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True Nature

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Dave Hernandez.

Living from a sense of identity means I can discover and live out the specifics of my life without feeling that I am in competition with anybody else. I celebrate when others find their place in the world alongside me.
This sense of identity is found through the self-emptying way of Christ (which is the way of the Trinity) and is then sustained as self-emptying becomes our lifestyle.

Remember, though: self-emptying also means that we must lend ourselves to an emptying of garbage and toxic thoughts we’ve believed about ourselves for a long time. We must confront and dismantle the lies, fear and shame that the self-elevating way of the Adamic Nature has taught us. It’s a long process of healing. There’s a lot of stripping away: it’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. Not only does it make one cry, but it also seems to never end!

Be encouraged, though! You don’t have to peel off every layer to begin to enjoy doing life well. You begin to recover your true nature early on in the process. The more peeling away of the old ‘self-elevating’ ways one experiences, the more of the ‘self-emptying Christ-like’ nature one regains.

Here are some of the things I’ve discovered about our true nature, things that I am slowly recovering as I pursue my authentic self in Christ.

Paul writes: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul is pointing out to the church of Galatia the elements that constitute their authentic nature: elements (or fruit) discovered and evidenced as the Spirit teaches us all about who we really are. Let me unpack them a little.

Love! 

I won’t say much about Love, not because it is irrelevant. Au contraire; it is such an important part of our true nature that one small paragraph will not suffice. I’ll simply say: Love is the nature of God. We are created in God’s image. We have been wired to love and be loved. It’s at the core of our true nature. We would all agree to that…

Joy! 

Joy comes from the awareness of our God-given, Christ-modeled identity. We are children of God. When I live in the awareness of this grace, joy naturally permeates my being. Guilt and condemnation are identity thieves designed to rob me of my joy. As I express my genuine character I display joy. I find that gladness increases as I discover how to live and protect the sense of who “I AM” in Christ!

Peace! 

I am designed to live in Shalom – Jesus is the Prince of Peace! Jesus said that the Shabbat was made for man: it means that my true nature is “productivity from a place of rest”. If I begin to strive, stress and show anxiety, I am living outside of my authentic self. This is useful to know. As soon as my inner peace – as well as my joy – is violated it’s because identity thieves are pressuring me, from within or without, to step out of the Christ-like identity into the old self-elevating Adamic pseudo-me! I won’t give in! If the pressure is internal, I will seek its source and ask for healing. If it’s external, I identify its origin and establish appropriate boundaries.

Patience!

Patience is, in my experience, and in the context of this post relating to identity, the outcome of knowing who I am. Why? Because I don’t need to prove who I am to anybody. In that knowledge, I don’t succumb to the pressures to demonstrate, coerce, force or manipulate desired outcomes – which, in my opinion, are at the heart of impatience.

Kindness, Goodness and Gentleness! 

And let me add Generosity… They are all part of my original nature. I know that because when I demonstrate these ‘attributes’ a sense of deep joy and satisfaction fill my heart. Jesus says so himself: “there’s more joy to give than to receive!” It’s true that identity thieves have robbed me of this capacity in many ways. Past hurts caused me to shut off the river of kindness. I wasn’t equipped to protect myself then so I closed myself down. Rediscovering my ability to be genuinely kind, gentle and generous is liberating. I must admit, though, showing these traits to certain people makes me feel awkward, as if I’m disclosing something I don’t want them to see – I feel a little vulnerable. The truth is, acting in stinginess and withholding my kindness is a sign I’ve lost sight of my authentic self! Sometimes I need to do some deep digging to unclog these wells.

Self-Control! 

The original word in the Greek means, “true mastery from within!” I am learning this ‘mastery’ and I’m excited about it. I am finding how my emotions are great allies but bad masters. Emotions speak to me and reveal to me internal and external pressures. Emotions are an integral part of our original make-up. Unfortunately, we’ve given them the power, through fear mainly, to control our actions, decisions, attitudes and behaviours. I find that as I recover the original purpose of emotions, that is, to warn me of what’s happening around me; to increase my awareness of what’s transpiring in my internal world and the world around me; I can master my reactions. This awareness is embedded in my true nature.

I will be honest with you. Do I succumb to the temptations and pressures of self-elevation? Sometimes! Am I living 100% according to my authentic nature and self? Not yet! Are there layers that still need peeling away? Obviously! Is living this way worth it? Absolutely!

Dave HernandezDave Hernandez is an author, speaker and blogger. He has been a student, preacher and teacher of the Bible for 30 years. Dave is married to Laurence and has two sons. He is a lover of all cultural expressions.

 This article first appeared on Daves personal blog You can access the blog via: http://www.iamsonofgod.net/blog.html and http://iamsonofgod.blogspot.com/

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

 

 

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Fireproof Your Identity!

 

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Dave Hernandez.

I’ve shared a few thoughts about ‘identity’ on this blog, obviously because that’s one of the main ideas of my book “I AM! The Blueprint of Humanity!” But what do I mean by “identity”? Ideas about ‘identity’ are tossed about quite frequently and offered in many different variations. And often times people’s understanding of ‘identity’ do not exactly coincide with mine. Hence today’s post purposed to clarify the concept.

So what do I mean when I use the word ‘identity’?

It’s obviously a sense of understanding “who I am”: most of us would agree with that. It also encompasses ideas such as self-esteem and self-worth, confidence and assurance. In that we all concur. So where’s the divergence?

It’s in this: the majority of us seek identity through ‘self-elevation’!

‘Self-elevation’ is about making a name (identity) for myself by myself. There is a deep need for recognition or ‘identity’ in all of us and we seek to fulfill that need through our own efforts.

‘Self-elevation’ uses things such as ‘talents’, ‘achievements’, ‘abilities’, ‘appearances’, ‘possessions’ and most above all ‘the things I do’ to create a sense of identity.

We seek to satisfy the identity quest by positioning ourselves above the crowd in one-way or another. We create our status: our identity. The problem is that we revert to mimicking what the crowd has and does in order to be ‘accepted’ and we try to do ‘better’ and ‘greater’ things than others in order to find our unique place. It gives us a sense of identity. But, it engenders all sorts of competitions leading to jealousies, criticism and rivalries. We use our ‘talents’, ‘abilities’, ‘belongings’, the number of Facebook friends, people we know who are considered high achievers, … etc., to make a point: “I have what it takes to be somebody of a certain stature above the crowd!”

It’s what happened to Adam and Eve. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil leads to death. ‘Tree-of-Self-Significance’ is the subtitled English name you can give to the tree. It led to jealousies, broken relationships, and murder: read the story of Cain and Abel to start with.

There’s another problem. What happens when you lose your status? If your identity is in what you do, what happens when you can’t do those things anymore? If your identity is in what you have, what happens when you lose those things? Will you become depressed, suicidal, or will your loss express itself in anger and frustration? Think about it and answer the question honestly!

Identity must come from something or someplace deeper than what we do or possess. It must find a deeper source than position and status in society we create for ourselves.

I am not against possessing, achieving, doing, and position. I am simply flagging the fact that these things can be lost and therefore can’t become the foundation of our identity. A person with a true sense of identity will not change when their circumstances in life vary. This person will not lose their ‘self-confidence’ when they can’t prove their value because they’ve been demoted, or cannot be counted among the wealthy, or whatever the change in conditions.

Paul explains to the church in Corinth that “if any man builds (his identity) on the foundation (of Jesus Christ) with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work (1Corinthians 3:12-13 NASB)”.

‘Identity’ and ‘value’ go hand in hand. But one’s sense of value and worth cannot come from anything that can be taken away: burnt in the fire. The intrinsic value that makes me “who I am” cannot come from anything that can lose its value in the first place. A job can be lost; money can vanish; abilities can fade away; people with greater talents can show up on the scene; and you can be demoted and rejected! Anything external to me, that can be removed from me, must not become the basis upon which my identity is formed! The things you use to build your sense of identity will be tested by fire.

Gold, silver and precious stones won’t lose their value when the test comes – and believe me everybody faces the fire!

Identity that cannot be destroyed is built on things that will never lose their value even when you find yourself losing everything this world values. What are those things?

I would point out three valuable truths that affirm my sense of identity:

  1. I am a Child of God and the Trinity’s love for me is based on that fact alone (not on what I do for them!);
  2. I am a Free-Moral-Agent and my decisions belong to me;
  3. I am the incarnation of God’s thoughts, plans and emotions for me in physical form.

These three ‘pillars’ are the gold, silver and precious stones that will not burn away in the furnace of life. It is once I have a firm understanding of these three things that a true sense of identity is formed in me.

I’ve seen too many people caught up in their doing and success stories, their works for God, even the miraculous works they claim for themselves as if their anointing is better than someone else’s… all trying to affirm their identity and yet they are so off the mark: that, perhaps, is the worst kind of sin!

The only way to identity is through ‘self-emptying’: you must stop trying so damn hard, just give up and surrender, lay low and become a nobody, a servant, a child… then you will find yourself in possession of everything that money cannot buy: security in the knowledge of who you are found in the only authority who can affirm your identity: God!

 

Dave HernandezDave Hernandez is an author, speaker and blogger. He has been a student, preacher and teacher of the Bible for 30 years. Dave is married to Laurence and has two sons. He is a lover of all cultural expressions.

 This article first appeared on Daves personal blog You can access the blog via: http://www.iamsonofgod.net/blog.html and http://iamsonofgod.blogspot.com/.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in theguidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

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The Beatitudes Of Identity

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Dave Hernandez.

Nobody likes persecutions, trials and tribulations, but we all have to face them in one form or another. Afflictions come in various forms, but none hurt more than when you become the object of a person’s or people’s wrath.

Jesus was accustomed to persecutions and emotionally ready for them. He knew Judas would betray him. He was prepared for what was coming and makes a powerful statement: “No one has taken it (my life) away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative (John 10:18)”. Jesus is saying, “nobody will do anything to me without my permission – I’m in control of who I am and every aspect of my life!”

Why could Jesus say that? Without a doubt, Jesus had an unshakeable understanding of identity (“I know who I am!”) coupled with a firm grasp of purpose (“I know what I am here for!”). He had total authority over his life. Therefore, people could only access him and do things to him with his permission: including betrayal and crucifixion.

I believe identity is the great treasure Jesus talks about in his parables, it’s “that which was lost”; the ‘salt’ that seasons the world; the word of truth that sanctifies us (we are all sanctified into our own sense of identity); it’s the gem we recover in Christ. We need to disciple our people, our children and the nations of the world into the recovery of their God-given identities!

The following thoughts are lessons and observations I’ve gathered about identity:

1.Everybody seeks identity! We either seek it through ‘self-elevation’ (the tree of knowledge of good and evil), which leads to jealousies, conflict, wars and death, OR we find it through ‘self-emptying’, which leads to inner peace, honour, love and life (tree of life). ‘Self-elevation’ is never satisfied; never finds peace; and never produces identity. Instead it produces ‘pseudo’ or ‘false-identities’ based on ‘doing’, ‘self-preservation’ and ‘self-promotion’. ‘Self-emptying’ leads to a true sense of identity and allows us to operate from a place of peace, never under threat nor coercion. True Identity gives everybody around you the freedom to be: to operate from their “I AM”. A person who possesses this sense of identity enjoys deep inner peace and harmony.

2. I get my sense of Identity from Christ. Imitating him and making him the object of my affections and desires is healthy. There’s enough of Christ for all of us to peacefully find our true selves! That’s great news!

3. A real sense of Identity is the only way one can escape the mimetic (need to mimic/imitate what everybody else wants and is doing) pressures of ‘fallen’ human nature. It’s simple to understand why: If I am seeking identity through ‘self-elevation’, I will do so by desiring to possess what others have. If I possess ‘identity’ I am set free from the need to ‘take’ what belongs to others; including doing what everybody else is doing.

4. People who possess a strong sense of identity are at peace with themselves and are well positioned to broker peace in their respective worlds when conflicts arise. People with little or no sense of identity have little or no inner peace, which leads to an inability to create and sustain peace.

5. Conflict will always begin with people who lack a sense of identity. And, of course, conflicts are fuelled by insecure (‘identity-less’) people responding to ‘identity-less’ opponents, all seeking to affirm their ‘pseudo-identities’. A person who is well established in their own identity will know how to put the fire out, or at least to walk away from the conflict.

6. Identity is a treasure of immense value; it is greatly sought after by all. It’s probably the greatest possession of all: well above wealth and power. The person who possesses identity, in a community of individuals who strongly desire but lack identity, will become the object of persecution. That’s inevitable. The ‘crowd’ will be jealous of your treasure. They will want to ‘pull’ you down, and if unsuccessful they’ll try to discredit you.

7. The person who feels secure in his or her identity will walk away from ‘persecution’ unharmed. Why? Because their sense of identity is not affirmed by others! It is a gift they’ve discovered in themselves as offered to them by the One who created them in the first place. I find the sense of who “I AM” in the “Great I AM!”

8. Healthy families, communities and organisations will value building up people into their identities above every other aspect of their mission.

I believe that Jesus’ Beatitudes are about the blessings of discovering our true identities!

Here’s my ‘paraphrased’ version of Matthew 5:3-11. Compare it with your preferred version of the Bible. I hope you’ll see it.

3″When you’re at the end of your ‘self-elevating’ way of living, God’s ‘self-emptying’ rule will inevitably unveil to you your God-given identity!
4″When you’ve removed, thrown out and grieved the old garments that upheld your ‘pseudo-identities’, you will be blessed with the Father’s comforting embrace, clothing you with Sonship from which you draw your true identity!”
5″You’re blessed when, through the process of ‘self-emptying’, you embrace your true identity; that’s how you come into your inheritance.
6″Your righteous identity is in Jesus and his Abba, hunger and thirst to commune with them and you’ll be satisfied in all your desires!”
7″It’s from a place of true identity that compassion and mercy will flow because all your emotional needs have been satisfied.”
8″When you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right, your true identity will become self-evident. Your perspective on life will change for the better. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
9″You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s because you’ve discovered who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
10″When you’ve found your identity in your commitment to God it will provoke persecution from ‘identity-less’ people. The persecution will drive you even deeper into God’s Kingdom.
11″Count yourself blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you… It means that you’ve found your reward in me: you can declare, “I have found who ‘I AM’ in the ‘I AM’ of Life!”

(Some of the above verses have remained largely unchanged from the Message version).

 

Dave HernandezDave Hernandez is an author, speaker and blogger. He has been a student, preacher and teacher of the Bible for 30 years. Dave is married to Laurence and has two sons. He is a lover of all cultural expressions. This article first appeared on Daves personal blog You can access the blog via:http://www.iamsonofgod.net/blog.html and http://iamsonofgod.blogspot.com/

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in theguidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

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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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

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,

“Daddy!”

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