The God We Follow: An Unplanned Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Matthew Distefano’s original article published on Sojourners. That article can be found here. To summarize, that article suggested that God is revealed completely in Jesus as nonviolent and non-retributive. In order to understand those parts of the Bible that attribute vengeance to God, Matthew Distefano suggests we apply the hermeneutic — interpretive lens — of Jesus to scripture.

I did not plan on writing a second part, but one of my friends posed such a great question on Facebook that I had to offer a detailed response. Jim Rogers asked:

I really like this. How might you address it with those who reject the obvious extremes but still get muddled in the literal translations? I am working through this too. I try not to use extreme examples because many will reject such but can’t see their way out of the thorn patch.

To begin answering this question, I would have to take my examples from the global stage to the local one. Sure, we all recognize obvious religious extremes such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Steven Anderson, and entities like ISIS. However, what are not as obvious are the more restrained examples—the type of subtle violence that one might find in many churches across America.

It can come in the form of voting, campaign donations . . . you name it! Let us take a look.

Since I mentioned Leviticus 20:13 in Part 1, I will use the anti-homosexual “clobber” passage for the first portion of this piece as well.

For the Christian Right—especially here in the United States—this proof-texting favorite (as well as a few others) has dictated their politics vis-à-vis marriage laws. Because of this, the cultural move toward equality for the LGBT community has been painfully slow. Churches large and small continue to attempt to make the moral case for “biblical marriage.” In doing so, they seem to be violating a teaching from the Bible itself, namely Matthew 20. In a July 24, 2015 article, I commented on this:

Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be ‘great,’ they must be servants. (Matt. 20:25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on ‘biblical values’ not ‘lording over another’? In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

To vote away the right of another in the name of “biblical truth” does not seem compatible with being a leader who serves, as Luke 22:26 states. It is also a form of structural violence, one that does not allow the LGBT person the same civil rights as the heterosexual person.

It is more subtle but still oppressive.

It is as “simple” as a common vote, but its harm is far-reaching.

Just as far-reaching—or even greater—is when one’s hermeneutic directly impacts the foreign policy of a country with a military budget that trumps all others. The Christian Right—at one time spearheaded by President George W. Bush—was all too eager to go to war with Iraq after September 11, 2001. Bush was their guy—a conservative Evangelical who communed directly with God. The President even went so far as to say that God told him to “go and end the tyranny in Iraq.”

While I am confident that the Father of Jesus did not tell the President to go to war with Iraq, I am not so confident that most American Christians would agree with me.

I mean, the Bible clearly says…

  • “Now go and attack the Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”—1 Samuel 15:3
  • “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.”—Numbers 31:17
  • “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘the man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’”—Numbers 15:35

Jesus’ Abba said it, you believe it, and that settles it!?

Again, not so fast!

As I discussed in Part 1, the hermeneutics of Jesus are through the lens of mercy and grace. To exegete passages like the ones above—which is not the goal of this piece, so I will not be doing so—we would have to keep that in mind.

What my last goal is, however, is to display how Jesus’ hermeneutics then match his actions. Let us take a look at Matthew 26:53, where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, rhetorically asks:

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

The implied answer is “yes,” and yet, they stay at bay.

Then, there is what Jesus says in the midst of his own murder on a Roman cross. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, in doing only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 8:28, 12:49), offers mercy and grace.

And finally, even upon his return, Jesus comes with the word of peace—shalom. John 20:19 – 21 reads:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

So, all that being said—what could following Jesus in hermeneutics and in action do to change things on both a local scale as well as a global scale? What would foreign policy look like if supposed “Christian” nations like the United States followed the model displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death? What if those trying to get in the way of non-violence were rebuked a la Peter in Matthew 16:23? What if retribution was removed from the Divine both exegetically and anthropologically by Jesus? What if the church modeled that?

I believe that a literalist reading of Scripture—as well as a nuanced treatment of Jesus’ ethical teachings—without a doubt, leads to extremists. However, it also has led to a version of Christianity that justifies the use of national violence to get a certain result in the Middle East. It has led to structural violence that oppresses entire groups of people. It has led to many more unforeseen consequences, such as the improper treatment of women as well as the justification of slavery. What we believe about God and Scripture will dictate how we view ethics.

So, Jim (and others), I hope this begins to answer the excellent question you posed above. I hope I began to offer some examples of how a literalist reading of Scripture affects the very world around us. This hermeneutic should be traded in for the Jesus-centered one—biblical ethics interpreted through Jesus’ ethics.

Grace and peace be with you all.

Image: Free Vector From Pixabay

Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

The Day of Atonement and the Surprising Joy of Leviticus

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins tonight at sundown. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year and it’s full of joy.

The Christian view of Atonement is rarely understood in terms of joy. Instead, it’s often understood like this: You are a sinner and God is mad at you. But not just at you, God is angry at the whole human race. The infinitely holy God created a good world and humans screwed it up. Since Adam and Eve, we have offended God’s infinite holiness. We owe a massive debt to God. Because we are finite creatures, we can’t pay of the debt. Only an infinite payment would satisfy God’s anger. So, God decided to atone for human sin by sending his Son to us, as a fully human and fully divine person to take God’s wrath upon himself, thus saving those who believe in this theory of Atonement.

Many of us grew up with some version of that Atonement theory. It starts with guilt and sin and God’s anger. But that’s the wrong place to start.

Atonement has its roots in Judaism, specifically in the book of Leviticus and the Day of Atonement. Now, if you’ve ever tried to read the Bible all the way through, you likely made it past Genesis and Exodus. Then you came to Leviticus, which, to the modern Christian reader, is like a really bad b-grade slasher flick. Humans feel guilty about sin, so you sacrifice an animal here, poor some blood and guts out over there, eat some food, burn some stuff, and, voila, you no longer feel guilty.

But that’s a misreading of Leviticus. It’s important to realize that Leviticus and the Day of Atonement do not start with guilt. They start with joy. In other words, Atonement isn’t about our existential guilt and offering a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Rather, Atonement is about humans joyfully coming to God, who has already drawn near to us. Hebrew Bible scholar Samuel Balentine puts it like this in his commentary on Leviticus,

In an evocative reversal of expectations, Leviticus begins with an emphasis not on sin and its required atonement but on joy and its spontaneous expression through voluntary gifts. From a priestly perspective, the God who covenants with such a frail and faulty people still hopes and expects that joy, not guilt, will be the primary motivation for the worship Israel will offer. (Leviticus, 38)

Many people read Leviticus and think, “See, this is why the Bible is so archaic and backwards.” But surprisingly, Leviticus is a huge step forward in the human understanding of the divine – and we are still trying to catch up to Leviticus!

Indeed, Leviticus provides “an evocative reversal of expectations” about our relationship with God. It’s to be a relationship based on joy. How many Christians today start explaining Atonement with joy? Not very many. Atonement usually starts with the idea that humans screwed up, we’re all guilty, and we owe a debt to God.

But a proper understanding of Atonement doesn’t start with guilt; it starts with joy. God created the world and it was good. Indeed, it was very good, according to Genesis. God created bunnies and flowers and books and wine and butterflies and toasted cheese sandwiches.

I love toasted cheese sandwiches.

Yet, we also know that there is something wrong with the world. We know that conflict, rivalry, violence, economic injustice, and war threaten our existence. We also know that each of us has played a role in the problems of the world. The good news, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that God is working in the world to set things right and to set humans free from our sins.

God gives that freedom on the Day of Atonement. Back in the day, the ancient High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He would put on a white robe and a crown that had the Name of the Lord on it. The High Priest would become Yahweh and be given the title “Son of God.”

As Yahweh, the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer forgiveness to the people.  Atonement was about God entering into the world in the spirit of love to set people free and to restore the world. It had nothing to do with wrath. In his book Undergoing God, James Alison states,

The rite of atonement was about the Lord himself, the Creator, emerging from the Holy of Holies so as to set the people free from their impurities and sins and transgressions … it was actually God who was doing the work, it was God who was coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. And so it is YHWH who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow. (53)

The flow of creation is the flow of love. As Leviticus claims, the central ethical teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we stop loving our neighbors as ourselves, we fall into sin and stop the divine flow of creation.

For Christians, Jesus, our High Priest and the Son of God, enacted the high priestly tradition of Atonement on the cross and in the resurrection. The cross has often been used to make people feel guilty and promote a wrathful god, but the cross isn’t about God’s wrath. Nor should it be used to make people feel guilty. It should be used to spread divine joy. In line with Leviticus and the Day of Atonement, it’s about God coming to us in the spirit of forgiveness. As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

That spirit continued in the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus didn’t seek revenge against those who abandoned and betrayed him. Rather, he offered them peace.

From Leviticus, the Jewish High Priests, and Jesus, we learn that God isn’t full of wrath. Instead, God comes to us in the spirit of peace and forgiveness so that creation can continue to flow with God’s love.

That’s what Atonement is all about. And for that, we can be joyful.

Photo: Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

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Imagining On 9/11

Fourteen years after 9/11, what has really changed?

I know this day will forever be remembered as a turning point in American history. I consider it a turning point in my own life and in my faith journey. For many it is a landmark. But what has really changed?

I look back on this day as the beginning of our permanent state of war, but did 9/11 inaugurate war, or merely bring it out of the shadows? According to a popular meme, the United States has been at war for 93% of its existence, or 222 out of 239 years of existence. And while the link details the major conflicts on a year-by-year basis, it overlooks economic warfare, covert operations, and other methods of empire-building through manipulation and violence throughout the world. If anything, the years following 9/11 have changed the way I and others understand the world, but largely by exposing the foundation of violence on which our world is built.

As a nation, the United States responded to 9/11 initially with a show of unity that may have seemed refreshing (after the bitter partisan division of the most contentious election in our history), but which was really as old as the beginning of human culture itself — a unity over and against the evil enemy who harmed us. Even that “unity” excluded some as Muslims and anyone who “looked” like a Muslim received distrust and hostility. By and large, we placed faith in vengeance, veiling our violence under shrouds of nationalism and patriotism and even a well-meaning but ill-executed desire to protect. We rushed to war and have been at war ever since. And as noted, we weren’t really at peace before.

Our nation wishes to maintain its identity as the superpower of a world structured on violence by being at the forefront of the violent world order. Our military dwarfs that of every other nation. We are the world’s leading arms exporter. We have bases in over 70 countries around the world. 9/11 did not fundamentally change the way the United States operates; it did not change us from a nation usually at peace (as I had naively imagined before the towers fell) into a nation called to be the protectors of the world through righteous military might. 9/11 rather accelerated our rush toward global dominance, which will be the destruction of the world and ourselves as well if we continue this trajectory. It undeniably changed lives. But it did not change the world order.

A real change, a true inauguration of a new world order, came about 2000 years ago. A new humanity was born in Christ as he hung dying on the cross when he took the world’s violence into himself and refused to return vengeance. In his cry for forgiveness for a world blind to it’s own path of self-destruction, love triumphed over hate, and love was vindicated in the resurrection. Jesus fulfilled the purpose of humanity by radiating, in his life and non retaliatory death, the fullness of God, in whose image we are all created. When we let the truth of his death reveal the depths of our own violence, the light from the cross shines onto all victims of human warfare, scapegoating, and sacrifice across all times and places.  When we let his forgiveness into our hearts, we are blessed with a reorientation from self-preservation to outpouring love which heals us as well. A world structured on ever-expanding, out-reaching love, a security built on giving love, was inaugurated in the reconciliation  — through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ — of humanity to the Love in which we were created. The kingdom is coming. But it is not yet fully realized.

And while the slow leavening of God’s mercy works upon our hearts, the old world of violence spirals ever out of control toward destruction. This divided house we call our earth cannot stand as long as wars destroy people and land. The forces of 9/11, both the attacks and our retaliation, were controlled by the powers of fear and greed and hate, the powers of a fallen world order that has yet to be healed by the grace that will usher in the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Imagine if the tragedy of 9/11 had awakened us to suffering felt all over the world. Imagine if we had responded with not only forgiveness, but with a love for our enemies, a refusal to let any of the suffering we experienced be waged in our name. Imagine if the outpouring of compassion we showed to the victims of violence on our soil had been extended to those who held grievances against us. Imagine if we had responded to questions of “Why do they hate us?” with introspection and honesty, and striven to return hate with compassion. Imagine if we had let ourselves be moved by the Spirit of Love rather than revenge.

I have to imagine that it is not too late. I have to imagine what this world would look like and keep this vision in my mind as I strive to do my part when I pray “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” With all my heart, I know that God’s will for all people is abundant life, a world order built on Love. What does that world look like?

Jesus promises such a world. And as I try to imagine this kingdom of Love, I also remember the vision of one who imagined it 44 years ago. John Lennon’s vision of peace during another time when the world was in the throes of war is not what many would consider a “Christian” vision. I know he himself would not consider it such. Yet it is a vision of a world ordered around the principal of Love, guided, I believe, by the Spirit who opens all of our hearts to the Love whose depths are only just beginning to realize. I invite you to imagine with John and me.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there are no permanent divisions between “us” and “them.” If we can imagine an eternity in which all are together, none destined to eternal bliss apart from others destined to eternal damnation, can we not live into that world now?

I admit, I do not want to live in a world where above us there is only sky. My vision includes God. I don’t think John Lennon would say the same. But the word “God” in any language comes from a human culture built in violence. “God” throughout the ages has been seen as all-powerful in a world where power has long been synonymous with violence. A world built on Love has no room for this god, who is an idol. I believe in a God above us who is Love. This God is also below us, within us and beyond us. “Around us only Love” is a vision I think John would share, a vision Jesus is fulfilling.

Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine the fulfillment of Love here and now, no dreams of future rewards for us or vengeful fantasies of punishment for our enemies. Imagine never again hearing of the need to sacrifice today for tomorrow. Imagine finally realizing that violence can only make tomorrow more dangerous than today. Imagine reaching out in compassion to the needs of the world now, because now is all we have. Imagine the urgency and permanence of “Now” that is the fulfillment of Love everlasting, and begin to realize it now.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Imagine the artificial boundaries between humans falling away. Imagine labels vanishing. Imagine freedom to move, freedom to love, freedom to come to know and relate to everyone beyond the fears that keep us insulated and isolated. Imagine coming to understand violence that we have exercised against each other in the name of God for the evil that it is, renouncing it, embracing others, and in their embrace finding dimensions of God’s love that we never knew existed. Imagine.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

Imagine holding no material possessions over and above the people who need them. Imagine the desire to meet these needs for others surpassing our desire to hoard things for ourselves. Imagine letting gratitude for our abundance pour out of us in sharing with others. It is hard to imagine no possessions, but those who are fleeing violence and destroyed lands need no longer imagine leaving their possessions behind. Imagine responding to them by sharing our space, our wealth, our friendship — knowing that everything we have is a gift to be shared. Imagine all the people sharing all the world.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

I pray it may be so. In the name of Love, Amen.

Image: La plaque Imagine sur Strawberry Fields, à New York, en hommage à John Lennon. Photographie par Ramy Majouji. Available at Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 Generic license.


The Sky Is Falling! No Really, This Time It Is The End Of The World!

I grew up as a good Evangelical. I held to the doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, a fairly literal reading of Scripture, and the always terrifying—at least for me—rapture theology. I say it was terrifying for me because I assumed I would be one of the ones left behind. How could I not? As a youth, I cussed, got in scuffles at school and at home, and, if I may be perfectly frank, was all too curious to see the naked female body. This did not bode well should Jesus come back.

Fast-forward to today and the rapture does not seem as scary (I will get into why in the paragraphs to follow). However, those at the forefront of disseminating this theology to the masses are. Those the loudest seem insistent that judgment is coming soon to a “Christian” nation near you. Whether it is the 15th, 23rd, or 24th of September matters not[1]—people like John Hagee and Jonathan Cahn are convinced this is the end of the world as we know it.

God has had enough and the smiting is about to commence.

Before I discuss the rapture specifically, let me at least offer a concession. You may need to sit down for this. Hagee and Cahn may be correct. Something may happen this month. It may be bad. It may involve blood and death and mayhem. But, it will be due to our incessant use of retributive violence, propensity to scapegoat others, and our destruction of a planet the Hebrew writers describe as “very good.”

Let me be clear!

If something horrific happens in the coming month, it will be due to the violence that structures our “powers and principalities.”

That being said—and to the main point of this piece—is that this sort of apocalyptic doom Hagee and Cahn prophesy seem to always accompany a rapture theology. This rapture—whether prior, during, or after the “tribulation”—is primarily derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:15 – 17, which read:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.—NRSV

First, this is not teaching what the dispensationalists would have you believe. The Thessalonians are questioning where to find their hope. What happens to those who die prior to the coming of “his Son from heaven (1:10)”? Will they be seen again? Paul’s answer in 4:14 is “yes,” because “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Our hope not to be snatched away from this “evil earthly realm”—a fundamentally Gnostic belief by the way—but it resides in the bodily resurrection upon Christ’s return.

The second thing I want to point to is that Paul uses language and imagery his listeners would be familiar with. In verse 16, when he writes the phrase “with the sound of God’s trumpet,” he is referring to Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai with the Law. The reference to being “caught up in the clouds together” comes from Daniel 7:13 – 14, which reads:

13 I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This passage is about exoneration. N.T. Wright puts it as follows: “The image from Daniel [is] about the son of man ‘coming on clouds,’ that is, coming upward in vindication.” (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 100–101) In Girardian terms, Jesus is innocent victim—the scapegoated son of man who models what being the True Human is all about. He was sarcastically declared “king” on a Roman Cross, but “in the clouds”—that is to say where true authority comes from—is where his true kingship resides. What this passage is not about is some of us literally blasting off into the clouds to escape this hell-hole of a planet. We certainly do not find that here.

The final thing I will mention vis-à-vis to this passage in 1 Thessalonians is the use of the Greek word apantésis, or “to meet.” This “meeting,” in verse 17, refers to how the citizens of a town would greet a high-ranking official and usher him into the city. The citizens of heaven don’t head off to some remote part of the universe and party with Jesus; they greet him and bring him in for food and wine.

So, what is the second coming all about?

To quote N.T. Wright once more:

The point is that Jesus will reign on the earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him, like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem only now in full-blooded triumph, and escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty. (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 102)

I place a lot of emphasis on this in the final chapter of my forthcoming book, All Set Free. Our mindset, as followers of Christ, is not to view conflicts and wars as something that must happen in order to be “rescued by Jesus.” Sure, these conflicts have happened and continue to happen, but that fact is hardly to be used as some sort of proof of a correct eschatological worldview. The mindset to have is that we are to work diligently toward ushering in the kingdom of heaven—a kingdom where the bows of war are cut off and swords are beaten into plowshares. (See Zechariah 9:10 & Isaiah 2:4 respectively) We are well past due for these prophecies to start being fully fulfilled.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is a common prayer known by (hopefully) all Christians. However, it seems a bit paradoxical when contrasting it with a rapture theology. Bringing heaven to earth is rather difficult if the mainstream body of Christ is off dreaming of the day in which they can “leave this dreadful place.” Assuredly, that is not going to happen. And thank God, really! Once Jesus is recognized as “Lord of all”—once he is met and ushered into the city, so to speak—nobody will be able to help but “give praise to God” in the end (Romans 14:11). What an exciting—and more biblically sound—conclusion to the story!

O the depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!—Romans 11:33

[1] I have heard allusions to these dates as the specific dates in which judgment is coming.

Image: Public Domain via Pixabay


Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

Mimetic theory teaches us that we learn by imitation—whether you have studied the work of René Girard or not, you have probably noticed this. For example, when we teach, we not only use words to explain how to ride a bicycle, throw a ball, or do a push-up. More importantly, we model. We actually get on our bicycle, pick up a baseball, and drop to the ground and “give ‘em twenty.” Because of our mimetic nature, we also tend to embrace the belief systems of our parents and/or dominant culture.

My personal background is no different.

My parents had an Arminian theology and as such, told me that I had the “free choice” to accept Jesus Christ as my “Lord and Savior” or not. Of course, given the eternal consequences of an incorrect choice, I “freely” chose to be a Christian. However, even as a kid, in the back of my mind was this sickening feeling that others’ choice did not seem as free as mine did. Why was I so fortunate to be born into a Christian family? What if I had been born into a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu family? What would have been my eternal fate then? I would often think something similar to the following:

“Why am I afforded more detailed information about this eternal ultimatum than a Hindu or Muslim? How is this fair and how can people be held accountable for such a decision?”

Of course, all of this presupposes this “choice” actually being the correct one. Should those in the other faith traditions who believe in a similar “hell” be correct, why are they afforded more insight into the “choice” than I?

What seems even more unfair is that there are those who have been molested by those who claim to profess the love of God—whether Christian or otherwise. There are those who have put their faith in clergy, only to be violated in the most painful of ways. There are countless of individuals who have had to experience a version of Jesus that is actually anti-Christ. And this is the only Jesus they may ever meet! And yet, they are supposed to “freely choose” Jesus or face eternal condemnation?

When I meditate on these questions and those similar, I cannot help but have empathy. What if I were molested by a “follower” of Jesus? What if one of “God’s elect” raped me when I was younger? Would my eternal choice not, in some very large and distinct way, be affected by such a terrifying event?

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

Take a look at Genesis 4:9. After God asks Cain about his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain sarcastically snaps back at God and rhetorically asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, Cain did not believe himself to be the keeper of Abel, but the implied answer from God, should the Lord have answered, would have been “yes.” There is an implied oneness in this passage between Cain and Abel.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes such oneness when he writes: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9: 2 – 3)” For Paul, it makes no difference if another or himself is cut off from Christ. Both options would cause “unceasing grief” for him.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains our interconnectedness when he says what we do to the least of our kind, we do to Jesus himself. Because all things come into being through Jesus (John 1:3) and he thus, “enlightens every person” (1:9), Jesus is truly saying that what we do to our brothers and sisters—even the least of our fellow human—we are doing to the one we claim to worship.

We are all responsible for each other, because all humans came to being through him!

All people. Not some. All.

When we look at our eschatology, we need to have some empathy. Jesus sure did! That is one reason he brought peace. That is a part of why he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” He recognized that we have no idea what are doing to each other. We had no idea what we were doing to Jesus.

This ignorance runs through each and every one of us. Because of this, God shows all of us mercy (Romans 11:32). I must take the stance that I am responsible for my brothers and sisters, which, according to how I interpret things, includes everyone. Should one lost sheep perish (apollumi), to follow Christ is to desire to save even one. To follow Christ is to rejoice over finding the last lost sheep—those sinners who repent of their ways and choose the path of the non-violent Christ. I believe once every lost sheep is found, then and only then can “every tear be wiped from our faces.” (Revelation 21:4) As interconnected interdividuals, I simply cannot foresee any other way.

Image: Photo by monsternest via Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 


Religion As A Drug And The Authenticity Of Jesus


About a month and a half ago, Raven friend Michael Hardin, author of The Jesus Driven Life and director of Preaching Peace, asked me, among others, to contribute to a volume he is editing about religion and addiction. As an icebreaker, he shared with us essays in which he critiques destructive elements that he finds within particular Christian denominations, particularly Charismatic Christianity. Although I agreed, I was a little hesitant. While it is exciting to be invited to contribute, I am not especially familiar with the Charismatic Christianity that Michael critiques, nor have I been trained to help people cope with addiction from either a medical or a pastoral point of view. However, I have dealt with addictive tendencies of my own. What I write, therefore, is observation and analysis from my own experience, filtered through an understanding of human behavior guided by mimetic theory.

There may be certain denominations or practices of Christianity that encourage and nurture addictive behavior more than others. However, I wish to focus on another angle and discuss the ways in which anyone can be vulnerable to using a religious belief, practice, or community in an unhealthy or addictive manner. I look back on my life and recognize ways in which I have done this. When I am honest with myself, I also recognize a continuing vulnerability to the temptation to “use” faith in a way that falls short of God’s intention for this amazing gift. The gift of faith should help us to magnify the love of God and recognize that love in others, to form relationships in the image of God whose Triune essence is the ultimate relationship of Love. However, all good gifts can be abused, and sometimes faith can be twisted in our minds to assert ourselves above others, providing us with temporary gratification that ultimately leaves us hollow. “Corruptio optimi pessima;” the corruption of the best is the worst, and when faith becomes an instrument of self-gratification and ultimately scapegoating, one of God’s greatest gifts operates against its intended purpose. I think if we are all honest with ourselves, our faith is at best on a continuing journey toward the ideal, with the pitfalls of temptation to use it as a drug or a weapon continually before us. This is my story of stumbling into those pitfalls, climbing (or being lifted) out, and keeping my eyes open, that I may avoid stumbling again.

My Story

Addiction could be seen as a misplaced search for wholeness. I can look back on my adolescence and see times when I have used certain religious groups to fill what I perceived as voids in my life, to feel a sense of belonging and boost a shaky self-esteem.

I cannot attribute these voids to any tragedy or trauma; my childhood was pleasant and I am close to my family. Yet from my childhood I had a complicated relationship with “the Church,” both in the sense of the Body of Christ as a whole, and in the more immediate sense of my place of worship. My home church was a place where I felt safe and loved, among true friends. It was also, however, a place of anxiety, where I would wrestle with doubts and fears I didn’t dare fully articulate. I attribute my experience of the church as a source of comfort and confusion to being the daughter of a faithful Christian and a stark atheist.

I mimetically desired the conviction of faith I perceived in the people I knew from church, including my mother and grandmother and their friends. But my desire was mixed with more than a little fear. It wasn’t my church, much less my family, that taught me to fear a “wrathful God.” The myths I came to believe about a God who dispensed punishment on his own Son and a hell of eternal torment were not my church’s teachings, but they are so embedded in our culture that unless they are directly refuted, they may become internalized anyway. For me, living with a doubting daddy “outside” the boundaries of the Christian faith, absorbing his intellectual disconnects with stories of floating zoos and parting seas, men walking on water and divine mathematical equations that didn’t add up (1+1+1 = 1), I couldn’t help but be doubtful. And my doubt terrified me, and kept my heart as well as my mind from embracing the God who, on the one hand was Love, but on the other hand, was ready to cast my father, me, and countless others into a pit of eternal fire if we didn’t believe.

I think the commingling of deep-seeded fear with the palpable aching for genuine faith kept me from walking away from God. Yes, part of me was afraid to make a real break from religion, because of what I perceived God might do to me if God existed! But another part of me deeply yearned to fully embrace and be embraced by the love that I knew was there, because I saw it in my mother and my church. This is the context of my faith journey, and it is in this context that I can say that there were times when religion could, at times, be like a drug to me.

Looking back, I can see that I was always looking for belonging, for validation, and ultimately for a sense of unconditional love. I found that love from my family, but I questioned it in God, and my doubt was reflected in all kinds of anxieties. I struggled with my self-esteem, sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe, and sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just embrace unbelief. I don’t know how many of my social or emotional insecurities could be traced back to this self-doubt, but certainly some of them could. The various faith communities I tried to embrace in turn embraced as much of me as they could – as much as I would let them. But rather than express my full self, I tried to suffocate my doubts under obsessive behavior, behavior that might have been harmless, had I not been using it to try to hide my doubt from myself. I threw myself into Christian music, decorated my walls with Bible verses and hymn lyrics, and made a grand and futile effort to redefine myself to myself as well as hide my weakness (as I perceived my doubt to be) from the world. I must stress that it was not the faith communities that fueled my addictive behavior. Rather, my addictive behavior was fueled by fears that I absorbed and pieced together, in spite of the love that I now realize ultimately saved me.

I repressed my doubts and fears in order to feel a sense of belonging. I wondered, if I tried hard enough, would I find God? Would God find me worthy enough to bless me with faith? I developed my identity around being faithful, hoping to live into it someday. “Faking” would be the wrong word. The longing for God was very real, and everything I learned and thought and said came from a place of truth. But repressing my doubts and fears, from myself at times and also from my friends, stunted my relationships. Even so, in spite of doubts that hindered me, I made genuine connections. Looking back, I now understand that the God I was so desperately seeking was in those connections – with Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, everyone – the whole time.

When I finally found the courage to express my doubts and fears honestly, I was able to open myself to the love that had been waiting for me the whole time. I was blessed in my college years to find friends with whom I finally dared to be fully honest about joys and qualms I had within my meandering faith journey. The acceptance I received as I gradually let down my guard was a grace I slowly came to perceive. I found my anxiety fading as I relaxed into the love of my friends, and the theological questions that swam through my mind lost the baggage of fear that had long clung to them like a parasite. It was in finding myself loved that I began to understand the meaning of “God is Love,” and gradually trust that Love was holding onto me and surrounding me. My trust continues to grow and mature, and my love for Jesus is ever deepening, a reflection of his own love, magnified to me in the people who make me who I am.

The Authenticity of Jesus

 “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus tells us. The truth is that we are all deeply, truly, unconditionally loved, and understanding that truth is essential to being healthy and whole. Because love is a relational quality, we cannot be “whole” as isolated individuals. We are made in the image of the divine relationship of Love, the Trinity, designed to live in authentic relationship with one another. Addictions and addictive behaviors, I believe, are false paths to fulfillment that collapse us into ourselves and preclude authentic relationships in all of their messy, vulnerable complexity.

A faith community at its best can be a wonderful place to nurture authentic relationship, magnifying the love of God. But to repress fears and doubts to fit into such a community is to be disingenuous to one’s self and others, and stifle true relationship. If we truly seek to serve God and one-another in our faith communities, we must make sure we are contributing to an environment in which we are encouraging genuineness, accepting faults, listening to doubts, providing safe space for fears, and welcoming honesty. There is room for even the best churches to grow in this respect, helping those who go to church in search of belonging to recognize that such a search is joyfully unnecessary, because we already belong with God.

Of course, there are many faith communities that fall short of this vocation. There are churches that, whether unconsciously or deliberately, prey on the human desire for validation rather than preach that God’s unconditional grace is sufficient and universal. Churches that teach that God’s love is limited, erect boundaries between who is in and who is out, and effectively preach sacrifice over mercy, will inevitably mold some parishioners who either cling to a veneer of faith out of fear, or use faith as a source of pride over and against others. Both of these extremes are mirror-images of one-another, because both fear and self-righteousness inhibit intimate connection with God and neighbor. As in any other addiction, any sense of fulfillment in such an environment would be false.

When Paul instructs us to imitate the humility of Christ in his great hymn to the Philippians (ch 2, vs. 5 – 11), he is not giving us a formula for earning God’s approval. He is inviting us to consider Jesus Christ as a model not only of humility, but of confidence in the unconditional love of God that makes such humility possible. It was assurance of the love of God and a mission to share that love with the whole world that drove Jesus to “empty himself” and “become obedient unto death.” What drove Jesus to death was pushing the boundaries of what was considered to be God’s favor. Authorities and powers that thought God’s grace was bound to certain rules, certain people, and ultimately a certain sacrificial system, condemned Jesus for going beyond such boundaries. He embraced lepers and sinners and taught a love of enemies, drawing those on the margins into the circle of grace that some had thought to reserve for themselves. That is how Jesus emptied himself, forsaking the temptation to cling to human measurements of piety or prestige to embrace the marginalized. That is how he obeyed unto death the voice of Love. The consequence of such obedience was incurring the wrath of a humanity that had operated on exclusion and sacrifice. To defy a world order based on sacrifice, Jesus took a risk on the love of God. The resurrection was not only Jesus’ vindication, but the revelation of God’s love embracing the whole world, including those whom we would exclude.

Jesus’s assurance of God’s love allowed him to live authentically, free from searching for the validation of others. Rather than seeking identity in people or objects of obsession, Jesus knew himself in the love of his Father, in the love of the heavenly Father of all. To know ourselves to be in that love and to live it out in giving to others is to fulfill our vocations as image-bearers of God.

Jesus, indeed, is not a drug. Jesus is the true human and the perfect model of authenticity. Following Jesus is not “using” him; it is not seeking a euphoric experience to wash away loneliness. Following Jesus is about embracing the vulnerability necessary to be fully honest and fully open to others, embracing those who think themselves beyond the bounds of love, and receiving such an embrace when you feel beyond love yourself. Jesus is not a quick fix for our ailments but the Way of abundant life, because he models for us the freedom to embrace the love in which we are created. To follow him is not to “become high” but to undergo metanoia, to gradually relinquish the mythology of a world that compels us to seek our identities in objects and the approval of others, and compete for a limited share of prosperity. As we serve others and allow ourselves to be served, letting fear and pride fall away, the grip of such lies loosens its hold on us. The truth of Jesus, made known to us in our imitation of him, shows us that in relinquishing our fruitless searches – our addictions and obsessions – to the love of God, we find ourselves already found.

Image: Photo by Billy Hathorn. Available via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


The Bible Clearly States (What Exactly?)

The Bible can be used to justify just about anything. If you so choose, you can develop any sort of doctrine you want based on things “plainly” taught in the Bible. The one I am going to focus on in this article is the practice of sacrifice. For many Christians, a God who demands sacrifice is essential to the faith. Entire systems of theology are centered on this practice. So, let us take a look at this “plain teaching” from Scripture a little more closely.

The first mention of sacrifice is found in Genesis 4:3, which reads: “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” It is interesting to note that sacrifice is already presupposed, as there is yet (as of Genesis 4:3) to be any mention that God desires it. Regardless, because of this practice, competition for God’s favor—for the better sacrifice—leads directly to envy and death. This is how culture is created. It is how the writer of Genesis describes the founding of the first city (see Genesis 4:16 – 17).[1] The Greeks would later describe the principle that structured our civilizations as the logos. Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) said violence—“war and conflict” specifically—is “the father of all things.” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 13) Genesis 4 gives us strong hints as to how this principle is structured, with sacrifice a key ingredient in the process. The Book of Leviticus tells us just how complex sacrifice then became in the Jewish faith.

The Book of Leviticus, which is central to Judaism, begins with all the various ways in which sacrifice is to be performed. Chapter 1 is blood offerings. Chapter 2: grain. This goes on and on and is quite precise throughout. To those who look for “plain truths” in Scripture, nothing is plainer than the importance of the sacrificial system in the Jewish religion. What is interesting then, as things progress and move forward, is that you have prophets who begin to question the sacrificial apparatus. Jeremiah 7:22 – 23 states:

“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’” NRSV

If you are looking for a “plain teaching” vis-à-vis sacrifice, you are not going to get it at this point (short of adding the word “just” in v. 22; like the translators of the NIV did. Jeremiah 7:22, in the NIV, reads: “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just [emphasis mine] give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.”). For me, this question remains: Did Yahweh give Moses the commands regarding sacrifice or, as Jeremiah states, did he not?

Then, if you go to the Epistle to the Hebrews, you will again read that the Law requires blood in order for forgiveness to occur (Hebrews 9:22). Nobody should dispute that. However, if you continue on to Hebrews 10:5 – 7 (referencing the anti-sacrificial Psalm 40:6 – 8), you will discover that the sacrificial aspects of the Law were not something the Father ever desired—it was unpleasing even. (See also Amos 5:21 – 22 for God’s apparent disapproval of “festivals” and “burnt and grain offerings”) In fact, in verse 8, the writer goes so far to write: “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings (these are offered according to the law).” Even though such things are offered according to the Law, they were not desired by God. This passage seems right in line with that of Jeremiah 7:22. However, it still is not so plain, is it?

Now, the last thing I would like to leave you with is a comment on the death of Jesus. I do so because it is the presupposed belief in a God who demands sacrifice that leads most Western Christians to conclude the Father demanded his Son become “the perfect sacrifice.” Because of humanity’s sin—our fall—the Father must have his Son die in order to then offer forgiveness. This has many negative implications so I would like us to meditate on Jesus’ death and whom the sacrifice actually appeased.

On multiple occasions in the Book of Acts, it is “clearly stated” that we killed Jesus (2:23, 3:14 – 15, 4:10) but that the Father raised him from the dead (2:24, 3:15, 4:10). Andre Rabe puts it this way: “Man does the killing and God does the making alive!” (Rabe, Desire Found Me, 224)

It is ironic that it is John Calvin—a lawyer—who popularizes the Penal Substitution Atonement theory. Sure, it makes sense a lawyer would think of things in terms of the human justice system, but in light of all real-world evidence, is it not obvious humanity is 100% guilty of the murder? Is Jesus not betrayed by a human named Judas? Is he not handed over to the crowd’s desires by Pilate? Is he not flogged by men with clubs and whips? Is he not placed on the almighty Roman cross—the symbol of the power of empire? Of course he is.

If anything is clear, it is that humanity killed Jesus. What is not so clear is why. Most believe it is because his Father needed a perfect sacrifice, but the convincing reason for such a belief remains unclear. There are plenty of pro-sacrificial passages throughout, but, as René Girard says, it is not a “cut and dried thing.” (Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins, 141) There are also plenty of anti-sacrificial passages that seem to undermine the “pro” stance.

Surely, something as important as the Bible needs to be taken more seriously than simply giving it a “plain reading.” I hope Western Christianity (broadly speaking) can give up that hermeneutic, one that strips the spirit of the Scriptures of all life. The flat reading must be exchanged for the anti-vengeance, anti-sacrificial hermeneutic Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews used. I do not believe the “Bible clearly says” much, but I do believe Jesus clearly says to “follow him.” (Matthew 4:19, 16:24) We need to follow him in action and in hermeneutics—forever eliminating our sacrificial lens.

[1] This would be similar to the founding myth of Rome, where Romulus slays his brother Remus over the interpretation of an omen.

Image: Biblical mosaic scene: sacrifice of Lamb of God. Kykkos monastery, Cyprus. Copyright: Yulia Kuznetsova. Available via

The Girl and Emperor Palpatine.

My Daughter, the Star Wars Myth, and Jesus – How to Defeat Evil

I recently dropped my daughter off at her elementary school’s summer kindergarten program. When I opened the side door of our mini-van, the Girl* had a huge smile on her face as she held up a Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser.

I was a little shocked by the juxtaposition of my daughter and Darth Sidious – who is arguably the greatest fictional depiction of pure evil during the last 35 years. I was shocked partly because I have no idea where that Pez Dispenser came from. I didn’t buy it, but somehow it appeared in our van that day.

But I was also shocked because the Girl was all smiles and feeling a sense of joy as she held up this ugly sign of evil. Wookipedia states that Darth Sidious “was evil incarnate” and “the living incarnation of the dark side of the Force.”

I’m biased, but I think the Girl is adorable and all things good. And there she is, smiling and holding this symbol of “evil incarnate.”

In that moment, I think my daughter taught me something about defeating evil.

The Star Wars Myth

I grew up watching the original trilogy. Sometimes I would pretend to be sick on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t have to go to church. When I heard my parents start their car, I’d run to our living room and play a Star Wars movie on our VCR. (I know. I’m old.) Star Wars had a mythical, even religious, element for me.

I still love the Star Wars saga, but as I discovered mimetic theory, I began to see it with different eyes. Star Wars is based on a myth, a lie that tries to conceal the truth about violence. Now, there is moral nuance within Star Wars when it comes to violence. For example, after Luke defeats Darth Vader in Episode VI, he refuses to kill him. This act of nonviolence puts Luke in jeopardy as Darth Sidious nearly kills him with lightning bolts, but Luke’s act of nonviolent mercy converts Darth Vader to the “good guys.” Darth Vader then saves Luke by killing Darth Sidious.

That dramatic scene sums up the myth behind Star Wars. Walter Wink calls it the “myth of redemptive violence.” In his book, The Powers that Be, Wink describes the myth of redemptive violence as, “the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.”

When we are under the spell of the myth of redemptive violence, we think that our “good violence” will save us from our enemies “bad violence.” Thus, Darth Vader saves Luke with “good violence” by killing Darth Sidious. But if there is a truth that emerges from the Star Wars myth, it’s that “good violence” never actually solves the problem of evil; rather, it gives evil the oxygen it needs to spread. And so, even though the evil Darth Sidious was killed and Darth Vader converted, the truth is that Jedi violence never solves the problem of evil. Thus, we have three more movies coming out. (And I cannot wait!)

René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, points to the utter futility of violence in his book Battling to the End. Violence is futile because it functions to perpetuate itself. He claims that “it is impossible to eliminate violence through violence.” He goes on to give an apocalyptic warning, “Sooner or later, either humanity will renounce violence without sacrifice or it will destroy the planet.”

How to Defeat Evil

But if violence doesn’t work to defeat evil, what does? In holding the Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser, my daughter gives us a clue. The more we fight evil on its own violent terms, the more we become the very evil we attempt to defeat. But there are alternatives to defeating evil. What if we had posture towards evil that didn’t combat it with our own violence, or run away from it in fear, but gently held it in our hands?

Christians believe that Jesus definitively defeated the forces of evil. For Christians, faith is trusting that the way to defeat evil is the same way that Jesus defeated evil on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus was no Jedi. He didn’t use “good violence” to protect himself or others from the evil forces that converged against him. Nor did he run from evil. Rather, he defeated evil by entering into it, forgiving it on the cross, and offering peace to it in the resurrection.

Of course, many – even those who profess to follow him – think Jesus is absolutely crazy. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s true that following Jesus by responding to evil with nonviolent love is risky. After all, Christ was killed, as were his disciples. But fighting violence with violence is also risky and only perpetuates a mimetic cycle of violence.

The myth of redemptive violence still permeates our culture. We see it everywhere: In cartoons, movies, and politics. But the myth is losing its force as more people are seeing through its lies and realizing that violence can no longer defeat violence.

Although the forces of evil were defeated on the cross and in the resurrection, evil is obviously still present with us today. Unfortunately, many Christians have more faith in violence to defeat that evil than they do in Jesus Christ. But true Christian faith trusts that Jesus had it right.

The way to defeat evil is to nonviolently love our enemies as we love ourselves.

The way to defeat evil is to forgive it.

The way to defeat evil is to trust that God doesn’t defeat evil through violently taking life, but by restoring life.

*I don’t use the real names of my children on the blog, so I call them “The Girl,” “Boy 1,” and “Boy 2.”

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how many within “mainstream” Western Christianity believe the LGBT community—more specifically, the recent SCOTUS decision on marriage equality—is to blame for the imminent judgment on America. In this entry, I would like to mention how those in the Muslim faith appear to be included among those charged with causing the “fall of America.”

The hyperbolic rhetoric used to talk about over 1.6 billion Muslims is just as head-scratching as that which is used to describe the roughly 9 million LGBT Americans. Radio host Rick Wiles recently stated that “millions of Americans will die in one day in this country” at the hands of Muslim-Americans, whose only goal is “to slaughter the people who do not convert to Islam.” We hear statements like this over and over, predominantly by those on the Christian right. I do not wish to demonize those who make such claims, but what I do want to do is shed light on the fact that this is nothing more than extreme hyperbole. Sure, there are those for whom that statement would be true. However, as I will point out in the following paragraph, this is not the goal of the Muslim faith. Furthermore, a statement like Wiles’ is a double-edged sword. Given his logic, one could point to recent Lafayette shooter, John Russell Houser, who, in 2013 tweeted, “The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed [sic])” and conclude, “the goal of Christianity is to slaughter the people who do not accept Christ.” Both claims are nonsense.

The goal of any religion, broadly speaking, will depend upon how one interprets matters. Some religions have sacred texts. Some don’t agree on what is supposed to be “sacred text.” Some religions have varying views of God, or gods, if the case may be. The Muslim faith, then, is no different. Sure, on one extreme, is ISIS (and groups similar). They have a specific goal in mind, which involves radical violence. On the other hand, however, you have a group like the Sufi Muslims. One such Sufi is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, whom I mention in my forthcoming book, All Set Free. His understanding of Islam is beautifully summed up in the following:

Peace, unity, equality . . . when we are in one place, when we live in one place, eat in one place, sleep in one place, and when we finally join together in heaven in one place, that is unity. Even when we go to that (final) place, we all live together in freedom as one family, one group. In this world and in the next world we live together in freedom, as one family of peace. This is Islam. If we find this way of peace, this is Islam. – (Muhaiyaddeen, God’s Psychology, 218)

There should be no denying the plain truth that within various faiths, there are debates among adherents as to what constitutes “correct theology.” Just because a Christian makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs a “God-mandated” action, does not mean all Christians are in agreement. Likewise, just because a Muslim makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs an “Allah-mandated” action, does not mean all Muslims are in agreement either. (“Allah,” it must be noted, is an Arabic word simply meaning “the One God,” and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims). There seems to be a more accurate common denominator for the violence.

It does not matter if God is named YHWH or Allah, Zeus or Athena, if s/he is believed to be violent, then those who follow will likely be more tolerant of violence. In fact, in more extreme cases, followers of that god will eagerly engage in violence themselves. One problem with this belief is that when violence is justified—when an eye for an eye is how those religious interpretations operate for individuals and nations—they will, in reality, often ramp up the violence. (See the studies done by the University of Texas—sourced from Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, 142–43).

This leads to all manners of madness!

This also seems to be the case with the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

So, what is the answer to this conflict that seems to never end? Well, I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that question—do not engage in retributive violence. Or, directly in his words: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39).

Although the blame for the violence should be equally shared with all who engage in the violence, the supposed “Christian nation” should at least model what a Christ-like foreign policy looks like. Should it not? Yet, the United States seems to be right in the middle of the violence—not “set apart” from others who are involved. If leaders truly want the United States to be known as a “Christian nation,” should they not “turn the other cheek?” Should the United States not love those labeled “enemy?”

I realize the relationships between nations are not simple. But, shouldn’t nations who claim to desire peace not at least consider that one’s belief in God literally will be a matter of “peace” and “war?” If we can recognize there is a correlation between violence and our theology, shouldn’t we begin to take more seriously the idea that God is not violent? It seems that belief might then lead to more peaceful interactions between nations. I think there is enough experiential evidence that one’s faith dictates one’s ethics. We witness it over and over—history seemingly repeating herself ad infinitum.

One should not blame the entire Muslim faith in the same way one should not blame the entire Christian or Jewish faith for the violence and acts of terrorism. The common link between the violence is the belief in a violent God—one who vanquishes enemies and blesses those willing to die for the cause. At some point, someone is going to have to end the cycle of violence. My hope is that it will be those who claim to have the very model to do just that. Jesus had legions of angels to unleash on the Romans, yet he kept them at bay (Matthew 26:53). A “Christian nation” should follow suit.

Don’t we see where perpetual war has taken us?

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

Image Credit: Stock vector of world religions connected by international peace symbol. By casejustin via


Jonah, Ishmael, And Moby Dick: Finding Mercy in Melville’s Maritime Masterpiece

Avast! There Be Spoilers Ahead!

Aboard The Pequod

“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Herman Melville’s maritime masterpiece. So too began my journey aboard the Pequod as I set sail from the harbor of the Lookingglass Theater this past Sunday, swept away in their matinee performance of Moby Dick. The whole of the theater enveloped the audience in the eerie depths of the haunting tale, taking us into the bowels of the ship or the whale himself; it was impossible to distinguish which. The formidable sea came to life, and the brilliant cast lured the audience like a siren into the seafaring adventure. It was a faithful rendering of Melville’s classic, interpreted not only through masterful acting but also through fluid acrobatics conveying the motions of sailors on – and under – the sea. The play sails for another month before docking for good, and for those in the Chicago area, I highly recommend climbing aboard!

After the curtain call, I continued to plumb the transcendent depths of this nautical literary treasure as a panelist for the Reflect post-show discussion on religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. The fathoms of meaning beneath the myriad symbols of Biblical allusion are as deep as the ocean itself, and I can but faintly skim the surface in this article. However, I would here like to touch on themes of the human understanding of God, vengeance, and mercy by contrasting two Biblical outcasts alluded to in the novel and play: Jonah and Ishmael.

Jonah and Vengeance

 “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator extolls, implying that he has chosen such a name for himself. Ishmael calls to mind the outcast son of Abraham alone in the desert, and from the beginning our narrator expresses the loneliness of one with nothing to cling to and the freedom of one with nothing to lose. One might ask why he has chosen this Biblical outcast as his identity when a more obvious choice, for a seafarer, might be Jonah, who is cast out onto the open sea. Indeed, Biblical Jonah features prominently at the beginning of the story, but a look at his story in scripture reveals that there is another sailor aboard the Pequod who more closely identifies with this nautical prophet than does our narrator.

Before Ishmael sets sail, he ducks into the sailor’s chapel on Nantucket Island and hears Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah. In the sermon, God is depicted as a harsh taskmaster demanding obedience and chasing a foolish, sinful Jonah – who tried to escape his commandments and his wrath – to the ends of the earth! As Fr. Mapple says in his sermon:

But what is the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God – Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade.

So Fr. Mapple goes on to chastise fleeing, cowardly Jonah, upbraiding him as a miserable man “contemptible and worthy of all scorn.” In the process, he implies that God is vengeful, demanding the sacrifice of Jonah’s life for his disobedience and sending a storm to drown him and all who would come to his aid. Those aboard with Jonah only escape death when Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a great monster of the deep. Only when Jonah prays from within the belly of the whale does God’s heart soften, because, Fr. Mapple tells us, Jonah prays not for his life to be spared, but for his soul. “He feels that his dreadful punishment is just.”

I must take exception to many of Fr. Mapple’s implications in this sermon, starting with the notion that it does not matter what commandment God gave to Jonah, but only that Jonah disobeyed. It makes all the difference in the world that God called upon Jonah to deliver a word of warning to the people of Nineveh, and that Jonah fled not on account of God’s vengeance, but on account of his own. Even being delivered from the belly of the whale and experiencing salvation from his own doom could not soften Jonah’s heart toward his enemies, the Ninevites whom he despised. When they repent and are spared, Jonah cries out to God in rage:

O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4: 2-3)

The story of Jonah shows a transition in the understanding of God by the Hebrew people who told the story. On the one hand, God relentlessly pursues Jonah, and it is implied that God will destroy Nineveh – and Jonah too – if they do not repent. Yet a reading through the lens of mimetic theory shows that Nineveh was in a mimetic crisis, a crisis in which the people, lashing out to prove themselves over and against one another, were blending together in a frenzy of violence. While traditionally a crisis of violence is resolved by a sacrifice, in which the mutual hatred of the populace converges on an unfortunate and innocent scapegoat, this story is different. Jonah has already been sacrificed, cast out, and he comes to Nineveh with an exhortation of repentance, counseling of God’s mercy. Receiving the message, the Ninevites turn from their violence and the crisis is resolved without bloodshed. Although the scripture says that God “changes his mind” and does not visit wrath upon Nineveh, it is clear that Nineveh was on the brink of self-destruction without God’s wrath. Taking the trajectory begun in Jonah further, one can surmise that God never intended wrath toward the city, and sent Jonah to preach a message of repentance not so that God could forgive (for God’s forgiveness is free and unconditional), but so that the people could receive a change of heart and not destroy themselves.

The one who is cast out into the utter doom comes with a message of mercy. Could this be the “sign of Jonah” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 12 and Luke 11?

Fr. Mapple appears to miss this trajectory and overlook God’s mercy in his focus on God’s power and wrath. And this focus on God’s outrageous might and unquenchable fury — an understanding of God that is turned upside-down by the Gospels – still tends to dominate the minds of many people today, and appears to be the dominant view of God at the time of our tale. This dominant theology plays a subliminal role, I believe, in the psyches of our characters. Believing in a vengeful God can reinforce an engrained human propensity toward vengeance.

But even belief in a merciful God does not necessarily incline one toward mercy, especially if one is hellbent on running from that mercy to sustain one’s own merciless desires. Such was the case with Jonah, who fled not for the sake of God’s wrath, but for his own.

Who aboard the Pequod most resembled Jonah? Captain Ahab himself! Unrelenting, unrepenting Ahab, following his relentless bitter fury to the ends of the earth. In pursuit of the monstrous white whale Moby Dick, who devoured his leg and his pride upon his last voyage, Captain Ahab is ready to sacrifice not only himself, but all he holds dear. All traces of mercy, all tenderness and affection, Love itself, must be forsaken to his madness and rage. Like Jonah, Ahab fled from Love into the jaws of death, though unlike Jonah he was never delivered out. The white whale consumed Ahab long before the fatal battle that swallowed up his crew.

Ishmael and Mercy

Our narrator, by contrast, experiences the mercy of God in the most unexpected manner. The name Ishmael is apt, for Ishmael means “God hears.” God indeed hears Ishmael in his loneliness, and I would venture to suggest that Ishmael’s “salvation,” his deliverance from the dejection he apparently feels when he describes the restless state of mind that drove him to the sea, begins before he even climbs aboard the ship. God mercy comes to Ishmael in a form many might miss, yet Ishmael, attuned to God’s compassion, receives it as a blessing, even if unconsciously. For I believe that the mercy of God is made manifest to Ishmael in the person of his pagan friend, Queequeg.

Queequeg is described as a cannibal, one with whom Ishmael would probably not choose to associate but for a circumstance that brought them together in a most intimate manner just before they set sail together aboard the Pequod. Unable to find an empty room at any inn near the Nantucket harbor from which he would depart, Ishmael must share a room and bed with this strange stranger from a remote (fictional) island in the South Pacific sea. Dark skinned, tattooed, unbaptized and “savage,” Queequeg first frightens Ishmael, but soon proves not only innocuous, but kindhearted and eager for Ishmael’s friendship. (Their relationship, taken from the book but enhanced by the play, is one of the most delightful aspects of the performance.)

In a passage of the novel that will scandalize some but endear others, Ishmael explains how, to honor the will of God, he joined Queequeg in prayer to an idol, rationalizing thusly:

But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.

Many in Melville’s time and today might balk at Ishmael’s logic and accuse him of blasphemy for taking the Golden Rule too far. (Oh, the irony!) Yet through the lens of mimetic theory, it is clear that the idolatry most blasphemous to God is the worship of violence, the nurturing of enmity, the judgment of one human being over and against another. Ishmael’s intuitive recognition of God’s mercy helped him to discard the prejudices that had seeped into him through his culture and extend humility and grace to Queequeg, who mirrored it back to him. The mimetic logic of the Golden Rule is that, as we imitate one-another’s kindness, we reorient ourselves toward the all-embracing love of God and better magnify God’s image. So in humbling himself, though he knelt before a wooden idol, Ishmael offers true worship to God, cultivating a friendship with a fellow image-bearer of the Divine.

Ishmael recognizes Queequeg as a fellow bearer of God’s image, though many of his time, and even now, would not. I would even go so far as to say that if any character could be interpreted as a Christ figure, it would be Queequeg, salvation in an unlikely package, subverting all expectations of where God is to be found!

Queequeg even proves to be Ishmael’s salvation in a far more literal way. At one point in the novel, Queequeg falls ill, and, believing himself to be dying, has a coffin fashioned. He goes so far as to lie down in the coffin, but, recognizing he is needed, arises and shakes off his fever. In the end, it is Queequeg’s coffin, floating as a life buoy, to which Ishmael clings to escape from drowning! One might then say that Queequeg’s death (and the death of so many others) was a sacrifice that ultimately allowed Ishmael to live, since the life-vessel to which he clung was only big enough for one. And yet, like Jesus, it was not so much the death as the empty coffin itself that saved! Queequeg climbed out of his coffin, and the empty tomb became the saving grace of Ishmael! He lived not because Queequeg died, but because he lived, and their friendship saved him first from depression and then from death!


It would be easy to look at Moby Dick and see the wrath and abandonment of God. Yet as in the story of Jonah, the fury and vengeance of Moby Dick is human in origin, residing in Captain Ahab, “an ungodly, god-like man.” God-like was Ahab in terms of our perception of God – vengeful and formidable. Yet God subverts our expectations of vengeance with mercy, mercy personified in the most unlikely of persons, where those who have an exclusive, harsh perception of God would never think to look. Such it is with Jesus; such it is too with Queequeg. God comes to the cast out in the form of an outcast.

Jonah, sailing the seas to nurse his vengeance, is embodied by Ahab. Our narrator, the outcast who found mercy, is aptly called Ishmael. Jonah is the outcast who refuses to hear God; Ishmael is the outcast whom God hears.

Yet, one might ask, where is the mercy for the crew of the Pequod who fall pray to the heartless sea? It is a worthy question, and there may not be a satisfying answer. But as God’s love is stronger than death, I wish to conclude with the words of the Psalmist:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)

Image: Queequeg, from the playbill for the Lookingglass Theater production of Moby Dick.