The Qualifications Quibble: What Do We Require of Our Leaders and Ourselves?

The Qualifications Quibble

One of the electoral season’s obligatory scandals occupied the media spotlight last week when Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in mimetic rivalry, accusing (implicitly or explicitly) each other of being “unqualified” to be president.

Briefly, on a segment of Morning Joe, Hillary Clinton expressed concern that Bernie Sanders did not know how to deliver on his central campaign promise, to break up the banks, as an unflattering interview with the New York Daily News had implied. (Actually, Sanders’s assertion that he had the authority to break up the banks via the Dodd-Frank bill and the treasury department was correct, but the interviewer continued to question him, implying that he did not know his own talking points). She asserted that Sanders had “not done his homework.” While stopping short of calling Sanders unqualified, a staffer had leaked the Clinton political strategy to “disqualify” Sanders. In return, Bernie Sanders explicitly called Hillary Clinton “unqualified” to be president based on her vote for the war in Iraq, her millions of dollars in donations from Wall Street, and her support of trade deals that hurt American workers.

Being swept up in mimetic rivalry is par for the course when competing for anything, particularly for the highest office in the nation. For all the heat behind the words, negative campaigning is to be expected to draw contrasts between opposing candidates, and I do not begrudge either Clinton or Sanders for drawing contrasts. However, honesty matters. Clinton’s assertion that Bernie “had not done his homework” is based on a misleading and disingenuous interview that was spun by major media outlets against Sanders. If she had reached her conclusion that Sanders is unprepared based on her own experiences working with him in the Senate, as either a fellow Senator or perhaps as Secretary of State or First Lady, it would behoove her to give better examples. For his part, Sanders’s assertions that Clinton showed poor judgment on the Iraq war and trade deals, and that she has taken significant sums of money from Wall Street, are all true, though if he sincerely believes that these decisions are “disqualifying” he would not continue to pledge endorsement of Clinton should she be the Democratic nominee. In the heat of the campaign, both candidates may have been too loose with their rhetoric. But I do not think it benefits us to dwell on the scandal of he said/she said. This episode has brought up deeper issues, however. What, exactly, are the qualifications we demand of a leader? And what qualifications do we have when it comes to our role in building a better nation, a better world, a better future?

What Qualifies A Leader?

The media tends to frame elections in terms of candidates running against each other. That makes sense, of course, as elections are essentially competitions. But they are also an opportunity for candidates to tell the people what they are for. Likewise, when we think about what qualities we desire in a leader, it helps to ask, “What do we want for our people, our country, and our world?”

The most fundamental thing I want for our world – the one thing on which everything else depends – is a healthy and sustainable planet. Global warming is a threat to all life, far beyond American life, far beyond even human life. I believe we need a leader who takes the threat of global warming seriously and would be willing to take substantial action to reduce our carbon footprint.

Reducing our carbon footprint necessarily means reducing military action worldwide, as the United States military is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels on the planet. Of course, I wish for a reduction of our military action and our military budget not primarily for the sake of the land but for the sake of all people, as living in peace and security is a fundamental human right. But to speak of reducing our military action makes many people uncomfortable when we are convinced that our military actions are for our protection. If we view our protection as a priority over and against the welfare of others, we will be reluctant to reduce our military action or funding. But if we consider our welfare interconnected to that of others, and recognize that our violence perpetuates a cycle of violence, then we can understand that a leader can be for the security of our nation and for the replacement of violence with diplomacy and reconciliation at the same time. In fact, there is no way to be truly for security without being for peace, as violence will always perpetuate itself.

Finally, I want a leader who shows concern for the health, welfare, and prosperity of all people, particularly the marginalized. The quality of someone with much power can, I believe, be measured in his or her treatment of someone with little or no power. This means I want someone who is humble enough to listen when called out on privilege, and someone who can recognize and push to correct systemic injustice in its myriad forms, from racism to sexism to ableism to heteronormativity and more.

What Qualifies Us?

These are a few very broad areas that form the values I employ when considering candidates for a leader. But no leader can work alone, and the  people most in need of a more just, more compassionate, more peaceful world, those who currently suffer the most from marginalization, poverty, environmental degradation and violence, theirs are the voices that need to be heard the most. Whether leaders ensconce themselves in circles of power and shut out other voices or strive to their utmost ability to be true public servants, no leader, no administration, no government, can tackle the problems of our world without a vocal and active citizenry making demands and contributing time, ideas, and resources to solutions.

So when we consider what “qualifies” a leader, it is incumbent upon us to consider the goals we wish our leaders to work toward, and ask how we might work toward those goals ourselves, independently of election cycles, regardless of whomever occupies the Oval Office or any office.

If I want a healthy and sustainable planet, I must do my part to reduce my carbon footprint – from recycling to public or “green” transportation (biking, walking when possible), reducing packaging, being aware of energy and water consumption, and more.

If I want peace, I must strive for peace in my own relationships. I must humble myself to hear the criticism of others, be willing to do right by others even at the expense of my pride, replace enmity with empathy. I must also strive for peace among my children by modeling peaceful conflict resolution. I must continue to speak and work and occasionally take to the streets for peace in the community and the world. I must remind myself and everyone else that to be against a war is to be for the people, for the planet, for the future, even for the leaders who may wish for war in the first place, as our well-being is deeply and intimately interconnected.

If I want a more just, equitable and compassionate nation, I must embody solidarity with people on the social, cultural and economic margins. I must strive to understand my own privilege and listen to discover how to turn such privilege into equality. I must listen, learn, and act… in that order, or rather, in that order over and over again in a continuing cycle.


During election season, the horse race of who’s up and who’s down and the “scandals” of who said what latest “outrage” can drown out important issues. A negative tone permeates the atmosphere as we define ourselves not only against candidates, but against their supporters (who could be our neighbors!) Even when we agree on what we seek in a leader, we may disagree on which candidate best fulfills those qualities, and set ourselves up against even those who would normally be our allies. Campaign season, so interminably long in the United States, can bring out the worst in all of us.

But the changes required to heal our nation and our world require us working with each other and for each other, independently of the election cycle. They require that we recognize what we have to give beyond our vote. They do not require agreement on a particular decision, like whom to vote for, but they do require cooperation, listening in the midst of disagreement, and recognizing the value of the contributions of others.

As we consider what we require in a leader, let us ask what is required of us? This question was posed in scripture by the prophet Micah, and (separation of church and state notwithstanding), the answer is one that, with slight modification, serves us well as citizens: justice, kindness, and humility.

Image: Disney / ABC Television Group’s Photostream. Available on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs 2.0 Generic license

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Recovering From Militarism

Editor’s Note: Chicago-based journalist Robert Koehler’s articles are intuitively Girardian. While he may not write specifically about mimetic theory, his articles demonstrate the contagious nature of violence, and more importantly, inspire hope in the contagious power of compassion. We are honored to feature his articles every Thursday.

The pols cry glory and revenge. They cry security. They cry greatness.

Then they stick in the needle, or the missile or the rifle shell, or the nuclear bomb. Or at least they imagine doing so. This will fix the world. And they approve more funding for war.

U.S. militarism, and the funding — and the fearmongering — that sustain it are out of control . . . in the same way, perhaps, that stage 4 cancer is out of control.

We talk about “the Pentagon” as though it were a rational entity, hierarchically in control of what it does, dispensable as needed to trouble spots around the world: a tool of America’s commander in chief and, therefore, of the American people. The reality, undiscussed on the evening news or the presidential debates, is something a little different. The American military is an unceasing hemorrhage of cash and aggression, committed — perhaps only at the unconscious level — to nothing more than its own perpetuation, which is to say, endless war.

As Ralph Nader has noted recently: “. . . the military — this huge expanse of bureaucracy, which owns 25 million acres (over seven times the size of Connecticut) and owns over 500,000 buildings in the U.S. and around the world — is beyond anybody’s control, including that of the secretaries of defense, their own internal auditors, the president, tons of GAO audits publicly available, and the Congress. How can this be?”

The Department of Defense, which consumes over half the nation’s annual discretionary funding, has never been audited. The money disappears into a black hole and much of it is simply never heard from again. The situation is so outrageous that a congressional coalition of progressives and conservatives have launched an initiative, H.R. 5126, called the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2014.

According to the legislation’s sponsors: “The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 requires every federal agency to pass a routine financial audit each year. The Pentagon is the only cabinet agency that is ‘unauditable,’ according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office. In the last dozen years, the Pentagon has broken every promise to Congress about when DoD would pass an audit. Meanwhile, Congress doubled Pentagon spending.”

But this is only a small part of the hemorrhaging, metastasizing mess. We need to heal ourselves from, not simply audit, U.S. militarism.

“And no, the military doesn’t win wars anymore. It hasn’t won one of note in 70 years.” Gregory Foster, a West Point graduate and professor at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., wrote recently at TomDispatch. “The dirty wars in the shadows it now regularly fights are intrinsically unwinnable, especially given our preferred American Way of War: killing people and breaking things as lethally, destructively, and overwhelmingly as possible. . . .

“Instead of a strategically effective military,” he adds, “what we have is quite the opposite: heavy, disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, single-mindedly combat-oriented, technology-dominant, exorbitantly expensive, unsustainably consumptive, and increasingly alienated from the rest of society. Just as important, wherever it goes, it provokes and antagonizes where it should reassure and thereby invariably fathers the mirror image of itself in others.”

No, this is not the military the presidential candidates invoke so recklessly, but this is the military we have. And it is not stagnant. It’s growing, growing, growing — eating up the American budget and most members of Congress and most of the media, which at most are tepidly critical of the excesses of military spending ($640 toilet seats, $137 million F-35 Joint Strike Fighters) and the occasional moral lapses that reach public attention (rape, murder, Marines urinating on enemy corpses).

Despite the lost wars and the endless consumption of money, despite the failures of security and horrific growth of global terrorism since the U.S. began its war on terror, the country continues to militarize, both internationally and domestically.

Indeed, every outbreak of terror feeds the cancer, e.g.: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” presidential candidate Ted Cruz declared in the wake of this week’s Brussels bombings, stoking the fears of his potential supporters and heedlessly tossing them a scapegoat.

Fear consumes intelligence. And militarism is all about simplistic solutions: Identify an enemy and kill him. Problem solved!

The more people militarize their thinking, the stupider they get.

But the world is extraordinarily complex. Simon Jenkins, writing this week in the Guardian, talked about “seeking to alleviate, or not aggravate, the rage that gives rise to acts of terror,” which can only happen by seriously de-escalating our own aggression.

Maybe, as Foster put it, our only alternative is to “reconsider the very purpose and function of the military and to reorient it accordingly. That would mean transforming a cumbersome, stagnant, obsolescent, irrelevant warfighting force — with its own inbuilt self-corrupting qualities — into a peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian-assistance, disaster-response force far more attuned to a future it helps shape and far more strategically effective than what we now have.

“. . . this would mean seeking to demilitarize the military.”

I call this trans-military thinking: a take on personal and national security that is not centered on aggression and dominance, but on diplomacy and, my God, understanding. Is such a level of social reorganization impossible? Only if we concede that we have no future.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at or visit his website at


Image: “The Pentagon, January 2008” Photo by David B. Gleason. Available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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Iowa, Ted Cruz, and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Ted Cruz ended last night with a yuuuuge victory over Donald Trump in Iowa. (Sorry, had to do it!) Religion played a big role in Cruz’s victory. The New York Times reports that Cruz’s victory was “powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians.”

For his part, Cruz reaffirmed his connection with his evangelical supporters by invoking divine favor upon his victory. “God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first say, to God be the glory.”

But I can’t help but feel uneasy about the God proclaimed by Cruz and his evangelical supporters. That’s because, when it comes to their evangelical faith, they have an identity crisis.

The word “evangelical” has a specific meaning and history. It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news.”

Evangelical has become a distinctively Christian term, but during the first century it was used predominantly by the Roman Empire. In fact, when Caesar sent his armies off to conquer new land in the name of Roman peace, Roman soldiers would announce military strength as the “Gospel according to Caesar.” Rome waged peace through violence. In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley states that,

In the Roman world, the “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the “savior” who had brought “salvation” to the whole world. The peoples of the empire were therefore to have “faith” (pistis/fides) in their “lord” the emperor. Moreover, Caesar the lord and savior was to be honored and celebrate by the “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus.

Now, a good Bible believing evangelical will instantly recognize the politically subversive language of the New Testament. In the face of Roman military that brought the good news of “peace” by the sword, the early Christians delivered an alternative message of good news that claimed “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Make no mistake, their evangelical message was political. They sought to reorder the world, not through Caesar’s military strength, but through Christ’s nonviolent love.

The early Christians subverted Roman violence through their use of language and their actions. They claimed that the good news was found not in Caesar, but in Christ. Christ, not Caesar, was the “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. People were to have “faith” in him as their “lord.” Jesus was to be honored and celebrates at assemblies, which would become known as churches.

But for the early Christians, words weren’t enough. They took Jesus’ command to follow him seriously. Jesus didn’t lift the sword to defend himself against the violence that killed him, and neither did his disciples lift their swords. Rather, they continued to challenge the Roman Empire’s “good news” of achieving peace through violence. The disciples claimed that true peace could only be achieved by following the nonviolent way of Jesus, whose evangelical message commanded that his follower love everyone, included their enemies, including those who sought to persecute them. In following Jesus their Lord, the disciples were murdered, just like their Lord and Savior.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years to last night in Iowa and we discover that Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters have an identity crisis. They claim that Jesus is their Lord with words, but not in action. Cruz promises to “carpet bomb” America’s enemies. He promises to beef up the American military, a military that spends roughly the same amount as “the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The U.S. military is already the strongest military that the world has ever seen.

René Girard wrote in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End that Christians must make a decision about violence because Christ has left us with a choice, “either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

Christianity is non-belief in violence because it believes in the one true God who on the cross responded to violence not with more violence, but with nonviolent love and forgiveness.

“To God be the glory,” a victorious Cruz proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Iowa. But I can’t help but wonder – what God is Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters talking about? Because “Hey! Good News! We just carpet bombed the hell out of you,” sounds a lot more like the gods of ancient Rome than the God of Jesus Christ.

As long as evangelicals proclaim faith in Jesus as their Lord, but continue to believe in violence as the way to peace and security for the United States, they will suffer from an identity crisis. And rightfully so, because that combination is not the Good News.
Photo: Ted Cruz delivering his victory speech after the Iowa caucus. (Screenshot from YouTube, ABC News)


From Japan To Ferguson: Sacrificing Our Justifications For Violence

It has been a year since the death of Michael Brown, and seventy years since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I am in mourning. I am in rage. I am struggling to plow through with hope and faith in the God of Love who can redeem all of this suffering and senseless murder. I am struggling to live into that hope by learning and shouting the truth and acting upon it.

Michael Brown and the people of Nagasaki are connected by more than just their dates of death. They were murdered by authorities charged to serve and protect. They were sacrificed to a myth of American exceptionalism mingled with a false ideology of white supremacy. Fears were projected onto them. They were dehumanized. Their killings are justified by people who insist that they had to die for others to live.

It is our national faith in sacrifice, in the righteousness of violence, in self-justification and its mirror twin – other-demonization – that most fills me with despair, but also with determination to keep up the struggle to drown out the violence and oppression of the world with rivers of compassion and justice.

Moving forward sometimes feels like swimming through mud, a slow and arduous process, because we are steeped so deeply in a culture, a religion, of violence, overt and insidious. This past year has been a wake-up call to the systemic racial violence on our very own soil, which must be confronted concurrently with the racist, Islamophobic, greed-and-power-driven violence exported overseas. Recognizing the interconnection of these violences, their common roots and the way they feed each other, is essential to the work of rebuilding a new social order on the foundation of love and compassion.

The murders of Michael Brown and the people of Japan were hundreds, even thousands, of years in the making. A single finger pulled a trigger, a single finger pressed a button, but the blood is on an entire world order structured on a profound, but deadly misguided, belief in the salvific power of violence. René Girard teaches us how civilization was founded in murder, as people purged their rivalries over mutual desires by coming together against a scapegoat or enemy, the communal killing of whom produced the cooperation and emotional bonding necessary to form a society. Our own nation was certainly born in the blood of others, as settlers slaughtered Natives and lashes drew the blood of slaves who cultivated the land and became a backbone of the economy. Today, our military and police forces are portrayed by the predominant culture as critical to our safety and survival. Wars and police shootings are deemed necessary, even noble, by the powers that be. Those who “put their lives on the line” to serve and protect are honored and glorified by our culture. Yet the blood of the victims of our state and our military, washing over all of us, does not redeem; it convicts.

Ultimately, these murders can be traced in large part to racism and self-justification, both intimately tied to the scapegoating mechanism. Racism is a type of scapegoating that is deeply embedded in the social structure of the United States. Distinctively American racism can be traced back to the early days of settlement before independence. As Matthew Cooke tells us in this video, natural alliances between African slaves and white indentured servants threatened the elite, who restructured laws to give poor whites slightly more rights and thereby redrew alliances along racial lines. Order was thus enforced not by distributing justice, but by redirecting hostility to a new enemy – the black race – in such a way that preserved slavery, kept wealth in the hands of the few, and placated the poor whites with token privileges. The myth of white supremacy was reinforced by segregation, and it influenced theological interpretation, social science, and even the understanding of biology. Everything about white American culture was set up to portray blacks as inferior, and this myth was believed and passed along as truth. The entrenched racism integral to the foundation of the United States has not been fully uprooted to this day.

The moral pseudo-superiority inherent in racism is a hallmark of scapegoating violence. Righteous self-justification has evolved since the days of slavery and lynchings, but it is still not only a persistent human trait but also very much a part of the American cultural psyche. Overt racism was once considered by some a moral position, to the point where preachers could draw on stereotypes of hypersexualized, bestial black men to incite mobs to murder “righteously” in broad daylight. Now that racism has been exposed as immoral, denial of racial prejudice is necessary to maintain a sense of morality. But the tendency to define one’s self over and against others persists. De facto segregation, a large wealth gap favoring whites, a mass incarceration system disproportionately targeting African Americans, and more, divide the experience of life in America along racial lines, keeping prejudices alive but insidious. Moral superiority felt against those imprisoned, impoverished, or negatively portrayed in the media, often (not always) falls along racial lines.

The concept of superiority encompasses but also transcends race in American culture. “American exceptionalism” is drilled into our cultural consciousness from an early age. Our desire to see ourselves as noble and heroic is nurtured by an understanding of history that portrays the mistakes of the past as long gone, lessons learned. We are a people ever perfecting our union, with liberty and justice for all, we are told. Our self-glorifying culture resists reflection on the systems that enforce order and the order they enforce, at home and abroad. The violence of our military, with bases in over 70 countries, conducting operations both covert and open, is portrayed as a tool for establishing freedom and a “global force for good.”

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Racism and pseudo-righteousness cloak murder in the mantle of morality. Centuries of demonization of black males ultimately guided Darren Wilson’s finger on the trigger as he shot Michael Brown multiple times. His irrational fear, that a man already injured was a threat to his life, was deeply conditioned. While he should have been held accountable for his actions, his actions must also be examined in a larger context of the racism that makes the devaluation of black lives a fact of American life. Justification for Darren Wilson’s actions, however, is not just a product of unrecognized racism. It is also the product of faith in the goodness of the system of American law enforcement and American order in general. Officers who enforce order in a nation of liberty and justice for all are good guys; those they kill are bad guys. Thankfully this narrative is being challenged now, but for far too long it went largely unquestioned. The system of policing and law enforcement, while accomplishing good, is designed to uphold an order that is far more corrupt and inherently unjust than we have been conditioned to believe. This order protects the wealthy and hurts the poor and racial minorities in particular. The system can be redesigned, the noble desires to serve and protect can be exercised, but not without extracting the poisons of racism, greed, and resistance to self-reflection.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by "Necessary Evil" (plane commissioned to film the bombing. Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by “Necessary Evil” (plane commissioned to film the bombing). Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Faith in the military as a force for good also goes largely unquestioned. The myth of white supremacy is intermingled within foreign policies that seek to manipulate and exploit nations with darker-skinned people and lucrative resources. The myth of heroic violence, reinforced by conditioned belief in American exceptionalism, serves to mask racism, greed, and evil justification of brutality. The comingling of racism with unquestioned self-righteousness manifested itself egregiously in the release of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would this murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians have been justified in the minds of so many without the demonization of the Japanese, who of all the Axis powers were portrayed as the most ruthless and animal-like of enemies? Seventy years later, the lie that such an action was necessary to end the war persists despite evidence that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender before the bombs were dropped. Our reluctance to deal honestly with our historical atrocities enables those atrocities to continue. Death tolls of the war on terror are estimated in the millions. The threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over our heads while we ignore our commitment to disarm and make war all over the world under the pretense of protection, even as military experts (among others) have conceded that our wars have created new enemies, like ISIS, and ultimately make us and those we claim to protect less safe.

Our national order, our world order, is built on the sacrifice of devalued lives. At Raven, we preach mercy, not sacrifice. But in order to have mercy on the victims of our violence at home and abroad, it’s time to make some sacrifices that will alter our self-perception. We must sacrifice the myth of our unshakeable goodness. We must sacrifice our self-justifications. For white Americans particularly, we must sacrifice the denial of our racial prejudices and examine the ways laws and attitudes have continually marginalized black and brown people. The devaluation of black lives has proven deadly and rendered African Americans unsafe in their own nation. For all of us, we must sacrifice our complacency and our distraction that keeps us from seeing the devastation continually being waged in our name. We must sacrifice the myth of righteous violence and truly see the horror of families burying their dead, or fleeing with no time for burials, maimed bodies, birth defects, shattered cities, forfeited futures.

It is terrifying to renounce self-justification and let the truth of our scapegoating violence in all of its forms permeate our consciousness. It is terrifying to allow the notion that evil is not the exclusive property of the “other,” that it resides within our own hearts. But here is the Good News: we are already, infinitely and unconditionally, loved and cherished. We don’t need to define our worth against anyone else. We don’t need to redeem ourselves by finding someone “worse,” perpetuating cycles of violence. Instead, we need to look to the one who became our victim to expose our needless sacrifice of other victims. We need to live into the Love of our Heavenly Father who also loves our victims and our enemies.

What will the world look like when it is structured on all-embracing love rather than the over-and-against violence we see today? It will look like, and be, the Kingdom of God.


Top Image: Stock Photo by Charles Wollertz from

Good War, Bad War: One Tiger’s Opinion

bengal tiger

Photo by Liz Lauren

Three days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United  States Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force giving the president the authority to “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…” As Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death writes in a recent HuffPost article, there was only one dissenting vote that day against a measure that condoned a never ending war against anyone, anywhere doing anything perceived as a threat. Rep. Barbara Lee of California warned, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Few listened then. The divide between us and them seemed so vast. They were clearly evil and we were clearly innocent victims. It felt so easy to tell the difference between good and evil that Rep. Lee’s warning seemed more than a bit naïve. How would it be possible for “us” to become “them”?

A news story appearing 6 months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 caught the eye of playwright Rajiv Joseph. A soldier, who was on duty guarding the animals at the war-damaged Baghdad Zoo, shot and killed a tiger that had mauled another soldier. An absurd thing to happen in urban warfare when one imagines the risks come from guns or bombs, not caged animals. That story prompted Joseph to explore the absurdities of war, or rather our absurd lack of understanding of the impact of violence on the human spirit. The result was his provocative and profound play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, now playing at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. Joseph’s play thrusts us into the middle of a war zone and dramatizes just how possible it is for “us” to become “them”.

This is a difficult play to sit through, I can tell you. The central character is the ghost of the dead Tiger and he haunts the streets of Baghdad demanding that God show up and explain why he’s still around. Is God punishing him for doing what Tigers do naturally? “After all,” he says, “lunch usually consists of the weak, the small, the stupid, the young, the crippled. Because they’re easier to kill.” He’s not the only one preying on the weak, not the only ghost to question his acts of violence, and not the only death the audience witnesses. Good people, confused people, tortured people and lonely people become perpetrators and victims. Violence is done to them, they witness it done to others, they survive somehow and shockingly find themselves mirroring the violence all around them. Things seem to be happening just as Rep. Lee warned, but this is just a play, isn’t it? Don’t good moral people hang on to their goodness in real life, no matter what?

Bengal Tiger is hard to sit through because it dramatizes our confused, misguided understanding that good people can use violence in a just cause without losing a hold on goodness. If we feel frightened enough and victimized enough, we believe, good people have a right and duty to respond with our own violence and nothing will happen to our souls or our spirits. Our consciences will be untroubled, no doubt will haunt us nor should it. As the Authorization for Use of Military Force demonstrates, we believe good violence is so good it can be completely unrestrained by time, place or legal barriers. Thank you to Rep. Lee for asking us to rethink that one, to Norman Solomon for reporting on her, to Lookinggass for staging this play and to Rajiv Joseph for writing it. Maybe we need to be forced to use our imaginations to see where such thinking leads us. Joseph has done the hard work for us, exercised his imagination so vigorously that he gives us a play that unmoors us from our normal framework. His Tiger that talks instead of growls insists we wrestle with our inability to admit that unrestrained violence is a bad thing. To believe otherwise is to live in a world so absurd that a walking, talking, praying ghost of a Tiger murdered in his cage passes for normal.

Good people become the evil they deplore when they believe goodness and violence make a sensible combination. In his article, Solomon reports on the latest attempt by Rep. Lee to pierce our belief in unrestrained violence: she’s introduced H.R. 198, a measure to repeal the Authorization for use of Military Force. If you’re thinking, “About time!” then do what thousands have already done – go to the special webpage at and email your Senators and House members to support the repeal effort. If you’re still thinking our violence is an exception, always exceptionally good, go see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Or follow Norman Solomon or listen to our interview with the director the Lookingglass production, Heidi Stillman. Pick one – it’ll do you good.

Zero Dark Thirty and the Darkness of Torture

You can help yourself by being truthful.

-Maya in Zero Dark Thirty

banner_zero dark thirty bowden


I almost hesitate to write about Zero Dark Thirty…because I’m afraid of the reactions I might get. Some people have strong opinions that it endorses torture, while others passionately argue that the movie reports the historical fact that torture was used, and, if anything, suggests that torture is not an efficient way of obtaining information. Most of my friends and other people I respect are horrified by the movie’s implied message that torture led to accurate information that helped the United States find Osama bin Laden. I sympathize with John McCain’s statement in response to the movie, “Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information.” McCain, of course, speaks with great authority on the topic and we should know more about the efficacy of torture soon, as the “Senate Intelligence Committee recently approved a report on an extensive three-year investigation into the use of torture in interrogations.”

“Zero dark thirty” is a military term that refers to 12:30 am. For me, the title symbolizes the darkness of our world. In the opening minutes, Zero Dark Thirty zeroes in on the dark truth that torture has an all consuming effect on the perpetrator and the victim. It dehumanizes both. Dan, the interrogator, tortures a terrorist financier named Ammar. To convince Ammar that he is utterly “helpless,” Dan confines him to a cell, hangs him by his wrists from the ceiling with chains, forces him to listen to heavy metal music, deprives him of sleep, water boards him, forces him into a small container called “the box,” and shames Ammar for going #2 in his pants. Dan is clearly good at what he does. He’s the epitome of machismo and displays no sign of weakness while beating Ammar. Interestingly, this interrogation scene doesn’t provide any information; the more Dan tortures Ammar with physical, psychological, and emotional pain, the more Ammar seems determined to not provide any information. Ammar does provide information later when the main character, Maya, tricks Ammar with cleverness, charm, and kindness. But just as important, the torture scene ends by revealing the effect torture has on the perpetrator, Dan. He tells Maya, “I’ve seen too many guys naked. It’s gotta be over a … hundred at this point. I need to go do something normal for a while. You should come with me. You are looking a little strung out yourself.” Whoever Dan is, he is fundamentally not the “macho” tough guy we see torturing Ammar. He becomes physically and emotionally exhausted by inflicting torture upon others. It has dehumanized him and he knows it. The darkness of torture haunts him and he wants to save Maya from that haunting darkness, too. One only wonders if Dan would be haunted for the rest of his life.

Maya pays no heed to Dan’s invitation. In fact, she quickly takes Dan’s place as the tough character in the movie. She’s determined to hunt down bin Laden and refuses to back down from anyone, not even from Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA. She has no personal life and only one friendship. Her mission is all consuming. Maya met with the Navy Seals just before they went on their mission to raid bin Laden’s compound. As they confidently stride to their helicopter, Maya tells them to “kill him for me.” That “for me” tells us that her personal worth is determined by this mission. No need for a SPOILER ALERT here – the Navy Seals raid bin Laden’s house and, amidst the terrified cries of children living in the compound, kill all the men in the house. They brought bin Laden’s body back to the base. Maya examined the body and confirmed it was indeed the villain she had single mindedly pursued for ten years.

Ten years of Maya’s life came to this moment. She accomplished her mission and you’d think she would be ecstatic. Yet, in the final scene Maya sits in a plane. The pilot greets her and says, “You must be important. You got the plane to yourself. Where do you want to go?” But May has no answers. Of course, the question is about so much more than geography. It’s a spiritual question. The pilot fades from view. Maya is far from ecstatic. She’s alone and she cries. Those tears cannot be interpreted as cathartic tears of joy after killing bin Laden. Those are tears of darkness. Those tears are the result of toxic violence that has isolated her from her fellow human beings. Her violent quest has made her empty and darkened her soul.

So, in the end, Zero Dark Thirty asks us the same question, “Where do you want to go?” The movie has reinvigorated the debate about the morality of torture. But the movie is about much more than torture. It’s about violence. As the anthropologist René Girard claims in his book Violence and the Sacred, “evil and the violent measures to combat evil are essentially the same.” In other words, violence makes us the same as the evil we oppose. I left the movie theater thinking that the debate over the morality of torture misses the mark. President Obama argues against torture, saying, “We must adhere to our values.” It is the height of hypocrisy for the President of the United States to claim moral authority in the world because under his administration we no longer torture, while at the same time US drones kill innocent men, women, and children.

If we want a real debate in this country, we should be debating the morality of all violence, not just torture. The violence of the last 12 years has created an all consuming darkness within America’s soul. It’s a violent darkness that infects our families, religion, politics, shopping malls, and even our schools. In one sense, Zero Dark Thirty is about the search for truth. It points to the truth about the violent problems of our world, but it doesn’t provide the solution. And so we must ask, where do we want to go?

If we want a more peaceful world the path is not more violence. Like Dan and Maya, that path will only lead to more darkness and tears. The path to a more peaceful world takes us in the opposite direction; the direction of non-violent love and forgiveness.

Backwards Intentions in the War on Drugs

Guest author Buddy Bell is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He traveled to Afghanistan in May and June 2012 and stayed in Kabul as a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. He traveled to Honduras with the Alliance for Global Justice in July 2011 and in February 2012 with La Voz de los de Abajo. Email him here.

August 31, 2012

I’ll always remember a scene from my second day in Afghanistan, when 16-year-old Abdulhai asked me a question, in English. “Is this your first time in a backward country?” I could see at the time that his comment was spoken from a place of genuine frustration with trash-infested rivers, crumbling buildings, dust-choked air, and the way masses of starving unemployed people are forced to live in tents or under bridges. Still, it is a sad fact that many of the young Afghans I met have a tendency to view themselves in this way: as a “tribal people” in the grasp of a “warrior culture.”

Those are some of the sound bites the media throws around to explain for us Afghanistan’s natural slant toward decline and ruin. In such a perfect storm, it is easy for the public to miss the real and concrete roles that invading armies and manipulated markets have played in this physical and human destruction.

In September, Abdulhai and his community brother Ali might have been describing these contemporary features of everyday Afghan life directly to audiences across several U.S. states. They were invited to join with the “Caravan for Peace”, led by the Mexican grassroots organization MPJD (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity). I say “might have been” because despite petitions from thousands of people, the U.S. embassy in Kabul rejected their visa request. Now that they’ve made another appeal, they received appointment dates that fall a week after the caravan is scheduled to end. As of today, the embassy has refused to expedite the interview dates despite a request from seven Congresspersons that they do so.

During my stay in Afghanistan, I went to talk to students at a women’s high school run by USAID (Agency for International Development). A few years ago, six of this school’s students were granted visas to travel for three months on a multistate tour of the United States. These teenage women were of similar age and background as Ali and Abdulhai— it’s likely they had no parcels of land registered in their name and no large bank account, either. Yet USAID apparently had no problem bringing the three of them over.

Not so for a caravan tour designed to challenge the myth of the forward-thinking U.S. government – a government that spreads its ‘forward-ness’ all over the globe. In particular, the MPJD has been highlighting the U.S. military puppetry going on in Mexico in the most recent phase of the so-called War on Drugs. In other words, the caravan has been airing out the U.S. government’s backwards polka-dot underwear for a few weeks now. Was the U.S. embassy blind to all that linen blowing in the breeze? Will the U.S. public become accustomed to seeing the patterns? Let’s showcase a couple more of the designs in their collection…


The 2009 U.S.-backed military overthrow of the elected government in Honduras resulted in a zealously selective legal system. While democracy activists endured a brutal crackdown, violent crime and drug trafficking were far less widely punished provided the perpetrators were working in league with the country’s major industries: biodiesel, gold mining, and tourism construction.

Today, dangerous criminals and drug kingpins continue to operate untouched; this hands-off policy is fixed firmly in place even within the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa.

A leaked State Department cable from March 19, 2004 revealed that the Honduran Air Force (HAF) had been recording the flight tracks of drug planes landing on property of the country’s richest person, biodiesel tycoon Miguel Facussé. The cable calls it “the third time in the last fifteen months that drug traffickers have been linked to this property owned by Mr. Facussé.”

Despite incriminating documents, the U.S. government took no corrective action in the case. Furthermore, a September 8, 2009 cable reveals that then-ambassador Hugo Llorens invited Facussé for lunch to ask for political advice. At no point was he asked to account for the suspicious movements occurring on his property.

In contrast, on May 11, 2011, a helicopter belonging to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) saw fit to fire on a small river boat it observed while flying over the Ahuas rainforest, suspecting it might have drugs aboard. Instead it was filled with local residents traveling between towns, four of whom are now dead – including a pregnant woman – and another four of whom are badly wounded. One of the wounded may need both legs amputated due to her bullet wounds. The survivors escaped only by jumping into the river. The DEA denies any liability or responsibility to the victims and their families. The agency is also in possession of a surveillance video of the incident, which it refuses to release.

Whether the DEA likes it or not, what already have been released are the diplomatic cables that affirm the gross injustice of their selective investigations and selective enforcement. By definition, none of these investigations and rash actions ever seems to match up with all of the evidence readily available.

After the fallout from the leaked cables, ambassador Llorens resigned and then spent about a year teaching in the United States before accepting a de-facto promotion to “Assistant Chief of Mission” in Kabul, Afghanistan. In fact, he now presides over the same office that makes the decision on visas.


Afghanistan has long been the world’s main source of opium, and since 2010, it is also the leading supplier of marijuana. The more profoundly undemocratic features of the Afghan government only exacerbate the problem. A constitution written in Washington, DC and a president chosen in Bonn, Germany (and ratified in elections widely regarded as stolen) were not what most Afghans might have initially expected from a military operation that was first called “Infinite Justice” and later, “Enduring Freedom”.

This is not a system in which ordinary people feel they can survive by sharing their ideas and efforts, devoting themselves to peaceful and productive activity, such as cultivating worthwhile crops to feed Afghans. Instead, the grinding insecurity and the complete lack of public accountability feed incentives for growing opium and processing it into heroin for a relatively easy profit.

Not only are the institutions inherently permissive of drugs and corruption, but sometimes the U.S.-backed Afghan government takes the concrete step of putting drug smugglers into high office. This is fairly simple, logistically, considering the Afghan president gets to hand-select unelected governors for each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

One particularly gruesome example comes from the western province of Farah, where President Karzai’s interior ministry wanted to appoint a man named Yousif Baghlani. Many of the elders in Farah knew this man to be Bashir Baghlani, a murderous partner of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious heroin king and warlord from the country’s east. The Kabul government had changed the name in order to dampen public outrage after failed attempts to appoint him in other provinces. The people in Farah communicated their contempt for this man to the interior ministry, but ultimately the ministry chose their own loyalist over these objections.

One day while I was in Kabul, I met a young man from one of the eastern provinces that is an opium center where Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami militants are currently active. He told me that it is common knowledge back home that much of the opium gets transported out of the region by aircraft. If this is the case, the U.S. embassy must know about it, but will they take any action on that evidence?


Last May, Hamid Karzai came to the NATO summit in Chicago and spoke of how Afghanistan needs more help in order to improve its institutions, so that it “is no longer a burden on the shoulders of the international community.” Within hours, the media had come up with another catchy phrase to describe the country: “World’s Burden”. But Afghans bear a much heavier burden when subjected to the weight of corrupt governments and unjust, invasive foreign influence.

Hondurans and Afghans could make far greater strides towards real freedom— including women’s rights— if they were allowed to make space for actual democracy in their own communities. In Honduras, I have visited townspeople whose homes and possessions were completely destroyed by political repression. They organized to pool their remaining money in order to take care of the immediate needs of the most vulnerable, such as getting milk for pregnant mothers.

Another scene I won’t forget from Afghanistan is when I attempted to help Ali, one of the teens rejected for a visa, with a math problem. Despite the fact that I hold a college degree in the subject, Ali is the one who eventually taught me the written long-hand formula for finding a square root. In an age of calculators, the math curriculum in the United States must have discarded this “backwards” problem-solving method long before I took 6th grade math.

What if the old ways of solving problems are still workable in the present day? What if the past provides us with the resourcefulness, the ingenuity, the one insightful puzzle piece necessary in deriving the formula to a brand new path to achieve peaceful relations among local and global neighbors?

Right now we don’t understand the puzzle of how to stop dominating and exploiting the world. Governments don’t know how to treat drug addiction at home as an illness, to allow people abroad the means of living full lives without participation in the drug trade. We should not discount the lessons we might learn from meeting people with different, but not inferior, experiences and backgrounds. This is how we could stop walking “forward” with blinders on.

Military Terror Plot: Are You Shocked?

The Huffington Post thinks we should be shocked. But I’m not.

The story’s headline on the front page of Huffington Post Crime section reads “SHOCK: Serving Soldiers Planned To Bring Down U.S. Government.” That’s the headline, but the title of the article reveals a bit more: “Military Terror Plot: Murder Case Uncovers Terror Plot By ‘Militia’ Within U.S. Military.” The Huffington Post reports that an anarchist militia group from within the U.S. military had very ambitious plans:

It plotted to take over Fort Stewart by seizing its ammunition control point and talked of bombing the Forsyth Park fountain in nearby Savannah … In Washington state … the group plotted to bomb a dam and poison the state’s apple crop. Ultimately, prosecutors said, the militia’s goal was to overthrow the government and assassinate the president.

The members of the group were composed of active-duty and former members of the military. They purchased $87,000 worth of guns, including semi-automatic rifles, and bomb components. The leaders of the militia recruited troubled soldiers who were disillusioned. They did more than just plan their violent coup’ they had already taken action. They murdered two people who left the militia, calling them “loose ends.” Prosecutor Isabel Pauly stated yesterday to the Superior Court Judged that they had done even more. “The domestic terrorist organization did not simply plan and talk. Prior to the murders in this case, the group took action. Evidence shows the group possessed the knowledge, means and motive to carry out their plans.” Prosecutors also stated that they don’t know how many members the terrorist militia had recruited.

It’s a troubling story of violence, but the story doesn’t shock me. We want to be shocked. We want to think that a terrorist militia group within the military is aberrant. We want to think it’s a small group of crazy, disillusioned soldiers. We want to think that they are the problem. But the problem is much bigger than them. The cause of their violent plans is directly related to the cause of the violence that has plagued the United States during the last three months. There is one thing that connects the violence within the military to the violence at schools to violence at a movie theater to violence at a house of worship. That connection is revealed by mimetic theory.

René Girard, the father of mimetic theory, claims that “Humans relations are essentially relations of imitation” (Evolution and Conversion, 238). Throughout our lives we have a profound capacity to absorb and mimic our cultural environment. As we absorb that spirit, we mimic (imitate) the actions of those around us. Here is the mimetic connection to the events of the summer: those tragic acts of violence are committed by people who have absorbed our culture of violence – a culture that claims the way to defeat violence is with our own violence.

Some people will claim that I’m letting these people off the hook by blaming a “culture of violence.” I’m not. I’m putting us all on the hook. If we really want an end to violence, we all need to take responsibility for the violence in our culture. We must admit that we are all infected by a culture of physical, emotional, and verbal violence. It’s in our politics, in our military, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our music, and on our television and movie theater screens.

We are all part in our mimetic culture of violence, but none of us is enslaved to it. There is a mimetic alternative to the absorption of violence that has run amuck in our culture. Girard states that from within our mimetic nature we have options. “We will always be mimetic,” wrote Girard, “but we do not have to engage automatically in mimetic rivalries [violence]. We do not have to accuse our neighbor, we can learn to forgive him instead” (Evolution and Conversion, 262.) That’s the only alternative to the mimetic violence running rampant in our world: mimetic forgiveness.

Rick Perry and Jesus: Strength and Weakness

One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, ‘How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?’ – Walter Wink

It was at the end of our youth group. Most already left to catch a ride home from their parents, but a few high schoolers remained. They wanted to discuss Rick Perry’s anti-lgbt commercial called “Strong.” The video went viral on youtube within hours of its release. It prompted others to post their own videos on youtube, mocking Perry. Even Jesus Himself got in the act.

“What Rick Perry said … well … it made me sad,” one of the students said.

“Sad,” I responded. “Why sad?”

“Because it’s not Christian.”

Wait. Wait. I had to call a time out, because this was powerful. You know when you have those moments when you sense something big, I mean Big, is about to happen? I tried to calm my mind so that I could ask a question that would take us further into the Perry controversy.

“What’s not Christian about it?”

“He’s putting down another group. And he’s saying that gay soldiers who sacrifice their lives for us are somehow deficient. I don’t care where you stand on the military and war.  That’s not Christian.”

(Note: This young lady is fiery. She knows where I stand on war, which is why she brought it up. She’s confrontational, argumentative, and sometimes stubborn. And she’s all kinds of wonderful.)

“Okay. Well, how would you respond to Rick Perry. As a Christian. Because there are all kinds of people responding to him. They’re mostly mocking him. Is that a good Christian response?”

“Well, no.”

I pressed further. “So, how would you respond?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’d probably try to listen to his story. Try to understand where he’s coming from. Try to reason with him.”

At this point I was feeling bold, so I said something like, “Listening is great. Do that. But,” and maybe I should have stopped here, but, I decided to keep going. “You can’t reason with people. It won’t work. He has plenty of ‘reason’ to say what he said. He’d even quote the bible. And then you could quote the bible back. No, the only way for people to change is to see the consequences of their actions. To see that you’re sad. Stay sad. Let people see the hurt. And then move on. Leave the sadness and the hurt behind. Don’t let the hurt own you; let love own you. Which means don’t fight evil with evil. That only turns us into the evil we oppose.”

Sad. I think that’s the right response. It’s sad because Rick Perry used Jesus to “put down another group,” as my high schooler said. Still, there is truth in Perry’s commercial. Faith can make us strong. But a faith that scapegoats others is the wrong kind of faith. In fact, it’s a weak, demonic faith. The faith that will make us strong is a Jesus-like faith that seeks to include others, especially those “others” that make us uncomfortable, into a community of love. As hard as it is for my feeble heart to admit, Jesus seeks to include Rick Perry into that community too.

A faith that challenges us to love and include those we vehemently disagree with – that kind of faith will make us strong.


How did you respond to Rick Perry’s video?

Can we “reason” with people who have differing points-of-view?  Why/why not?

What do you think of the statement, “The only way for people to change is to see the consequences of their actions?”

(For insights on the Iowa Caucus and scapegoating, see “A Unique New Year’s Resolution and the Iowa Caucus.“)