In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death

Many scholars have claimed that René Girard’s mimetic theory is one of the most important insights of the 20th century. But those of us who have been highly influenced by René know better. For us, it is not an overstatement to state that René’s explanation of mimetic theory is the most important discovery of human nature in the last 2,000 years. That is, since the Gospels.

This morning brought the news that René has passed away at age 91. “Girardians,” as we are called, have been on social media sharing our sorrow at his passing, but also our profound sense of gratitude for this giant among human beings. We stand on his shoulders. And our vision is all the clearer for it.

As I reflected upon the news, I was struck by the fact that René taught us so much about death. Specifically, about the scapegoat mechanism. René confronted us with the truth about being human. We all have a propensity to manage our conflicts by blaming someone else for them. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community, but it is only temporary. For the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.

But if René taught us about death, he also taught us about life. The solution to our natural inclination toward scapegoating is found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically in the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death. “Christ agrees to die,” wrote René in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, “so that mankind will live.”

Many progressive Christians who do not know René’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading René’s books, it could sound like a form of penal subsitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that René revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read René’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.

Still, at this point, we should warn ourselves not to scapegoat penal substitutionary atonement theory. After all, if René taught us anything it’s that human have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice or whatever we deem to be a important to our well-being.

René taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God. Once at a conference, René was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful. He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”

To end scapegoating and to truly live we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, in the spirit of love and nonviolence.

René not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that René wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him – instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others. For example, I remember sitting across the table from him. He smiled as he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve watched your Mimetic Theory 101 videos. They’re good.” That’s the way he was. He affirmed all of us and encouraged us to follow the truth, no matter where it led.

René always gave the last word to the Gospels. It’s where he found the truth about life and death. It’s only fitting that I end with this quote that sums up René’s theory about God, violence, and love,

The following is the basic text, in my opinion, that shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45, Things Hidden, 183)

May our brother René Girard rest in peace and rise in the glorious love of God.

Image: Screenshot from YouTube.


Tears of Friendship, Birth-Pangs of New Life: An All Saints Sunday Meditation

(Below is a slightly modified adaptation of a sermon I preached for All Saints Sunday, 2012, based on the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verses 32-44, or “The Raising of Lazarus.”):

Friends, there are at least two themes to this familiar Gospel story: resurrection and friendship. How appropriate for All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate our eternal friendship, united in the joy of resurrection in God’s holy reign! I want to suggest that friendship and resurrection are deeply connected. It is not merely that we will all be friends in heaven. In a very real sense, friendship is resurrection.

Saint Paul says that to be in Christ is to be a new creation. And to be in Christ is to be in friendship, in free and voluntary love, with him. And if we are in friendship with Christ we are also united in the body of Christ as friends.

I once found it strange that Jesus wept moments before raising Lazarus from the dead. After all, he knew that joy was about to conquer sorrow. Why, then, did he weep?

Yet the more I meditate on Jesus, the more I see that he could not have done otherwise. He wept because he was human. He wept because he was God. And he wept because Lazarus was his friend.

To be human is to feel the urgency of human need, even when you have faith that, in the end, all will be well. It is to weep with others, to shoulder their pain so that the weight of sorrow does not crush them.

As God in flesh, Jesus understood the suffering of Lazarus and his sisters more deeply than they themselves ever could. He mourned the pain that Lazarus endured in his final hours. He felt the anxiety of Mary and Martha, missing their brother and facing the double oppression of occupation and sexism. Impoverished women, living without a man under an occupying power, could hardly make a life for themselves and were often left behind by their society.

And Jesus mourned the violence that permeates human nature and creates such unjust systems, which burden people of all times and places.

But beyond all of that, Jesus had lost a personal friend. He had lost someone with whom he had shared laughter and stories and tears. Grief was the only possible response.

We tend to think Jesus wept before he raised Lazarus from the dead. But what if tears were part of the resurrection process itself?

It wasn’t just Jesus’ power that raised Lazarus. It was Jesus’ love. Love is the power, love is the whole being, of Jesus, indeed the whole being of God revealed in Jesus. And love is vulnerability. It is sharing another’s pain. It is weeping.

If Lazarus could not have been healed without Jesus’ love, does that mean that he could not have been healed without his tears? I think so. And I believe the tears are the birth-pangs of the same suffering love that would be fully borne on the cross.

We know that God is Love, and Love is the power that gives us eternal life. But love can seem abstract and fuzzy. We can say we love humanity and truly wish to help all people. But an awareness of the suffering of the world rarely makes us weep, unless we see that suffering manifested in a friend.

God’s love manifested itself for us in the most personal and profound way – in the life of our best friend Jesus, who weeps with us in our darkest hours even as he leads us into the splendor of eternal light and life. We are bound to him at our most vulnerable by mutual tears. What a friend we have in Jesus.

And if our new life in Jesus is this profoundly intimate friendship, then we are bound to each other in friendship as well. I began this article with the word “Friends” because you, dear readers, are my friends. Friends forever. It’s not just a catchy phrase to write in a yearbook; it is our eternal destiny in Christ.

We are united in a love that transcends all bounds, a love not compelled by family bonds or common associations, but freely given and received in grace. This is what it means to be the communion of Saints.

What if, today, we all commit to deepening our relationships with those around us, and journey further into the new life we have received in Christ? This doesn’t mean looking past differences, but exploring them more deeply, with open minds and hearts. It means setting aside judgment and listening with empathy. It means taking a risk, making ourselves vulnerable, as Jesus was when he wept.

We are called by Christ to love all people, regardless of race, language, politics, sexual orientation, or creed. But because we are human, we must wait until we are united in the fullness of God’s kingdom before we can know them all. We cannot offer personal friendship to every single person on earth. But we all know those to whom we can offer it. It is in particular friendships and concrete acts of kindness that we transcend our prejudices and deepen our love for humanity.

We can take the time today to make a new friend, or deepen a relationship with someone we know only by sight or name. The more we open ourselves to others in friendship, the more we will see Christ revealed, and the deeper we will feel ourselves fall into the secure embrace of God’s love.

In the name of God who models the perfect friendship in Triune Harmony and unites us in eternal friendship as the Communion of Saints, Amen.

Image: “The Raising of Lazarus” by Davezelenka. Available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

tangled 1

Tangled – Let Down Your Hair

The introduction to Tangled is as heart wrenching as it gets. Within the first moments of the movie, we are introduced to a miserable woman named Gothel who kidnaps an infant princess named Rapunzel. She does so because of the princess’ magic hair—locks that restore youth and heal wounds. For the next 18 years, sweet and innocent Rapunzel would be forced to live in a tower hidden in the woods. Other than Mother Gothel, she would have no contact with the world.[1]

What a horrifying beginning to a story!

To keep Rapunzel hidden, Gothel instills paralyzing fear in the young girl. She deceptively convinces Rapunzel that “the world is dark and selfish and cruel.” This keeps her psychologically trapped, just as the tower keeps her physically incarcerated. However, because of a yearly ritual—one where the King and Queen release thousands of floating lanterns on Rapunzel’s birthday—she remains hopeful that there is more to the world than her “mother” would have her believe.

When an unlikely thief named Eugene Fitzherbert (who goes by the pseudonym, Flynn Rider) stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower, she finally has her opportunity to experience the world. To ensure her escape, she knocks the intruder unconscious. She then hides his stolen merchandise—a satchel containing the royal crown. With the promise that she will return his “property,” Rapunzel then convinces Flynn to guide her to a place where she can witness the floating lanterns first-hand.

Once out of the tower, Rapunzel openly embraced the world God created—the grass between her toes, the wind in her hair, and the coolness of a babbling creek. It is truly a magical moment, one that captures how one should engage this beautiful planet. Flynn, though, used the moment for other matters. He devised a plan to take naïve Rapunzel to a bar that was a haven for the outcasts of society in hopes that she would scare back to her tower. Then, he could have his stolen goods back and be on his way. However, Flynn’s plan backfires when Rapunzel proves him wrong in every way.

Mural of Rapunzel by Matthew Distefano

Mural of Rapunzel by Matthew Distefano

Once in the “Snuggly Duckling,” as it is ironically named, Rapunzel is met by the local “roughians.” When confronted by the crowd, she does not shy away for long, as Flynn had hoped. Instead, Rapunzel almost immediately inspires the criminal men to consider something other than their violent ways. She inspires them to break out into a song, of all things—a jaunty tune about having yet to be fulfilled dreams. Shortly after the song ends though, the palace guards storm the bar in search of the bandit Flynn. Because of Rapunzel’s inspiring ways, one of the “sinners” helps her and Flynn escape through a secret hatch just before being noticed. However, the guards shortly catch up to them and after a brief entanglement with a palace horse named Maximus and a few guards, the two heroes escape into yet another tunnel. This time though, because of the ruckus created by the chase, a dam breaks and quickly fills the tunnel with water. Unless Rapunzel and Flynn can find a way out, it will be their grave.

While trapped, Flynn admits to Rapunzel that his real name is Eugene. Due to the dire circumstances he was in, his humanness starts to shine through. Because of Eugene’s vulnerability, Rapunzel lets down her guard and mimetically admits something to Eugene: her hair has the ability to glow when she sings. Upon saying this, Rapunzel realizes that if she begins to sing, her hair will glow and the two will be able to see enough so as to escape the pitch black tunnel. She starts to sing a soft melody and because of Rapunzel’s quick thinking, the two narrowly escape with their lives. However, in the process, Eugene badly cuts his hand. Now, the magical gift of Rapunzel’s hair will be on full display—the ability to heal and restore.

During a precious moment shared between our heroes, Rapunzel sings a beautiful tune to Eugene and the power of her hair goes to work. In an instant, the awful cut sustained in the flooded tunnel disappears and Eugene’s hand is restored—apokatastasis![2] He then takes the opportunity to gather some firewood for the night when Mother Gothel—having earlier found the hidden satchel containing the royal crown—enters the scene. And she knows exactly what she’s doing! Gothel talks down to Rapunzel, instilling fear in the young girl the entire time. Just prior to fleeing off into the shadows, Gothel baits her “daughter” with the satchel in hopes that Eugene would discover it and leave Rapunzel behind.

Time would tell if Gothel’s sinister plan would work or not . . .

Upon waking the next morning, Rapunzel and Eugene are greeted by the palace horse, Maximus. However, instead of having a fight on their hands, similar to what takes place at the “Snuggly Duckling,” Rapunzel again turns a potential enemy into a friend when she convinces Maximus to aid them in their quest to see the floating lanterns.

Once inside the kingdom, Rapunzel cannot help but bring life to the people. Her energy is infectious and easily starts a flash-mob of sorts—getting the townsfolk to join her in a lively dance. Shortly after, her dream finally comes true . . . And yet, even witnessing the beautiful lanterns was nothing compared to the love that she was starting to feel for Eugene. Indeed, the feeling was mutual. It was so strong even, that when Eugene is given the satchel, he wants nothing to do with it and attempts to give it back to his ex-partners, the Stabbington Brothers, when he notices them off in the distance. Little did Eugene know that they were working with Gothel, who had plans of her own.

When Eugene attempts to give back the satchel, the wicked brothers instead tie him up and send him off to the city—stolen goods in tow—where he is a wanted criminal. The brothers then go after Rapunzel and her magic hair but in a double crossing, Mother Gothel knocks the two unconscious and is viewed as the savior—Rapunzel’s “messiah.” In Rapunzel’s mind, everything her “mother” told her was true. The world was a dangerous place. It was safer in the tower.

Life now seemed hopeless and so Rapunzel returned to her captivity.

Meanwhile, back in the kingdom, Eugene was set to be executed for the crime of theft. (Perhaps the Queen and King—Rapunzel’s parents—were not as compassionate as they are portrayed in the story.) However, new friend Maximus, along with the crew from the “Snuggly Duckling,” breaks Eugene out just in the nick of time. He then heads straight for Rapunzel, who was in trouble herself.

While Eugene was incarcerated, Rapunzel realized her identity—the true “self” she had been all along. When she confronts Mother Gothel, however, Gothel does not take well to this realization and bounds Rapunzel’s hands and feet. Once Eugene arrives, Gothel would be ready.

Gothel, who had been a liar from the beginning, then became a murderer.[3] When Eugene enters the tower, Gothel stabs him in the back and immediately gets ready to leave off with a resentful Rapunzel and her magic hair. However, Rapunzel, with a true servant’s heart, convinces Mother Gothel to allow her to heal Eugene if Rapunzel promises to willingly stay with Gothel all the rest of her days. Gothel agrees and in an act of true love, Rapunzel openly lays down her life for Eugene, running to his side with the intentions of saving his life.

However, Eugene had other ideas . . .

Just when Rapunzel was about to heal Eugene and thus, be lost to him forever, he dramatically takes a shard of glass and cuts off all of Rapunzel’s magical hair. In doing so, the restorative powers that were keeping Mother Gothel alive ceased and she was revealed for who she really was. In an instant, Gothel shriveled up to nothing in the face of Eugene’s self-giving love and fell like lightening from Rapunzel’s tower.[4] When she hit the ground, nothing but her clothes remained. She was gone. Sadly, Eugene would soon follow.

In a heartbreaking scene, Eugene takes his final breath in the comfort of Rapunzel’s delicate arms. Painfully, he remains in this status for some time until a single tear from Rapunzel’s eyes fall onto Eugene’s cheek and instantly begins to bring life to his deceased body. Love, in its purest form, starts to undo what death could ever hope to accomplish. Like Lazarus, Eugene breaks free from the grips of death and becomes fully restored in the matter of moments.[5] Eugene and Rapunzel joyfully embrace with the realization that because of their love, all would be well.

All in all, this is a tale about how love overcomes all obstacles. In spite of the freedom that was taken from Rapunzel, in spite of a childhood shrouded with fear and torment—in spite of everything!—love conquers the powers of evil. As hopeless as life seemed for Rapunzel and as dim as the light of love must have appeared, it was always with her; always present in some form or another. And because of this, she not only helped transform the lives of the outcasts of society, she transformed her own reality and discovered her true self, grounded in splendid love.

[1] I would like to note that in a real-life situation such as this, Rapunzel would no doubt not become the woman she ends up as in the film. In fact, depending on the severity of isolation, she likely would have died early on. She most definitely would not have learned all she did as there would have been nobody to imitate.

[2] Apokatastasis is the restoration to the original state. In terms of theology, it means the restitution and reconciliation of all things to God. The word is found once in the New Testament, namely, Acts 3:21.

[3] John 8:44 describes the devil as a “liar and a murderer” from the beginning.

[4] Luke 10:18

[5] For the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, see John 11: 38 – 44.

Image: Rapunzel’s hair grows and shines while she sings. (Screenshot from YouTube)

For more in Matthew’s Disney Princess series, see:

Cinderella: Happily Ever After

Beauty and the Beast: Tale As Old As Time

The Little Mermaid: Under the Sea

Alladin: A Whole New World

Frozen: Love Will Thaw a Frozen Heart

Tangled: Let Down Your Hair

ravencast 1 image final

Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 1 – Mimetic Theory, Cancer, and Jesus

Show Notes

Welcome to Talk To Me Tuesdays: The RavenCast. Each Tuesday we plan to post a video and mp3 discussing mimetic theory. Sometimes these videos will be an individual discussing mimetic theory and sometimes we will have interviews with people engaging mimetic theory.

In this video, Adam Ericksen introduces the RavenCast and mimetic theory by telling the story of his mother as a model of faith. Through her experience with cancer, she taught Adam how to live. When death is so close, we begin to discover what really matters in life. Our cultural models often tell us the things that matter are success, wealth, buying bigger house or more expensive car. Those are the ways we become good enough and lovable. But confronting death can teach us that what really matters is not our wealth, or even being good enough. What matters is receiving the love of God and sharing it with others. Adam’s mom ultimately learned that from Jesus, her model. And she passed that lesson to Adam.

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.

new quote

#IwasKimDavis, Or “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome”

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Mark Sandlin, author of “The God Article,” for starting the #IwasKimDavis hashtag, which helps to curb our tendency toward scapegoating and instead embrace empathy. This is my #IwasKimDavis story.

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”

Sixteen years later, these words still sting.

I was a freshman in college. I had converted to Islam two years previous, which is another story, and I was struggling to maintain my fledgling Muslim identity at a college with very few Muslim students. My conversion to Islam and later reaffirmation of Christianity is not particularly relevant to this story, except to say that I struggled to find a way to relate to and worship God that offended neither my heart nor my mind. Bewilderment about the Trinity and horror at the crucifixion as I misunderstood it at the time were some of the reasons why I embraced a faith with the same roots as the Christianity I had been raised with, without the same paradoxes. What’s important to understand, for the purposes of this story, is that I was struggling to be faithful to the God I was trying to understand. I believed this God to be Most Gracious, Most Merciful. But I also believed that this God had designed men and women to complement each other, and that this God had decreed homosexual behavior sinful.

It was, honestly, something that bothered me about Islam. But it wasn’t my central theological struggle, and Islam’s doctrine of Tawheed, the oneness of God, was so much clearer to me than the Trinity that I embraced it, and struggled to be faithful to the One God of all. I was striving to work through my doubts, trusting that God would eventually make things more clear to me. I struggled to live with the disconnect between my heart, which wanted to be an open ally of the LGBTQ community, and my religion, which (as far as I knew, before recognizing Islam’s more complex and multi-vocal history with homosexuality), told me that homosexuality was at best a pathology and at worst willful disobedience. I was new to Islam. I had much to learn. I wasn’t willing to disconnect from it or from the sense of relief it had given to my theological doubts over an issue that wasn’t even central to my life.

But the issue was about to become a lot more significant to me.

I had been somewhat taken aback when I learned that my new friend was a lesbian, because we had been alone together. I’m embarrassed now by how I might have jumped or flinched at the news, but it wasn’t because I felt any animosity toward her. It had more to do with Islamic purity codes, as I understood them, and how I would have to readjust my interactions with her to fit them. She had watched me pray with my covered posterior in the air, after all, and women stand behind or separate from men in the masjid to avoid that very situation! I recalled the hadith “When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, Satan is always a third companion.” We would have to keep the doors open when we visited each others’ dorms, I told her. I tried to tell her about how I was trying to keep up with my faith and how that meant I would try to interact with her as I would with a man, keeping my modesty.

I was almost embarrassed, and somewhat apologetic, as bumbled through an explanation of why I felt a need to change the way we interacted together. I have no idea what I said. But I remember my friend’s kindness as she listened, and her eye contact when I shyly looked back up at her, and she said the words to me that I have never forgotten:

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”


I tried to explain that I wasn’t homophobic, or that I really didn’t mean to be. I wanted to acknowledge that I understood and deeply regretted if what I had told her was hurtful, and that Islam’s position on homosexuality was not something I loved about my new faith, but it was something I was trying to understand. I told her I knew it wasn’t my place to judge what was homophobic since I wasn’t the one hurt by it. I said that I wanted her to know that in my heart and mind, I thought she was a wonderful person, and that, if anything, I was a little troubled that her sexuality didn’t bother me, and troubled that I was troubled by that! She understood. And then we probably changed the subject to our mutual love of Disney, or a class we shared, or whatever. She quickly became my best friend. And as an agnostic, she appreciated the beauty that she found in my faith and my faith journey, and she herself became a part of it, as important relationships always become a part of one’s faith.

I eventually let the modesty codes of Islam, insofar as they separated me from my friend, fall away. I believed in modest dress and humility, and that hasn’t changed, but I didn’t want to keep my friend at an emotional or spiritual distance, so I didn’t.

At the time, I sometimes felt as if I was putting my friendship above God, but I was also able to explore my understanding and relationship with God through that friendship. My friend’s thoughts and questions sparked my own and expanded my heart and mind. Still, I had occasional pangs of doubt that I was doing wrong by God. What I didn’t realize then was that my doubts and struggles, and eventually my putting my friendship not above my faith, but above certain interpretations of religious tradition, was a path to a deeper understanding and a deeper love for the God who is Love and wants humans to relate to one-another in love.

Even after reaffirming Christianity because of a deeper understanding of the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation and crucifixion (while remaining ever grateful to Islam and still desiring to keep my love and respect for it), it took a while for me to come to the understanding of homosexuality that I have today. My understanding of scripture, my hermeneutical lens, is still coming into focus, but it is much more clear now than when I was struggling in the midst of fears.

My fear wasn’t really homophobia. And I didn’t want to admit that it was a fear of God, because I was trying, and sometimes succeeding, in believing that God is Love, though I did fear disappointing God. What I really suffered from is what I coin “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome,” or FHS, and I empathize with anyone who struggles with it or holds it as yet undiagnosed.

I was frightened of disappointing a God whom I believed would be disappointed by a violation of purity codes. I believed that this God was merciful and loving, and that this God would even forgive homosexuality, but not approve of it. But the more I came to know my friend, the more I could not understand God being disappointed in her for something that — not only could not be changed, but had no need to be changed. If anything, I realized that if I considered her potential to fall in love and build a family was at all sinful, that would hinder my compassion toward her, and that was a sin. Loving was not a sin. I came to understand that, and it opened my heart to a deeper understanding of God.

I now see sexual orientation and gender identity through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice. The words of Hosea, repeated twice by Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” does not just contradict certain elements of the Bible in which God clearly does demand sacrifice. It contradicts an entire understanding of scripture, an understanding that distinguishes in from out, clean from unclean. Coming to the understanding that scripture is multi-vocal, that it speaks of human projection of violence onto God as well as God’s revelation to humanity in the form of Jesus, has made all the difference in the world to me. Every word of scripture is important, but some of it reveals the depths of human sin, including the violence that we were deluded into thinking was from God. Jesus definitively shows that God’s love encompasses everyone. There is no way to hold mercy and sacrifice “in tension” within God. Perfect mercy casts out sacrificial systems that exclude and marginalize, just as perfect love casts out fear.

Among the marginalized in today’s world are those who belong to the LGBTQ community. Some use scripture to justify this marginalization. I really believe they are trying to obey God as they understand God. Yet Jesus embraced those whom the scriptures of his own time marginalized, in order to heal us of our delusion that God excludes people the way we do.

I believe that Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the national legalization of gay marriage, is trying to follow her religious convictions. She does not have the legal right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and I feel compassion for those whose lives she has made more difficult through her noncompliance with the law. I lament the pain she has caused them, pain that may be compounded by other voices that marginalize them. But I also feel compassion for Kim Davis, because I have been her. I believe she is suffering from Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome, and it is not an ailment to be taken lightly.

Kim Davis may or may not feel assured of God’s love for her. I sincerely hope she does. But I also know that we will never know the extent of this love until we come to grasp the fact that God’s love embraces everyone, and that God desires abundant life for everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community. This abundant life often includes a relationship with an intimate partner, which is a human reflection of the depths of God’s love, and God’s love can be equally revealed in a partner of the same sex as in a partner of the opposite sex. I believe this, partly because theologians such as James Alison have successfully debunked the “clobber texts” for me. But more importantly, I believe this because I know that God is Love, that love is relationship (hence the Trinity that so baffled me in my younger days), and that being made in the image of God is to be made for love. Nothing reflects God’s image more beautifully than mutually self-giving love between two people. Knowing this, I understand Kim Davis’s struggle for the sanctity of marriage. Marriage is worth struggling for. But the LGBTQ community has known this all along, which is why they now celebrate their legal right to marry.

I pray that Kim Davis eventually recognizes that right, not just according to the law, but according to the God who is Love, who demands mercy, not sacrifice. Because I truly believe that if she stops trying to prevent others from embracing one another in love, she will find herself embraced in a divine love that is so much greater than she now imagines it to be.

For more on God’s all-embracing love as it relates to this issue, see Adam Ericksen’s article, “‘God’s Authority’: Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk.”




And If I Die Before I Wake: On Death And Praying With Children

When I was a boy, every night my Dad would tuck me into bed and lead me in prayer. We would close our eyes and fold our hand as my Dad would pray for individual members of my family, my friends and teachers, and for world peace.

At age 36, I can tell you that this bed time prayer ritual is one of the most important gifts that anyone has ever given to me. While my Dad no longer tucks me into bed and leads me in prayer (I am 36, after all!), the ritual has stuck with me. In fact, my night time prayer routine helped me get through middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. It was there when my Mom died of cancer when I was 20. I took it with me when my wife and I joined the Peace Corps. I brought it back with me 10 days later when we became Peace Corps drop outs. It was there for me on those two nights that my sons were born. And it was there on the night that we adopted our daughter.

That prayer has always given me a sense of peace and calm during good times and bad. The repetition of my Dad’s night time ritual provided me with a deep sense that I was loved. Not just by my Dad, but also by God.

As a father of three children, my Dad is my model for how to be a good father. So, I’ve decided to pass the night time prayer ritual along to the next generation. I pray with my children in the same way that my Dad prayed with me. We start with the same opening:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I’ve since discovered that the prayer continues, “If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways.” My Dad never prayed that happier ending. Maybe he didn’t know it. Or maybe he wanted to torment his son with the thought of death!

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reason. But I also know that it prepared me for the death of my mother.

Our culture doesn’t prepare us for death very well. We like to keep it at arms-length. But the truth is that death is unavoidable – grandparents, parents, children, and even pets. As much as we’d like to avoid it, we know about death from an early age. Paradoxically, the more we try to suppress the truth about death, the more power we give it over our lives. The gift that my Dad gave me in the opening of our prayer was the knowledge that death is natural. We don’t have to fear it. Instead, we can know that in life and in death, God is there with us.

The other night I was praying with my eight year old son. He’s a very curious boy. So, when I finished, he sat up, opened his eyes, and said, “Dad, there was something really weird about that prayer. I mean, what’s the deal with that part that says, ‘If I should die before I wake?’”

I remember asking the same question to my Dad when I was about eight years old. I can’t remember how he responded. But the years of praying those words prepared me for this answer: “You’re not going to die tonight. But at some point, everyone dies. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid of it. Because I love you. And so does God.”

“Okay Dad,” my son replied. Then he laid back down and fell asleep.

Image: Photo: Flickr: Nancy Big Crow, Praying Child, Creative Commons License, some changes made

sakina breaks a toy gun

Burying Guns; Planting Peace In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Dr. Hakim, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

10 year old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, “I don’t like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace.”

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group’s energetic desire to build a world without war. “I kept toy guns till about three years ago,” he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: “I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were its (the peace treaty’s) true authors, its reason for being.”

I’m confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky’.

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn’t going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul’s streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn’t have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam knew that it hasn’t been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn’t water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren’t helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. “Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn’t shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist.”

Sighing, he added ironically, “We can’t use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

“I don’t like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad,” Inam said, looking away, “because I feel a sort of helplessness.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference, “And we must speak, today – in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.”

Sakina tells the world

Sakina tells the world.

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, “#Enough of war!”

It wasn’t a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, “Bury your weapons. Build your gardens.”

“We will stand watch for you!”


Hakim, ( Dr. Teck Young, Wee ) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

Top Image:  “Sakina breaks a toy gun.” All images submitted with original article.


Unbridled Mercy

My heart breaks for a world scourged by violence.

Duped and deceived by the satan inside us.[1]

Accuse![2] Convict! Point fingers at “them.”

It’s us who are just! and they are condemned.


Our violence is good—it’s righteous and true.

God’s on our side and “they’ll” know that soon too.[3]

With power and might we lord over others,[4]

Accusing the prophets of being false brothers.[5]


Woe to those who confuse Christ for religion,

Who speak devilish things about those already forgiven.

Woe to those who demand blood in Christ’s name,

Who spit venom and poison[6], curse others, and blame.


The grace you demand is abundant and infinite

Yet the grace you give seems rather impotent.[7]

The grace of God is unfathomable[8] and yet,

You contend Love offers an eternal threat.[9]


A gospel with violence is unfounded and false.

It’s the opposite of Christ—a religious farce.

The way of the Christ is the way of the cross,

But in knowing the Christ, all else is loss.[10]


The way of Christ is preemptive grace.

Grace in the midst of a spit to the face.[11]

This model of forgiveness is what sets us free,

Free to love all with unbridled mercy.


[1] For a detailed expose on what/who is “the satan,” see Michael Hardin’s eBook aptly entitled, “The Satan.” It can be found at
[2] The satan, or “ha satan” in Hebrew, translates to “the accuser.”
[3] I am referring to the three major Abrahamic religions, which have many within the respective faiths who claim they are the chosen people and thus, that they have God on their side.
[4] See Matthew 20:25 – 27, where Jesus tells his followers they are not to lord over others, as the Gentiles do, but they are to become great by becoming as a servant.
[5] See Luke 11:50 – 51.
[6] See Matthew 23.
[7] Matthew 7:1 – 2.
[8] See Romans 11:32 – 33.
[9] I contend that since God is love (1 John 4:8), eternal conscious torment as a final fate for some humans is incompatible.
[10] See Philippians 3:8.
[11] See Matthew 26:67

Image: Created by Venrun. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License