is radically present with us.  God doesn’t abandon us.  God doesn’t leave us alone. God is always with us.

Adam – That’s a very good theological argument that the master isn’t God.  So, who is the master?

Daniel – Well, we do have some clues that come from first century economics.  The master comes from somewhere else and gives each slave some talents.  Now, back then, a talent wasn’t about someone’s natural ability.  A talent was a large sum of money.  One talent was 15 years worth of work.  So, the master gives the first slave 5 talents, or 75 years worth of work; the master gives the second slave 2 talents, or 30 years of work; and the third he gives 1 talent, or 15 years of work.  Now, who, in the first century, has that kind of money?

Adam – Rome?

Daniel – Yes!  Now, one could think that Rome was being very generous.  But notice that if the slaves don’t use the talents in the way Rome wants them to, there is going to be bad news. Rome will send someone to the outer darkness and to the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Adam – So, who are the slaves?

Daniel – Well, we don’t know for sure.  But the first slave could easily be King Herod, the political ruler of Israel.  He was good buddies with Rome.  Rome gave him a lot of money, and in return Herod did what Rome wanted him to do.

Adam – Fascinating.

Daniel – I know, right?  The second slave could easily be the religious elite – the chief priests.  They always had to walk a thin line between Rome, who supported them financially, and the people, who hated the Roman presence because it challenged their way of life.  It’s hard to tell who the third servant is, but we could say he symbolizes Jesus and his followers.  Rome did some good things for the poor.  They built roads, for example, not for the poor, but so the Roman military could travel on them easily to conquer more land.  Roads were an incidental good that Rome gave to Jesus and his followers.  Jesus would be saying in this passage to hide Rome’s goods.  That is, don’t harm Rome, but don’t help Rome either.

Adam – And you can also see that the third person symbolizes Jesus and his followers because at the end of Jesus’ life, Rome, along with Rome’s friends, sent him to the cross.  Rome did the same thing to most of his followers.  Now, the place where he was crucified was called Golgotha, which means “Place of the Skull.” The name matches the darkness of the place. It was a hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem where many were crucified.  So, now we have a different way of interpreting that difficult passage at the end of our parable.  Rome treated Jesus as a “worthless slave” and threw him into “outer darkness” where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which means a place of extreme suffering.  But Daniel, what does this all mean for us?

Daniel – Well, I think it’s important that we all think about that.  But for me, it means that God doesn’t abandon us.  And that God doesn’t treat us as worthless slaves or even rats, and God doesn’t send us to a place of suffering.  But, the spirit of Rome is all around us.  It is we who send one another to the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But Jesus offers another way.  And in Jesus parables, he invites us to choose between the kingdom of Rome, which sends people to “outer darkness,” and the kingdom of God, which is the way of love and compassion.  The Kingdom of God says we are all in this together, rats and all.

Adam – Wow, Daniel that’s deep.

Daniel – Yes. Yes it is.

Adam – Well, I think since Banksy and Jesus say that we’re all in this together, I think the only thing left for us to say is, Amen.

[1]Daniel first introduced me to Banksy and much of his thought on Banksy has inspired this sermon.  Subsequently, I discovered a sermon preached by Rob Bell titled, “Exalted in My Body,” which also explores Banksy’s work, and inspires some of this sermon.


Living As If

I have just returned from a two week trip abroad with my husband Keith. We travelled by air from Chicago to London to Milan to Messina, Sicily. Then we travelled by car to the port of Milazzo where we boarded a ferry boat for a two hour ride to Salina, a small Aeolian island in the Tyrrhenian sea. All this to attend the 2011 Colloquium on Violence and Religion, the international academic group devoted to exploring René Girard’s mimetic theory. Salina is a beautiful place more suited to leisurely afternoons on the beach and late night suppers with plenty of wine than a conference, but we mostly resisted temptation.

One thing I love about my involvement with mimetic theory is the chance to travel and meet people from around the world, who become, after years of conferences, your friends. Attendees came from Austria, Holland, France, England, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Japan, the U.S. and Italy, of course. You can imagine the cacophony of languages and accents, but thankfully the language of the conference is English. The biggest hurdle this year was that Italian time is a lot like Italian driving: schedules and rules are more of suggestions than anything binding. It was particularly fun to watch the Dutch rolling their eyes or overhear the Austrians tsk-tsking as sessions started late and ran long. Thankfully, there were no international incidents but all those border crossing, languages and cultural concepts of time got me thinking about differences. Especially since we came home on Friday, June 24, the day Governor Cuomo signed the gay marriage law in New York.

What is the difference between nationalities? Do folks really fall into the easy stereotypes I observed in Salina? And what is the difference between opposite or same-sex marriage? Are they different, or the same, only as the law says so? Human rights discussions always revolve around what stance to take toward difference. Do we tolerate differences, the live and let live approach, or do we try to evaluate differences so we can support the good ones and eradicate the bad ones? Maybe there are different differences, some we can live with and some we need to stamp out. My attitude toward differences comes from my engagement with mimetic theory – no surprise there. Mimetic theory focuses our attention on the way in which all of us use difference to know we are good. It’s an odd reality of identity formation, one that is almost completely unacknowledged, that we use others as foils in our sense of self-worth. It was easy to see in Salina: the on-time Dutch knew they were good because they weren’t the late Italians. As annoyed as they were about the lack of any real schedule, they were no doubt feeling a tiny bit self-satisfied by how much better they are at sticking to agendas than Italians. Luckily the consequences of an on-time identity are not all that extreme, but the difference issue in gay marriage has more serious consequences.

When we need someone to occupy a category of badness to know we are good, we all get locked into false identities. The so-called bad people, in this case the GLBT community, don’t have much choice but to hide or pretend they aren’t different at all if they want to avoid discrimination and hate. They can flamboyantly display their difference in an attempt to live outside of the majority’s disdain for them, but that is as false as hiding. And the only way for the good people to hold on to their goodness is by righteously denouncing everything gay. The insistence on difference between heterosexual and gay, leaves us with rigid and artificial categories: a (falsely) good majority, a silent and suffering underground, and a minority exaggerating the difference to prove a point. No room for change, no room for honest identities or true goodness to emerge.

What does true goodness do with difference? Often we labor under the false idea that if everyone were truly good all differences would vanish and we’d have this homogenized world with one language, one nationality, one way of dealing with time, one kind of sexuality. The irony is that exactly the opposite would occur. True goodness would support an explosion of difference. We can see how it works with gay marriage. Forcing gays underground creates an illusion of homogeneity. When true goodness takes hold, the diversity emerges in all its glory – gay, lesbian, bi, trans, whatever it is doesn’t matter at all anymore and so it can come out of the darkness into the light. The diversity will not be seen as a threat to anyone’s identity because goodness takes borderlines and incorporates them into itself. When differences lose their fascination, they take with them all our excuses to exclude, to hate, to destroy. What emerges is a world of difference and the possibility for peace.

These changes take place slowly but when the tipping point is reached, the change whisks through our lives with a speed that belies the preceding struggle. What can we do to help the change along? At the COV&R conference we were welcomed by Domenica Mazzu, Director of Centro Europeo di Studi su Mito E Simbolo. I don’t remember the details of her talk but  I wrote next to her name in the program: “Live as if – as if what is right is also what is real.” It might seem naïve, but I think living as if peace is possible now is what will make it happen. If we can live as if we don’t need someone to be wrong to know we are right, as if we don’t need someone to be bad to know we are good, then we are paving the way for peace. I think of it like rehearsing for a play – you sweat to memorize the lines and to deliver them at the right time from the right place on the stage and at first it’s stiff and labored. But the more you rehearse the more natural the words feel coming out of your mouth until you say them as if they are your own. That’s what living as if could make possible. We might begin to realize that difference isn’t something we need at all, but something that just is. Peace will arrive when we can say our lines from the heart: on time or late, gay or straight, it’s all good.