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heaven and hell

Satan on the Throne: A Parable about Heaven and Hell

You have lived a long and faithful life. You have done your best to follow Jesus in working for justice. Most importantly, you have just learned that faith isn’t so much something you try really hard to have, but is something you relax into. Faith, you have discovered, is relaxing into the love that God has for you, and sharing that love with those you meet.

Now you find yourself here, on the other side. You walk on clouds, which are softer than any pillows you ever felt on earth. You walk toward the Pearly Gates and you see St. Peter. He looks at you and then down at the “Book of Life.” Peter nods his head and with a warm, gentle smile, he calls you by name. “Welcome to Heaven,” he says. “You are a Good One. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Peter,” you reply as you gaze through the gates. You’ve never thought of yourself as particularly good, but you’re flattered by the complement. You see streets of gold, large buildings, and a beautiful garden in the middle of the city. People smile and laugh. This is Heaven. It’s the happiest place you’ve ever seen.

Another man approaches. He has a long white beard and walks with a staff. “This is Moses,” Peter says. “He will take you where you need to go.”

With Moses as your guide, you walk through the city to its center. Moses is friendly and enjoys hearing about your life. You take a minute to close your eyes and breathe deeply. You let the wonders of Heaven enter your body. As you open your eyes, you notice that everyone is strikingly beautiful. The streets, paved in gold, are surrounded by the finest restaurants you’ve ever seen. People are eating rich, succulent food, smiling and laughing as they enjoy their dinner. And then you start to notice something strange that makes you feel a bit uneasy.

When the customers at the restaurant are done eating, they give credit cards to the wait staff in exchange for their services. You think it’s odd that people have to pay for food in Heaven. But you feel even more troubled as you notice that the wait staff has a darker skin complexion than the customers. And as you continue to walk with Moses, you notice, off in the distance, beyond the city gates, a group of the same darker skinned people making bricks and carrying them to the entrance of the city gate. It is clearly hard and backbreaking work. Moses tells you that the Holy One wants a new and bigger temple.

As you try to make sense of this experience, Moses suddenly stops in front of the temple. He interrupts your thoughts and says, “We’re here. You will meet the Holy One inside. He’s been expecting you. Enter through this door and follow the river. You will find the Throne Room. There will be Saints singing. Boldly walk through the Throne Room. He wants to see you.”

A sense of fear comes over you. Moses intuits your trepidation and says, “Remember what our friend John said in one of his letters, perfect love casts out fear. The Holy One is for you. You are one of the Good Ones. You belong here and you have nothing to fear. Now go!”

You follow the river, just as Moses instructed. You hear the Saints singing. It’s faint at first, but as you continue following the river their voices become louder. It’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard. You come to the door of the Throne Room. As you put your hand on the doorknob, you remind yourself that “Perfect love casts out fear.” You boldly walk through the doorway.

The singing stops and the Saints look directly at you as you walk toward the Throne. The Holy One calls you by name. Love bubbles up inside of you. He sits on the Throne, looking like a Lion. “Come forward, Good One.” His deep voice reverberates across the Throne Room.

“Welcome to Heaven, my good and faithful servant. You have shown yourself to be one of the Good People of the Earth. You fought for justice. You deserve to be here. Unlike them!

The Holy One points to His left. Suddenly a portal that leads to Hell emerges. You look through it and see what appears to be people suffering eternal conscious torment.

“They are the Evil People of Earth,” the Holy One continues. “They get all the punishment that they deserve! And you should know this: The fuel of Heaven comes from the fires of Hell. And what fuels the fires of Hell? Those Evil People! We need them to suffer so that we may live in the joyful magnificence that we call Heaven!”

You take a step back. “Wait a minute,” you think to yourself. “This isn’t right. This isn’t just. This isn’t how Heaven is supposed to be.”

The Holy One scowls at you. “Your thoughts betray you,” He bellows. “Maybe you would like to join them,” He says with a sinister smile. “The choice is yours. You can stay here for eternity and enjoy the richness Heaven offers, or you can throw Heaven away and join them in suffering eternal conscious torment in Hell! Choose wisely. Your eternal soul hangs in the balance!”

You stand there, sensing the thousands of eyes from the Saints that are piercing through you. The pressure is almost too much for you to stand, but then you remember to relax – that whoever God is, God loves you and all people. You know, deep down in your bones, that you can’t stay here. If Heaven is like this, then you don’t want any part of it. You’ve made your choice. You will join the Evil Ones in Hell.

“You fool! Go then!” bellows the Holy One as He points to portal for Hell. “You don’t deserve to be here! Join the Evil Ones suffering eternal conscious torment!”

The Saints who were singing now taunt you as you walk toward the portal. Before stepping through, you take a deep breath. “Perfect love casts out fear,” you say to yourself as you put one foot through and then the next.

It is dark on the other side, but in the distance you see something that looks like a Lamb walking towards you, along with a man with wounds on his feet, hands, and side. “Welcome to Heaven,” the man says. “My name is Jesus. This is my Father,” he says as he points to the Lamb. A woman suddenly emerges beside them. But you notice that she’s more than just beside them. She’s around them and through them. It’s as if she’s connecting the three of them together. “And this is Sophia, the Holy Spirit. We are happy to see you.”

“The Trinity?” you think to yourself. “How could this be?” But at the moment you feel a bit silly asking theological questions. Besides, you always thought the doctrine of the Trinity was a bit irrelevant. So, you point to the portal and blurt out, “But I thought Heaven was back there.”

“Oh. That wasn’t Heaven,” the Lamb replies. “This is Heaven.”

“But what about the people suffering here, in eternal conscious torment?” you ask.

“Ahh, eternal conscious torment,” Sophia sighs, shaking her head. “It’s one of Satan’s tricks. It doesn’t exist. It’s a myth meant to make us look like we are involved in scapegoating. That myth justifies human scapegoating and blames us for it. We have nothing to do with it. We desire merciful love, not sacrificial scapegoating. Nobody here is suffering, but everyone here does care for each other. We do love one another.”

You look around and see people with different skin complexions walking together and laughing. There is no exchange for food and no one is making bricks to make bigger buildings. Everyone here has enough.

“Wait a minute. I’m confused,” you say. “What about Peter and Moses?”

“They were imposters, imitators of the true Peter and Moses meant to trick you,” answers the Lamb. “The false Peter decides who is included and who is excluded in the false version of Heaven. That Book of Life he carries around is really a book of death because it’s based on exclusion. Jesus holds the key to the true Book of Life. And get this! Everyone’s name is written in it! Everyone, from the beginning of human history, is invited to join us. The true Peter is over there, making sure everyone here has enough to eat and drink. It’s all free here. And the real Moses is over there, taking our newest group on a tour.”

“When Moses takes you on the tour, be sure he parts the river that runs through the middle of the city,” Jesus says with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen!”

“Sounds great!” you reply. “But what about the Lion sitting on the Throne of Heaven?”

“That was Satan,” the Lamb replied. “I love him so much. He wanted to sit on the Throne and he threatened a rebellion if I didn’t give it to him. He wanted everything that I had. But as long as I’m with Jesus, Sophia, and those who choose to be down here, I have everything that I want. Besides,” he says motioning toward the portal, “the people over there are happy enough. And if they become unhappy, they are free to come here whenever they want. They know this intuitively. But most of them are blind to Satan’s evil ways of creating order, so they maintain with the status quo.”

“But there is hope,” Jesus continues. “After all, Satan’s kingdom is founded on the principle of accusation, exchange, rivalry, and oppression. It can’t last forever. His kingdom is inherently divisive. And a kingdom divided against itself will soon fall. When it does, we will be there to pick him up. It may take a while longer, but even Satan will find redemption. There is still goodness in him. Our love will win him over.”

“But until then, we have work to do,” Sophia says. “There’s a garden that needs some watering and bushes that need pruning. And then we need to serve dinner at the shelter. Would you like to join us?”

“Sure!” you say with excitement as a sudden sense of warmth fills your soul. “I’m so glad I came here.”

“So are we,” Jesus responds, as he puts his arm across your shoulders. “You know, the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to eternal life, and there are few who find it. But you found it. Well done, my faithful servant.”

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Photo credit:  Mohamedou Slahi photo: International Committee of the Red Cross

Before The Dawn

Each year, throughout the Muslim world, believers participate in the month-long Ramadan fast. Here in Kabul, where I’m a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, our household awakens at 2:15 a.m. to prepare a simple meal before the fast begins at about 3:00 a.m. I like the easy companionship we feel, seated on the floor, sharing our food. Friday, the day off, is household clean-up day, and it seemed a bit odd, to be sweeping and washing floors in the pre-dawn hours, but we tended to various tasks and then caught a nap before heading over to meet the early bird students at the Street Kids School, a project my hosts are running for child laborers who otherwise couldn’t go to school.

I didn’t nap – I was fitful and couldn’t, my mind filled with images from a memoir, Guantanamo Diary, which I’ve been reading since arriving here.  Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story of being imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 rightly disturbs me. In all his years of captivity, he has never been charged with a crime. He has suffered grotesque torture, humiliation and mistreatment, and yet his memoir includes many humane, tender accounts, including remembrances of past Ramadan fasts spent with his family.

Describing his early time in a Jordanian prison, he writes:

“It was Ramadan, and so we got two meals served, one at sunset and the second before the first light. The cook woke me up and served me my early meal. Suhoor is what we call this meal; it marks the beginning of our fasting, which lasts until sunset. At home, it’s more than just a meal. The atmosphere matters. My older sister wakes everybody and we sit together eating and sipping the warm tea and enjoying each other’s company.”

I’ve never heard Muslims complain about being hungry and thirsty as they await the fast-breaking meal. Nor have I heard people brag about contributions they’ve made to alleviate the sufferings of others, although I know Islam urges such sharing during Ramadan and aims to build empathy for those afflicted by ongoing hunger and thirst. Mohamedou relied on empathy to help him through some of his most intense anguish and fear.

 I was thinking about all my innocent brothers who were and still are being rendered to strange places and countries,” he writes, describing a rendition trip from Senegal to Mauritania, “and I felt solaced and not alone anymore. I felt the spirits of unjustly mistreated people with me. I had heard so many stories about brothers being passed back and forth like a soccer ball just because they have once been in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or Chechnya. That’s screwed up! Thousands of miles away, I felt the warm breath of these other unjustly treated individuals comforting me.

 A judge ordered Mohamedou’s immediate release in 2010. But the Obama administration appealed the decision, leaving him in a legal limbo.

From 1988 to 1991, Mohamedou had studied electrical engineering in Germany. In early 1991, he spent seven weeks, in Afghanistan, learning how to use mortars and light weapons, training which would allow him to join the U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. He was one of Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters.” In early 1992, when the communist supported Afghan government was near collapse, he again went to Afghanistan and, for three weeks, fought with insurgents to overtake the city of Gardez. Kabul fell shortly thereafter. Mohamedou soon saw that the Mujahedeen insurgents were fighting amongst themselves over power grabs. He didn’t want to be part of this fight and so he went back to Germany, then Canada and, eventually, home to Mauritania, where he was arrested and “rendered” to Jordan for questioning, at last arriving in Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base on his way to Guantanamo.

1-12-14-white-house-rally Witness Against Torture

Photo credit: Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014 photo: Witness Against Torture campaign

I wonder how he is feeling as he observes Ramadan without his family for the 13th consecutive year. I wish he could know that growing numbers of people in the U.S. believe he should be released and want to help atone for the suffering he has endured. Martha Hennessy, who arrived in Kabul with me several weeks ago, hurried back to the U.S. to face charges for protesting against U.S. legitimation of torture only to learn that both of the Witness Against Torture campaign cases scheduled for trial that week were dismissed.   Perhaps public opinion now requires that the U.S. Department of Justice recognize that activists’ right and duty to protest the cruel abuses of U.S. torture policies.

I wish Mohamedou could visit Afghanistan again, not as part of a training camp for insurgents, not as a terrified, shackled prisoner, but as a guest of the community here. A former U.S. military person dropped by the Street Kids School on Friday morning. The U.S. Air Force trained her to operate weaponized drones over Afghanistan. Now, she comes to Afghanistan annually to plant trees all over the country.   She feels deep remorse for the time in her life when she helped attack Afghans.

I don’t believe in training anyone to use weapons, but as I read Mohamedou’s words about his brothers who went to foreign countries as fighters, I thought of the Pentagon’s recent practice runs, over the New Mexico desert, training people to fire the terrifying Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster bomb which is 20 feet long, weighs 15 tons and carries about 5,300 pounds of explosives. People in the U.S. should consider how their horror at the violence of U.S. enemies encourages and exonerates the far more crushing violence of their own government, engaged at this moment in conflicts throughout the developing world and armed with weapons capable of extinguishing all human life within minutes.

On this fast day, I remember that many U.S. people worry, like anyone anywhere, about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and the species as a whole.  In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly – in a material sense, at least – than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.

We would learn to “live simply so that others might simply live.”  We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting.  Or, like Mohamedou,  find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships. “Another world  is not only possible,” writes author and activist Arundhoti Roy,  “she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” U.S. people must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.

When will day break? I haven’t a clock nearby to tell me when, but I can’t go back to sleep. When I see the children adapt so readily to the schooling denied them, when I watch my young friends struggle eagerly to take the small steps allowed them, sowing seeds of mutual understanding or planting trees in Kabul, and when I read such grace and dignity in the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi after years of torture, I have to believe that a dawn will come. For now, it remains a blessing to work alongside people awake together, even in darkness, working to face burdens with kindness, ready to join with kindred spirits near and far, faces aglow with precious glimmers of a coming day.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (www.ourjourneytosmile.com)

Photo credit for top image:  Mohamedou Slahi photo: International Committee of the Red Cross

ramadan kareem

Happy Ramadan! Encountering God’s Care through Islam

Happy Ramadan!

Ramadan Kareem means “Generous Ramadan” and points to the generosity of God in Islam. God’s generosity encourages Muslims to be generous people.

In the video below I discuss the importance of Ramadan. Ramadan critiques the popular misunderstanding that the God of Islam is a God of power, might, and conquest. Rather, Ramadan claims that the God of Islam is the God who cares about the poor, hungry, and marginalized of culture. Muhammad critiqued the pre-Islamic Arabian view that Fate was in control of life. The Jahaliyya, or Age of Ignorance, believed fate controlled who was rich and powerful and who was poor and marginalized. There was little incentive for the rich to care for the poor. Muhammad challenged this view, and fasting during the month of Ramadan forces Muslims to identify with and care for the poor, weak, and hungry by living in a generous way towards them.

I created this video during Ramadan a few years when Ramadan began in August, which is why I stated that Ramadan starts in August. This year it begins in June. The beginning of Ramadan changes each year because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar phases, not on solar phases.

How White People Corrupt Martin Luther King’s Message

Wolf Blitzer and Deray McKenna (screen grab)

Wolf Blitzer and Deray McKenna (screen grab)

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer made a huge mistake in reporting on the events in Baltimore. And it is a mistake that many white people make when discussing violent protests, but especially black violent protests.

I’m guilty of making the same mistake. That mistake is corrupting Martin Luther King’s message of nonviolence.

Blitzer interviewed Deray McKesson, an educator and community activist. McKesson began the interview talking about his hopes for a peaceful protest, but apparently Blitzer didn’t believe him. Blitzer pushed McKesson to condemn the violent protests and then Blitzer made the mistake:

…I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.

I love Martin Luther King. I wrote my master’s thesis on his approach to nonviolence. King is the greatest prophet in the history of the United States. And white people should know him better.

Blitzer, like so many white people, doesn’t know Martin Luther King. He misses King’s point. If white people want to reference King, we need to stop using him to condemn black violence. We need to stop pitting a black man against black people. It’s patriarchal. It’s demeaning. And it misses the point.

If white people want to quote King, then we need to quote King’s prophetic voice against systematic oppression that leads to black poverty, poor education, mass incarceration, horrendous housing, high unemployment, lack of health care, and barriers to the right to vote.

White people need to stop using Martin Luther King to condemn black violence. Instead, we need to use Martin Luther King to condemn our own violence.

When white people condemn black violence, we participate in America’s long history of scapegoating black people. We think black people are the problem, when in fact, we have built a violent system of oppression that leads to our benefit. From the beginning, white people have gained privilege by relegating black people to the margins. Sure, we did away with slavery 150 years ago, but the Civil War did nothing to end racism and racist policy that still infect our political, economic, and judicial systems.

Blitzer’s mistake was to use the protests as an opportunity to blame those who suffer from racial injustice. What he should have done, and what all white people should do, is use this opportunity to confront our own participation in systems of injustice.

But Blitzer won’t do that and neither will most white people. Why? Because we benefit from racism so much that we deny it even exists. We use empty phrases like, “I don’t see color.”

Yes, we do see color. And as long as black people stay in the inner city where they continue to suffer from political and economic systems that are stacked against them, we’ll be happy. Why? Because if they suffer from injustice, it means we won’t have to.

White America loves to quote King when it comes to nonviolence, especially when we critique black violence. But white America rarely quotes King when it comes to justice.

For the most part, white liberals and conservatives will continue to avoid the real problems of racial injustice by blaming black violent protests. But as Dr. Martin Luther King taught us, the problem is the violent systems of oppression that continue to infect this country and treat black people as less than human.

If white people really want to be part of the solution, then we need to stop condemning black violence. We need to condemn our own blind participation in systems of injustice. We need to open our eyes. And the best way to open our eyes is to join our black sisters and brothers in working for justice.

Because as Martin Luther King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Editor’s Note: Robert Koehler further analyzes DeRay McKesson’s answer to Wolf Blitzer’s invocation of Martin Luther King in his article: Broken Windows, Broken Spines.

Moment of Silence

Baltimore youth extended peace signs to police Tuesday night, April 28, 2015. Photo by Mark Mekala via Getty Images.  Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/baltimore-peaceful-protes_n_7166866.html

Baltimore youth extended peace signs to police Tuesday night, April 28, 2015. Photo by Mark Mekala via Getty Images. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/baltimore-peaceful-protes_n_7166866.html

This is big. A new civil rights era births itself in terrible pain.

Black men die, over and over. I can only hope that peace is the result, serious peace, bigger than new laws, bigger than better trained police — agape peace, you might say, peace that is, in the words of Martin Luther King, “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”

“‘We’re out here, and this is peaceful,’ Bishop Walter S. Thomas, pastor of the New Psalmist Baptist Church, shouted to the crowd. After a pause, they continued, singing ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Helicopters shined spotlights on the group, the thwack-thwack of their rotors competing with the music.”

This is a moment from a New York Times story on the ongoing Baltimore eruption over the death of Freddy Gray — a rare media moment, highlighting not “rioting” and anger and violence but the anguished seriousness of the protesters, who aren’t simply venting emotion over another black man dying in police custody, but evoking the deep music of civil rights and profound change while armed officialdom hovers overhead, ready to make arrests, ready to shoot.

“The march ended at New Shiloh Baptist Church on North Monroe Street, where people raised their hands in a moment of silence to commemorate Mr. Gray. . . .”

The moment of silence is at the center of the Baltimore eruption — the national eruption — over police violence, which is today’s most overt symptom of unquenched American racism.

As we all know, the media delight in us-vs.-them theatrics, so the aftermath of Freddy Gray’s death is mostly portrayed thus, with the police realigning in America’s collective awareness as the keepers of order, decked out in riot gear, standing in crisp formation as the nation’s first line of defense against . . . angry black teenagers! Shouting moms holding protest signs! Agents of change! People who want to know how a young man’s spine became “mostly severed” while in police custody (in a department with a long, documented history of brutal treatment of African-Americans)! How could such a threat to the social order be contained without helicopters and drones, tear gas grenades and pepper balls?

The moment of silence undoes all of the clamor, all of the reality-TV drama. In such a moment, a young man’s life matters, not just to his family and friends but to all of us, because all human life matters. And as we let the moment expand, so many names and faces begin to fill it: even names such as Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the New York City police officers murdered in cold blood while on duty last December. All human life matters and acts of violence that cut life short are always committed in ignorance of the consequences.

And violence — brute force — is always a pathetically ineffective way to maintain social order or establish authority. Indeed, authority, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, is based on consent and built on functional, positive relationships. Without mutual consent, authority is simply coercion: the violence-backed demands of an occupying army.

“African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority,” Coates writes. “. . . When African American parents give their children ‘The Talk,’ they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.”

And this profound wrong is also part of the moment of silence, as it commingles with prayer and hope. In the silence, the outrage turns into commitment, which the thwack-thwack of the helicopter blades only intensifies. And the deepest commitment, I believe, is nonviolent.

“The nonviolent resister,” King said in 1957, “must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Perhaps the Baltimore Police Department fears choking on tragic bitterness as it continues to ascribe Freddy Gray’s death-by-severed-spinal-cord to his not being properly seatbelted — a regrettable “mistake,” not an act of actual brutality. Yet the Baltimore police have a history of such brutality, with the city having paid out over $5.7 million to settle over 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011. Many of the incidents were documented last fall by the Baltimore Sun.

This is shocking but not exactly surprising. Every police killing that has become national news in the past year seems to emerge from such a context. The fact that the stories keep springing up anew indicates that America’s cellphones are outing a deeply embedded national horror: a shadow Jim Crow justice system. Suddenly it’s news.

But what happens next? A serious movement for political and social change has to cohere around the endemic violence. The changes must include better trained police, an end to racial profiling, the demilitarization of the police and a national embrace of community policing. This is just a start. We need a new civil rights movement. Let it begin with a moment of silence.

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

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Top 5 Ways to Be More Peaceful in 2015

At 35, I discovered years ago that New Year’s resolutions are a practice in failure. By January 15, I haven’t lost any weight, I keep swearing, I’ve stopped flossing my teeth, and I haven’t learned any new recipes…but I can still make a pretty mean batch of Top Ramen.

Here’s another resolution I’m going to fail – be more peaceful. That’ll last until about 12:15 am on January 1st. But if you’re like me, you know that the biggest problem facing our world is violence in all its forms – physical, spiritual, economic, emotional, and ecological violence are killing us and the planet. It’s as if humanity is addicted to violence, which means that if there’s one resolution worth keeping, it’s to become more peaceful.

So, to help us become more peaceful in 2015, here are my top 5 ways to have a more peaceful 2015:

5. Admit that you are a violent person.

Are you offended yet? Well don’t worry. The first step in overcoming any addiction is to honestly admit that you have one. So, if you find yourself protesting, “What a jerk! I’m not violent! I’m a peaceful person!” you know you have violent streak. And here’s the thing: that’s okay. We all have a violent streak. As someone who promotes nonviolence, I can be provoked to violence pretty easily. I often feel like the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas when he said, “I say I’m a pacifist because I am a violent son of a bitch…But by avowing it, I create expectations within others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what is true. But that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all.”

4. Be aware of the scapegoat mechanism

The scapegoat mechanism is the reason I have no confidence in my own ability to be faithful to peace. As explained by René Girard, the violent scapegoat mechanism is everywhere in human culture. Scapegoating is blaming someone else for our problems. When two people experience tensions in their relationship they unite against a scapegoat. Scapegoating another makes them feel like their relationship is tighter. They create a bond by teaming up against their scapegoat. And once they have dealt with their common enemy, they feel a sense of peace. But that peace is only temporary because blaming someone else for our problems never actually solves our problem. The scapegoat mechanism runs every aspect of our lives. Its violence permeates our families, neighborhoods, workplace, religious institutions, economics, and politics. So, if you are serious about becoming a more peaceful person, become aware of the scapegoat mechanism. Notice it and name it. And then stop participating in it.

3. Know the relationship between war and peace and justice

Did you ever read War and Peace? Me neither. I hear it’s great…But I can tell you that war never leads to lasting peace. Oh, sure. War gives us a temporary sense of peace. Attempting to kill our enemies makes us feel like we are making the world a safer place. But if there’s anything we should learn from the last 14 years of the “War on Terror,” it’s that war only creates more enemies. But our “enemies” aren’t the real problem. As the Paul wrote 2,000 years ago, “Our struggle is not against enemies of the flesh and blood, but against…the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” The way to lasting peace isn’t to kill flesh and blood; it’s to struggle against “the spiritual forces of evil.” And the only way to struggle against those forces is to work for justice. Peace can only be achieved through justice. Not a justice based on retaliation, but a justice that seeks to heal. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus were obsessed with making sure everyone’s basic needs were met. The prophets claimed that if the nation didn’t care for the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized – those who were scapegoated – that the nation would fall. Jesus gave free food to crowds of poor people. He even provided free health care to people! The way of justice modeled by the prophets and by Jesus is a justice that heals and leads to peace.

2. Blessed are the peacemakers and forgivers

Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed. Jesus had a very specific way of making peace and it had nothing to do with scapegoating or killing people. He knew that killing people would only strengthen the scapegoating process and never deal with the actual problem, which is violence. But here’s the obvious problem: Jesus was killed. And his death wasn’t very peaceful. Yet, Jesus was right. Peacemakers are blessed because they unmask the violent powers of evil. They reveal that violence and scapegoating only leads to more violence and scapegoating. As René Girard states in his book Violence and the Sacred, “Evil and the violent measures to combat evil are essentially the same.” But the powers don’t like to be expose. People who are blinded and seduced by those powers don’t respond kindly to peacemakers. Know that by following Jesus and becoming a peacemaking you will be blessed by God, but you are likely to be cursed by others. As you expose the violence of the scapegoating mechanism, family and friends who are enthralled to the mechanism may turn against you. And that’s okay. You don’t hold it against them because you know they are enthralled to the mechanism. You are blessed because you know that you are too. (See number 1.) And because you are aware of your own tendency to scapegoat, you can forgive others for theirs.

1. Love and forgive your neighbor as you love and forgive yourself

Love is fundamental to being more peaceful. But let’s face it, love is hard. I find it especially hard to love myself. I beat myself up for not being good enough, smart enough, popular enough, or peaceful enough. I fail in so many ways. I gave up New Year’s resolutions years ago because it only confirmed the fact that I’m a total failure. And this resolution to be more peaceful? Not a chance. But Jesus and the Hebrew priest of Leviticus tell us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But it’s hard. I’m aware that I’m going to fail at love and so are my neighbors. And that’s okay. Failure is part of being human. So be gentle on yourself and on your neighbors. When we fail, when we get caught up in the violent scapegoat mechanism, we don’t have to beat ourselves up. Rather, we can receive those blessed words from Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We can receive God’s forgiveness and offer that forgiveness to others. In Jesus we find that forgiveness and justice, not violence, are the way to peace.

Those are my top 5 ways to be more peaceful in 2015. Let me know what you would add. May you have a peaceful 2015!

*Make another resolution to like the Raven Foundation Facebook page! And ask your friends to join as we make a commitment to peace in 2015.

The Water of Life

Image from michigancitizen.com

Image from michigancitizen.com

I’m thirsty. Indeed, I’m overwhelmed by thirst, thinking about those who lack access to clean water. I’m thirsty for a different world.

“In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lack water, including those living in hospitals and refugee camps,” Sarah Kendzior wrote in Al-Jazeera last week. “On July 15, citizens of Detroit held a rally in solidarity, holding signs that said ‘Water for all, from Detroit to Palestine.’ A basic resource has become a distant dream, a longing for a transformation of politics aimed at ending suffering instead of extending it.”

Water is our common need, our common source of being. In bankrupt Detroit (city of my birth), as the world now knows, the poor and struggling segment of the population — the people whose overdue water bills exceed $150 — face water shutoff. The United Nations, for God’s sake, has condemned the action by the city’s emergency manager as a human rights violation. Thousands of residences — housing as many as 100,000 people — have had their water shut off so far, out of a total city population of 700,000.

Ironically, Detroit is surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Michigan license plates used to proclaim: “Water Wonderland.”

Austerity, austerity, God shed his grace on thee . . .

As with draconian austerity measures elsewhere, those who bear the greatest burden are the poor, the ones who are barely making it anyway and face the daily and weekly choices of paying for food, paying their rent or taking care of utility and other bills. Alas, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is owed millions of dollars and has to collect. With the city reeling in bankruptcy, it has no choice. Sorry, poor people.

Except, here’s the thing. Many commercial entities also owe money to the DWSD: “Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, Palmer Park Golf Club and half of the commercial and industrial buildings in the city . . . owe roughly $30 million in overdue water fees,” Drew Gibson writes at TruthOut. And the State of Michigan itself, according to the Daily Beast, owes $5 million.

The big players may also owe money but they can contest it. They have clout, so they’re left alone. Implementing a regime of austerity means squeezing the powerless. And seldom mentioned is the fact that squeezing them costs money. The city’s emergency manager has hired a private contractor, Homrich — for over $5 million, according to The Progressive — to turn off Detroiters’ water.

Last week’s Progressive article, by Ruth Conniff, also notes: “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a public asset valued at $6.4 billion. Forty-five percent of the utility’s annual budget goes to Wall Street banks to service its debt — a debt the emergency manager has the power to renegotiate.”

But water shutoffs for the poor apparently come first. Austerity is in no way meant to interfere with the rich getting richer. Detroit’s troubles are framed as straightforward and financial, but that’s just part of the game of power and dominance being played here. To the political and corporate sharks in charge of the Motor City right now, the human right to water is not much of a value, not when the possibility of privatizing public resources looms so seductively.

I thirst for a different sort of world, one in which water is not just another commodity, something to be controlled, to one’s own advantage and another’s detriment.

Image from www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4218

Image from www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4218

“There’s more blood than water today in Gaza,” Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso wrote this week at Electronic Intifada as the bombardments continued.

And just as the powerful play at austerity, so they also play at war. Brent Patterson, political director at the Council of Canadians, who quoted Bseiso, also cited the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in a recent essay:

“After two and a half weeks of bombardments from the air and ground, roughly two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants — 1.2 million people — are suffering from severe disruptions to the water and sewage systems, according to Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene, a coalition of around 40 humanitarian groups operating in the occupied territories. In addition to the damage of the central pipeline and the reservoirs — which affects cities and villages throughout Gaza — home pipes and water containers on roofs have been damaged by the bombardments.”

And an early July article in The Guardian by John Vidal is headlined thus: “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn.”

While the article focuses primarily on the tactics of the rebel group ISIS, Vidal notes that getting a stranglehold on the water supply is a primary goal of all sides in this desperate conflict — more important than controlling the oil refineries.

He writes: “Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of ISIS forces. Were the dam to fall, say analysts, ISIS would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.

“Securing the Haditha Dam was one of the first objectives of the American Special Forces invading Iraq in 2003.”

These are the reckless tactics of war — every kind of war. Revering and protecting our water supply, not merely “controlling” it, is a far better use of our blood, sweat and tears.

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

© 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Mandy Patinkin and the Princess Bride: Justice, Revenge, and Jewish Spirituality

If you were on Facebook or Twitter last week, you probably saw the CBS interview with Mandy Patinkin. He’s probably best known for this line from the classic movie The Princess Bride:

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The Princess Bride was released when I was 16. My friends and I would throw that line back and forth whenever we competed against one another. Monopoly. Basketball. Chess. Nintendo. Rock, paper, scissors. It didn’t matter. Like anyone with a pulse during the late 1980s, we repeated that phrase endlessly. It was our favorite line in the movie.

That and “Mawwiage…”

But that’s not Mandy’s favorite line. Twenty years after The Princes Bride became a pop culture icon, Mandy began to hear one of his lines from the movie that he’d overlooked when he spoke them two decades ago:

I have been in the revenge business so long that, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.

Those two lines are very powerful statements about revenge. Inigo’s sole mission in life was to avenge his father’s death. The problem is that he succeeded! Once he killed his father’s killer his life had no meaning. The truth about revenge is that it leaves us empty. Sure, there’s a thrill in the hunt, but revenge will either leave us killed or, as in Inigo’s case, empty and without a future.

Mandy adds this important point in the interview with CBS:

The purpose of revenge is, in my personal opinion, completely worthless and pointless. And the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.

Indeed, revenge is worthless. In fact, it’s worse than worthless. Yet revenge is seductive because it always disguises itself as justice. Now, I admire people who are tenaciously committed to justice, but I’m also afraid of them. Their determined pursuit of justice is often contaminated by revenge. Revenge seeks to right a wrong committed against us through violent punishment, but revenge doesn’t just stop at righting a wrong – revenge always escalates.

The problem is not with justice. The problem is with our violent methods in pursuing justice. We think violence will solve the violent injustice committed against us. As James Warren points out in his masterful book on mimetic theory Compassion or Apocalypse: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, humans have always been prone to violence as a way to solve violence. “From the very beginning of the human experience, because of its power both to destroy…and to generate results…violence was seen as both the number one problem and the number one solution” (122).

Violence against an enemy has always been our number one solution because it does provide a sense of justice, but the problem is that violence is always mimetic. We non-consciously imitate the violence of our “enemy” as we mutually pursue justice with violence. Of course, our violence is “good” and justified, while our enemies is “bad” and unjust. Unfortunately, our enemy believes their violence is good and justified, while ours is bad and unjust.

Now, if the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, then not only is revenge worthless, but violence itself is pointless. Violence seeks to destroy our fellow human beings, not embrace them.

Again, the problem is not our pursuit of justice. The problem is our violent methods. When we use violence in the name of justice, it will always be perceived as revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge…all in the name of “justice.”

What’s the solution? Mandy is Jewish and has talked about his spirituality. One of the quotes from the Hebrew Bible that often gets lifted up in Christian circles is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, the Jewish Jesus quoted that passage from Leviticus, but we don’t usually hear the whole quote of Leviticus 19:18:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Revenge, of course, is a synonym for vengeance. In Judaism and Christianity, you are not permitted to take revenge “against any of your people.” Rather, you are commanded to love them. So, who belongs to “your people”? Just like the Jewish Jesus, Mandy includes everyone in that category.

No revenge. No violence. Pursue justice with nonviolent love.

Dreams of Justice: Syria, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King Jr.

obama assadWhat’s happening in Syria is awful. You see the pictures and your heart breaks. It’s horrific. Lakhdar Brahimi, UN special envoy to Syria, said today that, “With what has happened on the 21st of August last week, it does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people: hundreds, definitely more than a hundred, some people say 300, some people say 600, maybe 1,000, maybe more than 1,000.”

The Huffington Post has a slider with the title, Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images). Of course, every life matters, but as a father with three young children, seeing the picture of a Syrian man crying out in pain as he carries the body of a young girl killed by chemical weapons – words fail.

Violence and Justice

My wife knows that we promote nonviolence here at the Raven Foundation, and that I lean toward pacifism. Last night, as we discussed Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s continued threats of violence, she asked me, “Well, what do we do when a government uses chemical weapons against its own people?”

The question haunts me. These are times that try the soul of anyone committed to nonviolence. We all want justice. We all want the violence to stop. We don’t want any more people to cry in pain as they carry the body of a lifeless child.

And so President Obama is ramping up the war machine. Ironically, as he plans for military strikes and another war, today he delivered a talk honoring the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.” As we hear the drum beat of war we are reminded of King’s dream of justice. In his speech King said,

We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a might stream…We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Our popular understanding of “justice” is mired with violence. For King, true justice was always based on love and nonviolence, because violence always carries with it a fatal flaw. As he wrote in his book Strength to Love, “Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace” (18).

The Real World

It is often said that people who believe in nonviolence don’t live in the real world, but these famous words of King are some of the most realistic words I’ve ever heard: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoice of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction” (Strength to Love, 53).

There is a mimetic realism to King’s statements. If we strike Syria, Assad will mimic our violence with more violence of his own. Recent history shows this to be true. Ken Dilanian of the LA Times states that, “The type of limited, punitive military campaign now being contemplated against Syria has failed to deter U.S. adversaries in the past, and at times emboldened them…” For example, in 1998 under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. sought justice by launching bombs and cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and against Saddam Hussein. Those attacks were deemed successful, but because we stand on this side of history, we know that violence did nothing to deter bin Laden or Hussein from tragically using violence again, sending us into a “descending spiral of destruction.”

Welcome to the real world of violence. If Obama strikes Syria, it will only embolden Assad. Violence will continue to multiply and Obama will only have reaffirmed Assad’s faith that violence is the way to solve our problems.

Answers

What’s the answer? I hate to disappoint you, but there is no answer that will guarantee to protect you, me, or the people of Syria from violence. All I can do is offer the creative response of nonviolent love and trust the prophetic words of King,

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power. (Strength to Love, 54)

In the real world that kind of love is risky, but violence is even more risky. Fortunately, there is a growing movement in Syria taking the risk of nonviolence in their dream for justice. According to Amnesty International, in Syria “tens of thousands continue to resist the Assad regimes brutality … through nonviolent methods of staggering diversity and creativity.” One such group is the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, which is committed to the peaceful, nonviolent struggle for justice in Syria. The movement’s website states,

We believe that non-violence is a complete reform process and our work is not to achieve interim goals but rather is a continuous movement to change the society. It won’t reach its ends by toppling a regime or a president but by reaching a critical mass in Syrian society that acknowledges the need for change and its means, and contributes in moving the society towards a new reality of consciousness, freedom and pluralism.

This isn’t some utopian hippie message that claims if we just love each other we will all get along. Love is capable of transforming an enemy into a friend, as King said, but it’s no guarantee. There are few guarantees in this world. The only guarantee is that in our search for justice violence will only produce more violence. The only alternative is to join with others in moving our global “society towards a new reality of consciousness” that seeks justice by actively meeting physical force with the soul force, with creative acts of nonviolent love.