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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.

Conclusion

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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The Real Reason Senate Republicans Are Blocking the Supreme Court Nominee

President Obama recently announced his nominee to fill the seat left vacant on the Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia. By all accounts, Obama’s pick is a politically safe choice in a Republican controlled Senate. Merrick Garland is known as a moderate, so much of a moderate that many Progressives are criticizing him as, “an extraordinarily disappointing choice.”

I don’t know much about Garland, but I have no problem admitting that I think he’s adorable. I mean, after Obama introduced him as his nominee, Garland said this:

This is the greatest honor of my life, other than Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago.

See. He said marrying his wife was the greatest honor of his life. That’s adorable. But his adorability factor only increased the more he talked!

As my parents taught me by both words and deeds, a life of public service is as much a gift to the person who serves as it is to those he is serving.

I know. Your heart is melting. Mine is too! And then he said this:

I know that my mother is watching this on television, and crying her eyes out. So are my sisters, who have supported me in every step I have ever taken. I only wish that my father were here to see this day.

Move over Pope Francis. I have a new crush.

Okay. Let’s get serious for a second. As a Progressive, I wish Obama would have risked nominating someone who would add more diversity to the Court. I agree with that criticism. But I also know that Obama is playing a political game. Whatever noble reasons Obama may have for picking Garland (like the fact that he’s adorable!) Obama is attempting to stick it to the Republican Senate one last time. He chose a moderate because it’s his chance to end his presidency defeating his rivals. If the Republicans pass Garland through, it’s a win for Obama. But if they don’t pass Garland, Obama will still win by claiming it as the capstone to his 8 year relationship with an obstructionist Republican Senate. Even when Obama bends over backwards to appease the Republicans, they obstruct him.

Indeed, soon after Scalia’s death, the Republicans began playing their game, vowing to stonewall any nominee that Obama presented. On the surface, Republicans have argued the same noble reasons as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – they want to wait until the next president is elected to allow “the people a voice in filling this vacancy.”

That seemingly noble reason is not the real reason that Republicans refuse to give Garland a hearing. And as a Progressive, I want to be clear – the real reason that Republicans won’t give Garland a hearing is not because they are evil people bent on obstruction. It’s too easy for us to scapegoat the Republicans. No, the real reason is because our two party system is caught up in a political game of mimetic, or imitative, rivalry for power.

On the surface, it seems as though Obama and the Republicans are fighting over Constitutional policy. Obama states that he wants to fulfill his constitutional duty by nominating a Supreme Court Justice. But Republicans counter with their own constitutional justification that they have the right to reject whomever the president nominates.

But Republicans have taken policy beyond the Constitution by citing the precedent of two “rules.” First, the “Thurmond Rule,” named after the late Republican Senator Strom Thurmond. The “Thurmond Rule” claims that “the party not occupying the White House shall block any and all judicial nominees brought before the Senate during a presidential campaign season.”

As a Progressive, I want to shout all kinds of expletives at the so called “Thurmond Rule”!

But the Republicans have a secret weapon in this game for power. The second rule they employ is the Democratic version of the “Thurmond Rule.” The Republicans refer to it as the “Biden Rule,” which was put forth by then Democratic Senator Joe Biden. In 1992, Biden stated that, “President Bush should consider following the practice of the majority of his predecessors and not … name a nominee until after the November election is completed.”

These “rules” aren’t binding, of course. They aren’t in the Constitution. They are unwritten rules that each party has employed to obstruct the other party. And by referring to the “Biden Rule,” Republicans are invoking a brilliant political strategy in this game – their secret weapon is to turn the words of a high ranking member of the Obama White House against their own nominee.

Underneath the surface issue of following the Constitution or unwritten rules, the real issue is an imitative grasp for power. The irony is that each side claims the noble high ground of fighting for Democracy and the Constitution, yet each side plays by the same “rules” of obstruction when it fits their agenda to gain political prestige. As NBC political analyst Chuck Todd says, “Democrats have played this game [and] Republicans have played this game … If hypocrisy were water when it comes to judicial process, we’d all drown in Washington.”

The irony of political rivalry goes even deeper because as each side claims that their methods are noble and just, each side denies that they are simply playing the same hypocritical game, imitating one another in the grasp for power. It’s that aspect of imitative rivalry that makes each side look like the mirror image of the other.

There is no easy answer to our political rivalries, especially when our three branches of government are meant to check and balance one another. It’s a great system, but it also fosters this kind of political competition for power. Part of the answer to our political problems is to stop denying the reality that we play by the same “rules” meant to obstruct the other side. Admitting that is hard, because when we do, we acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that when it comes to our political rivals, our methods of grasping for power make us more similar than we’d like to admit.

Photo: Merrick Garland with Barack Obama and Joe Biden (Screenshot from Youtube.)

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Trump: The GOP’s Monstrous Double

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Ellen Corcella.

Marco Rubio took on a new persona for the February 25, 2016 Republican presidential debate hosted by CNN.  He transformed himself from a sound-bite constrained candidate to an attack dog.  In an online article the day after the debate, CNN’s reporter Eric Bradner wrote that Rubio owned the stage and “mercilessly prodded, slammed and taunted Trump, talking over him in a sustained way.”  Rubio was not the only transformed candidate, because Ted Cruz also went on a sustained attack on Trump’s lack of conservative credentials.  Trump, meanwhile, continued to be Trump, making fun of Rubio’s perspiration and calling Cruz a liar.  Plainly, the campaign has devolved into a chaotic trading of personal insults and accusations that appear to have little to do with presidency of the U.S.

The mainstream media is fueling this politics of personal destruction and asking questions that do not relate to the functions needed in our next president. Repeating Rubio’s accusations through several news cycles, as well as Trump’s responses, the media wonders — Is Rubio running scared? Is the Republican conservative establishment trying to block Trump’s triumphant march to the GOP presidential nomination?  Has the GOP woken up too late to stop Trump? Only time will answer the media’s questions, but the more critical question is why are the key candidates acquiescing to Trump’s strategy of chaos, personal insults and tirades against each other, and is this what the GOP really wants as a U.S. President?

I suggest that the phenomenon we are witnessing is mimetic and imitative rivalry.  According to cultural theorist René Girard, the more the rivalry intensifies, the more the rivals begin to look like each other.  The imitation runs both ways and, in the same week, Trump promised to be nicer and use less foul language in imitation of rivals.  So, we are witnessing the emergence of doubles.  Girard tells us this is an ironic process because as rivals strenuously protest their differences, their likenesses becomes more apparent and the rivalry becomes uglier and more violent.

The GOP presidential primaries have turned ugly and chaotic. In the days after that debate, Cruz, Rubio and Trump have relentlessly hurled insults at the other and, in the process, have participated in the denigration and demeaning of the U.S.’s political process.  In a nation haunted by daily violence, I suggest that the last thing we need is to watch our carefully constructed political system, designed to promote democracy, implode upon itself.

The way a system rids itself of impending destructive violence is to heap responsibility for the chaos and disorder upon a scapegoat.  The last few days show that the establishment prefers a candidate willing to implement, without question, the Republican conservative agenda.

The problem is that Trump is not the illness; he is the symptom of a wider, deeper sickness within the political right and much of our larger political process.  The fact is the political right has been shouting, stomping, obstructing the “other” for decades.  The “other” is anyone that threatens to take away their power, privilege, money and prestige.  The GOP establishment wants a president who will defend their control of the wealth and resources of our country.

The true rivalry in this contest is not between Trump and the other presidential candidates; it is between Trump and the right wing Republican establishment. This became clear when Mitt Romney fiercely attacked Trump on the morning of the next presidential debate held a week later on March 3, 2016.  Romney told the crowd that Trump was not a genuine business success because he inherited his wealth.  Romney seems to have forgotten that he not only inherited his wealth, he inherited his access to power and political office.  His father, George Romney, was the president of the American Motor Corporation, the Governor of Michigan and the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Richard Nixon.  Trump and Romney inherited their privileged positions in life, expanded their inherited fortunes and grew up with the kind of access to power the vast majority of us can only dream about.  Romney did not attack Trump’s policies because they mirror the heart of the GOP’s policy wishes; a desire for a bigger wall at our southern border and an intent to implement a national security policy based upon religion or ethnicity — Muslim or Syrian, for example — rather deterring the real threat of home grown terrorists and mass murderers.   Romney, Trump, Rubio and Cruz embrace economic, trade and labor policies that ensure the rich get richer and that ignore the U.S.’s deeply entrenched problems of poverty, income inequality, racial division and injustice.

The GOP believes Trump to be “monstrous” despite being the twin of the establishment because Trump drops the facade of political correctness, he openly trades on fear and anger, he is not beholden to anyone and he doesn’t play by any rules but his own.  The establishment’s response to Trump is much like the response of a young girl when she encountered her new baby sister coming home from the hospital with a dear friend — the daughter cried, “I wanted a sister, but not that sister.”  The GOP wanted a white, male, rich, privileged, antagonistic candidate like Cruz, but not the white, male, rich, privileged, antagonistic candidate who is winning –Trump.

The question is, how much violence will this destructive rivalry do to our political process?  Will the GOP accept the results of the primaries or take control of the nomination process to get their candidate?  My best estimation is that the establishment will continue to scapegoat Trump all the way to the Republican convention.  The ideological right will hold Trump responsible for the decline of civility in politics and will brand Trump as the true threat to our democratic process.   The Republicans will then congratulate themselves for not being like Trump and select one of Trump’s more palatable doubles as their presidential candidate.

Ellen-CorcellaEllen Corcella has a M.T.S., M.Div. from Christian Theological Seminary, a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center; her Master’s Thesis explored mimetic theory.

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

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The Butter Battle Redemption

Happy 112th Birthday to Dr. Seuss!

At the Raven Foundation, we love Theodore Seuss Giesel. Our 5-part series on The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss is only part of it! We have tributes and parodies and analyses of his beloved characters. We love us some Seuss/ You know that it’s true / We love us some Seuss, by golly! / We do!

One of my favorite books by Dr. Seuss is The Butter Battle Book where the Yooks and the Zooks battle over, you guessed it, butter! It doesn’t take long for adult readers to notice that this is a satirical commentary on the arms race and the Cold War, and even children who don’t know the history can see that it’s a book of mimetic doubling and rivalry (though children might not use those terms) over something ridiculous. When it all comes down, nothing that we fight over is worth the lives of the people fighting. There are things worth laying one’s life down for, but not worth taking another life. That is part of why I love “The Butter Battle Book,” for pointing out the farce behind war. It also deftly illustrates the contagion of violence and the blindness we have to our own sins in the heat of battle. Of all the Seuss books I have read, this one is the most intuitively Girardian.

As a child, however, The Butter Battle Book scared me, because it goes from silly to frightening in a few short pages. By the end of the story, the Yooks and Zooks both stand on the brink of nuclear annihilation! Is there any hope for either of them?

I dare to imagine that there is hope for them, and hope for us. If violence is contagious, so is compassion. If violence can build up, love can build up too.

With that, friends, I give you, in honor of Dr. Seuss, The Butter Battle Redemption. But please read the Butter Battle Book first if you are unfamiliar with the story. This text is missing a few lines, but it will do to give you an idea of what the story is about. I pick up right where Seuss left off…

 

“Grandpa!” I shouted. “Be careful! Oh, gee!

Who’s going to drop it? Will you…? Or will he…?”

“Be patient,” said Grandpa. “We’ll see. We will see…”*

 

And there they both stood, on that wall way up high,

Looking the enemy square in the eye.”

On sore, aching feet, they each found the power

To stand tall on that wall, hour after long hour.

I watched their legs quiver, I watched their hands shake

And I feared they might fall, or drop their bombs by mistake.

 

Then my brain was besieged by a terrible notion,

“Grandpa!” I shouted, choking back my emotion,

“This Boomeroo plan, why, it never will do!

If you drop your bomb, VanItch will fall too!

And his bomb will explode, blowing me and you too

And all Yooks and all Zooks clear to Kalamazoo!”

 

Grandpa, still keeping his eyes on VanItch,

Said, “You may be right, Son, but I don’t trust him one stitch!”

“And I don’t trust you” VanItch snarled and sneered,

“But the kid’s got a point, though to say so feels weird…

And even if you don’t butter your bread upside-down,

It’s not worth blowing up my beautiful town!”

 

After hemming and hawing, without turning their backs,

Grandpa and VanItch agreed not to attack…

“Not yet,” Grandpa scoffed, “but when you’re off your guard,

You can bet we will hit you and we’ll hit you hard!”

“On that day,” VanItch laughed, “pigs will fly to the moon!

Cause we’re watching you Yooks, and we’ll get you guys soon!”

 

Matching each other step for step, they retreated,

Vowing the other would soon be defeated.

Down the wall, down the hill, to their camps underground

Grandpa and VanItch headed back to their towns.

Grandpa told Chief Yookeroo the whole story.

“Those Zooks still remain, Sir,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Chief Yookeroo shook his sad, wrinkled old head,

His raspy voice choking back pain as he said,

“Those Zooks are yet worse than I thought could be true,

Threat’ning us Yooks with their own Boomeroo!

Don’t you worry, Ol’ Chap. We will soon make them pay,

And how fine we will feel on that glorious day!”

 

We made and we stored even more Boomeroos

Though I didn’t know why. Surely just one would do!

Our school issued large books, much more than we could carry

On defense against evil Zook upside-down dairy!

And now and again, a great whistle would sound

A butter drill issuing us all underground.

 

But one day, when that drill shrilly pierced my sore ears,

I refused to succumb to our town’s butter fears…

I was tired of hiding away from the sun,

And determined to finally have me some fun.

So while the Yooks marched underground, one and all,

I held back, and then made my way to the Wall.

 

Though the thought of those terrible Zooks made me shudder

To think of the foul things they did with their butter,

I wanted to see them, I wanted to spy

Perhaps then, I’d finally learn some reason why…

Why butter your bread with the butter side down

And threaten our good, honest, butter-up town?

 

So I went to the Wall. Up I climbed, stone by stone,

Til I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone!

I saw a small hand reaching over the top.

So I tried quick to hide! Down I fell with a drop.

But before I could run, a young Zook, just my age,

Shouted down at me, his voice full of rage,

 

“What are you doing here, sneaking into our town?”

“Look who’s talking,” I cried, as the young Zook climbed down.

There we stood, face-to-face, both as mad as could be,

But I was shocked to discover, he looked so much like me!

Perhaps he noticed too, for the look in his eye —

The harsh scowl — disappeared, and he started to cry…

 

“Why do you hate us? Why are you so mean?

Why do you try to smash us to small smithereens?

You’re the reason I hide in an underground cave,

With my mother and father and brother named Dave.

With your slingshots and goo guns and Big-Boy Boomeroos,

You’ve ruined our lives, yucky Yooks! Yes, it’s true!”

 

I wanted to protest, I wanted to shout,

But I knew all too well what he was talking about.

And that poor, scared, sad Zook, with his eyes full of tears

Said the same things I’d wondered through all my young years.

“What does it matter, to your hateful town,

If we butter our bread with the butter side down?

 

“All I want is to spend one more day in the sun,

Climbing trees! Swimming rivers! And having some fun!

But thanks to your lot, I cannot play outside.

‘It’s too risky,’ Mom says. And so I have to hide.

Well, I’m tired of hiding! So I’ve come here to say,

I won’t be afraid of you Yooks, come what may!”

 

“And all that I want,” I cried, “is to play

Like I did before that dark, horrible day

When your big Boomeroo threatened our land,

So I came here today so I could understand

Why it is you hate us!” Then through salt-tears I sputtered,

“Frankly, Zook, I don’t care what you do with your butter!”

 

IMG_3455And as we stood there sobbing, a feeling so strange

Washed over my heart. I felt myself change.

As I looked at that Zook, looking right back at me

All my anger was gone. And my heart felt pity.

I did not want to fight him. Right there, as I faced him,

I found my arms reaching right out to embrace him!

 

We found ourselves talking about all sorts of things

About football! And summer! And homemade paper wings!

We had much more in common than I’d ever thought

Despite all the terrible things I’d been taught.

How much time, we agreed, we had wasted to fight

Over who buttered better. It just wasn’t right!

 

We fast became friends, that young Zook and I.

It turned that he was a good, decent guy.

We met by the Wall during underground drills

When no one would find us. We had great fun, but still

We wished we could meet right outside in the open

With no wall between us. We kept wishing and hoping

 

For a day in the future when no one would care

How the other guys buttered their bread over there.

We longed for the day when we could introduce

Our new friend to our families. We longed for a truce.

But our families kept right on hating each other.

So I had to keep sneaking to meet my Zook brother.

 

Until one day in school, I was feeling quite bold,

And the anti-Zook ranting was getting quite old,

So when my teacher told us, for the 400th time

Just why buttering bread upside-down was a crime,

I stood up and shouted, “With respect, Mr. Krout,

I don’t think you know what you’re talking about!”

 

The whole classroom gasped, and old Mr. Krout staggered,

“Young man, that was rude,” he yelled at me in anger.

“I should wallop you now for insubordination,

And I would, if your Gramps had not fought for our nation.

Now sit right back down, cause its high time you learned

Those who question the right way to butter get burned!”

 

But I didn’t sit down. I stood looking around,

At my trembling classmates, at old Mr. Krout’s frown.

And I said, “All this anger, all this fear, all this hate…

Can’t we stop it all now, before it’s too late?

How long have our spirits been stuck in the gutter

Over something as silly as how we all butter?

 

“Mr. Krout, and my friends, don’t you all miss the sun?

Don’t you miss the old days, when we played and had fun?

Now we’re stuck inside worrying, preparing for the worst

And planning on how we might strike the Zooks first.

Well, I’ve met a Zook, and he’s nice as can be.

You should meet them yourselves! Come and look! Come and see!”

 

Mr. Krout shook with rage, and he said, “That’s enough!

I’ll take no more lip from you! I’ll take no more guff!

I ought to have you locked up in the stocks for a week

For the terrible things that we all heard you speak!

This is your last chance, foolish boy, understand?”

Then to my great surprise, timid Todd raised his hand.

 

He was shy and soft-spoken, but trembling, he stood

And said, “These last few months haven’t been very good.

I’m so tired of fighting. I just want it to end.

What if, just what if, Zooks could be our friends?”

And to my great amazement, one by one all my mates

Stood up and stood with us! It felt really great!

 

“I don’t know about Zooks,” said my friend Jenny Jane,

“But I sure wish I could play outside again.

Maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe it isn’t worth

Making bombs that could easily destroy the whole earth.”

“And I’d love to explore to what’s beyond that old wall,”

Said my buddy Big Billy-Boy Benson McGall. “Maybe those Zooks are ok after all.”

 

One by one all my friends expressed their desire

To break down that old Wall and the fear it inspired.

And I looked up, and then, to my great surprise,

I saw Old Mr. Krout there with tears in his eyes!

“I once had a Zook friend,” he sobbingly confessed

“Before all this fighting and fear and unrest….

 

“Before that old Wall, before our whole town

Got so picky about buttering bread upside-down.

For years I’ve let hatred turn my own heart quite rotten.

But you’ve brought me to my senses! Oh, how I had forgotten!”

And then he said words that made my heart flutter,

“We must end this bitter old battle for butter!”

 

So at the next drill, gathered deep underground,

We called all fellow Yooks to come gather around,

And we said it was time that we ended our fight.

The Zooks weren’t so bad! They were really alright!

Most Yooks were horrified, but some started to say,

“What if they’re right? What if Zooks are okay?”

 

And as time went on, as if some spell had broken,

We came closer to peace with each word that was spoken.

Until Grandpa spoke up, not so angry as sad,

“What have we all come to?  Have you Yooks all gone mad?

Oh, think of the butter! It just isn’t right!

Oh to think of the years I put up the good fight!”

 

I went up to my grandpa. I put my hand in his,

“Grandpa,” I said, “You’re the bravest there is.

You put yourself on the line to serve and protect.

You have my love and you have my respect.

But is it worth living in anger and dread

To hold onto a grudge over buttering bread?”

 

I didn’t quite convince him. But he gave me a hug.

“I want you to be happy,” he said with a shrug.

“But I don’t trust those Zooks. So please, Son, take care,

If you try to make friends with those kooks over there!”

And though plenty, like grandpa, were skeptical at best

We decided to put our good will to the test.

 

We chose some Yooks for a peace delegation

And I led the way forward to our destination,

To the Wall we were going, with great hope in our hearts.

We would begin fresh! It would be a new start!

A banner of peace I held high in my hand,

Large enough to be seen way far out in Zookland.

 

And we sang as we marched, “Let us all put away,

Our bitter butter madness! Let us end it today!

Let us tear down this Wall and live free in the sun

Yooks and Zooks all together! Let us all be as one!”

And as we approached, why, what did we hear?

A Zook song of peace rang out loud in our ears!

 

And I saw a flag, just like mine, waving peace!

Zooks too, it seemed, wanted our fighting to cease!

I climbed the wall and saw my friend leading the way

With a Zook troop behind him! Oh what a fine day!

He climbed up the wall and said, “My Yooky friend,

My people all agree that this fighting should end!”

 

We embraced one another. Then we heard a great clatter.

And we looked all around to see what was the matter.

A giant machine was barreling toward us

Without slowing down, it was headed right for us!

For a moment I thought we were under attack.

Then I saw Grandpa driving. And he shouted, “Stand back!”

 

“I’m going to drive a big hole through this Wall!

It’s high time this war ended, once and for all!”

So we all cleared the way, and Grandpa plowed right on through.

No longer were we all divided in 2!

We ran through the hole as Gramps came to a stop,

Dismounted the machine and lay down with a plop.

 

I ran to my Grandpa. I ran to his arms.

He embraced me and said, “Son I’m tired, but unharmed.

I think I’ve regained a part of my spirit.

Tearing down that old Wall. Oh that crash! Did you hear it?

You – you were right, Son,” he breathlessly stuttered.

“Life’s too short to fight over silly old butter!”

 

And what happened next? Well, we all gathered round,

To tear the rest of that dreaded Wall down.

Yooks and Zooks came together; we embraced, one and all.

Friendships break barriers while fears build up walls.

Now we look at each other without apprehension

Ever since the great Butter Battle Redemption!

 

———

*This lines are lifted from the original Butter Battle Book.

For more on Dr. Seuss, see:

Dr. Seuss and the Gospel parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

Green Eggs and Love: A Tribute To Dr. Seuss

How The Grump Stole Thanksgiving

The Redemption of the Grinch

Raven-YourVoice-9

A Whole New World

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Disney’s Aladdin is my daughter’s favorite “princess” movie…well currently…she always changes her mind. I also hear it is Adam Ericksen’s as well. And who can blame them, really? The film features Princess Jasmine, arguably the most gorgeous fictional animated character of all time (although I fancy her attire would not have been permitted given her cultural context). Plus, she is one courageous girl. She boldly stands up to the power structures; challenging the laws and mandates set forth by her father, the Sultan. She does not care about money or fortune, status or fame; but seeks true love, eventually even from a down and out “street-rat” named Aladdin. And speaking of Aladdin: how can one not root for an underdog like him? He has nobody and nothing—scraping together what he can just to survive. He is easy-pickings to be scapegoated by the people—unknown, poor, parent-less and downtrodden.

Agrabah, the Middle-Eastern setting for the film, is ruled with an iron fist. Commit petty theft and it’s “off with your hand”—literally! Sinister Jafar oversees police operations and has his cronies intimidatingly patrolling the streets looking to shake people down. Moreover, poor children roam the alleys, thankful even if they only get a few scrapes of bread. Certainly the Sultan—the “one-percent”—could kick down some of the lavish riches he has. Yet, he chooses to live in what appears to be a temple erected for self-worship. Because of this kind of society, struggling Aladdin finds himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. His trouble, however, will also include an unlikely encounter with royalty.

After prophetically releasing a group of white doves from her Father’s courtyard, Jasmine sneaks out of her palace home—clearing the walls for the very first time. Because of her ignorance to common society, she soon finds herself in a bit of trouble while at a bazaar, forcing street-wandering Aladdin to come to her rescue. In doing so, the two develop trust in each other; recognizing the shared desire to be free to be themselves—free from their current situation.

Aladdin—to be free from the oppressive socio-economic situation he is in.

Jasmine—to be free from the system of law she is under.

However, any budding relationship gets cut short by Jafar’s minions and Aladdin is arrested under the false charges of “kidnapping”. As we would find out, because of a prophecy that Aladdin was a “diamond in the rough”, and thus, worthy to acquire the lamp, this is all part of Jafar’s evil plan.

As a sorcerer, Jafar manifests himself as an elderly prisoner and slips Aladdin out a secret tunnel of the jail and toward a “cave of wonders” where this lamp is to be found. In exchange, Aladdin is promised riches beyond his wildest imagination. After turmoil in the cave, Aladdin is able to get the lamp to Jafar but Jafar does not live up to his end of the deal and shoves Aladdin into the cave and thus, trapping him inside. However, Aladdin’s side-kick Abu sneakily swipes the lamp from Jafar which leads to the introduction of “the Genie”.

While the Genie is able to use his magical powers to free Aladdin and his friends from the cave, they are also used to turn Aladdin into a “prince”, something Jasmine does not desire. Aladdin may have had good intentions in doing this—as he knew the law stated “the princess must marry a prince”—but his plan backfires when his false status goes to his head and Jasmine witnesses herself being treated as some “prize to be won”(Philippians 2:6). The Aladdin from the marketplace—the “nobody” in the eyes of society—is what Jasmine desired. He was humble and sincere: a romantic at heart. This “Prince Ali”, as he went by, was arrogant, flashy, and everything Jasmine despised in a man. This status Aladdin thought Jasmine desired was the very thing that initially kept them apart. It is not until some of Aladdin’s humility shines through later that night when Jasmine begins to show some trust in him (although he still is not fully honest with her as of yet).

After the two sail on a romantic magic carpet ride, all is looking up…for around 10 seconds. Shortly after Aladdin kisses Jasmine goodnight, Jafar captures Aladdin; nearly drowning him before the Genie can save his life. Shortly after, Aladdin exposes Jafar’s corruption to the Sultan and it seems like the case is closed. Jafar is guilty and headed for prison, maybe worse. However, being the sorcerer that he is, Jafar is able to break free from the guard’s restraints. Later that evening, Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago, is able to steal the Genie’s lamp—making the Genie subject to his new master, Jafar.

Jafar spends wish 1 & 2 on becoming sultan and “the most powerful sorcerer on earth”, using this new power to crush our hero’s hope. However, because of mimetic desire and Aladdin’s quick wit, Jafar is tricked into engaging into mimetic rivalry with the Genie…the very one he is manipulating for his evil plans. Aladdin’s plan to taunt Jafar—claiming he is second to the Genie in power—works brilliantly. Upon Jafar’s third wish; the wish to be the most powerful genie in the world, Jafar enslaves himself in his own “magic lamp” until someone should come along and free him. Jafar’s own desire to be the most powerful genie the world is the very cause of his enslavement.

When we enter into mimetic rivalry—when we desire power and to be over and above others—our fate is enslavement. In contrast, we discover freedom when we give of ourselves and lift others up. After Jafar is defeated, Aladdin uses his final wish to give the Genie his freedom. In doing so, Aladdin risked his chance at marrying Jasmine as they were still under the same archaic marriage law as before. However, because the Sultan witnesses the power of true love, he gives his daughter the gift of freedom—the freedom to love whom she pleases.

I applaud Disney for contrasting these two fates. Mimetic rivalry will always lead to conflict, violence, enslavement, and ultimately, death of some kind. However, the self-giving love of others is what sets us free—free to desire the same type of love our Papa has for us. This theme is prevalent throughout scripture. Jesus, in only doing what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19), was given up for us all (Romans 8:32). There is no greater gift than to be given freedom through Jesus Christ. Without it, our own desires, borrowed from the desires of others, will lead to our own enslavement. Thank God for the perfect Model out of this.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

 

 

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

The Glory of the Grammys: Desire, Hope, and Beck’s Perfect Response to Kanye West

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Ahh, we love drama, don’t we? Okay, maybe you don’t, but this year’s Grammys didn’t disappoint in creating some scandal. Kanye West was at it again. In 2009 Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video at the MTV Video Music Awards. As Swift was talking, Kanye took the stage and protested, claiming that Beyoncé deserved the award.

And on Sunday night, in straight mimetic fashion, Kanye pulled a Kanye. René Girard would be proud – after all, Kanye’s greatest imitator is Kanye. After Beck won the Album of the Year award and began delivering his speech, Kanye took to the stage. He looked at Beck, scoffed, waved his hand in disgust, and then walked off.

René Girard claims that desire is mimetic, or imitative. We imitate the desires of our models and so we learn to desire what they desire. But none of us wants to admit that our desires don’t originate with us. We hide this simple fact from ourselves and from others because we want to be originals. But, when it comes to desire, we aren’t individuals; rather, we are inter-dividual. The more we hide this mimetic aspect of desire, the more resentful we become of others who have what we want. On the other hand, the more open we are about our mimetic desire, the more we openly affirm our models and the more hope we have of living in peaceful relationships with them.

For example, at the Grammys, every artist desires to win an award. Winning is a sign that we have achieved our our deepest desire, which is to be loved and admired. But here’s the problem: imitative desire for an object puts us in a relationship of rivalry with our peers. Winners receive a Grammy, the admiration of their fans, and if their rivals are sore losers, the resentment of their peers.

Kanye’s resentment was on full display at the Grammys. Talk about a sore loser! Although he didn’t say anything when he walked on stage to interrupt Beck, he did talk after the Grammys: “If the (award shows) want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. Flawless Beyoncé video, and Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé. And at this point, we are tired of it!”

To put it mildly, Kanye disrespected Beck on multiple occasions. First, he walked on stage and then he implied that Beck is not a “real artist”. Kanye tried to steal the glory from Beck and give it to Beyoncé. Kanye is one of pop culture’s biggest models. He is highly influential. It would have been completely understandable for Beck to respond in mimetic fashion to Kanye by disrespecting him. Few people would blame Beck if had defended himself and publicly dismissed Kanye as a jerk.

But instead of adding fuel to the fire of rivalry, Beck changed negative mimesis into an example of positive mimesis. When Kanye left the stage after interrupting him, Beck actually invited Kanye back on stage. After the show, Beck said, “I was just so excited that he was coming up. He deserves to be on stage as much as anybody.” For Beck, the glory of the Grammys can be shared, even with someone who is being disrespectful.

Beck’s response gets even better. Instead of defending himself, he actually agreed with Kanye. After the Grammys, Beck was asked what he thought about Beyoncé. “I thought she was going to win,” he replied. “Come on, she’s Beyoncé!” In response to Kanye’s suggestion that Beck isn’t a real artist, Beck replied, “You can’t please everybody, man. I still love him and think he’s a genius. I aspire to do what he does.”

Notice that last sentence, “I aspire to do what he does.” Beck is open about his mimetic desire to be like Kanye. It takes a very mature human being, comfortable in his mimetic nature, to openly affirm and admit that he aspires to be like the musical genius who just disrespected him.

We learned something important at the Grammys. Beck taught us that we don’t have to respond to disrespect with more disrespect. That negative mimesis will only lead us down the pit of mutual hostility. Instead, we can respond with positive mimesis by sharing the glory, even with those who disrespect us. That’s our greatest hope for a more peaceful future.

Why I Hope Ann Coulter is Right: Soccer and the Moral Decay of the United States

ann and soccer 1In the midst the World Cup, conservative columnist Ann Coulter wrote a scathing article about soccer. She denounced the sport for infecting the United States with moral deterioration. She wrote, “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

Coulter is a shock journalist who specializes in scandal. She garners attention by shaming and demonizing liberals, in this case for our “morally decaying love of soccer” – and she is very good at scandalizing us. My Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with comments from my liberal friends criticizing Coulter for her arrogance, lack of soccer knowledge, and overt hostility. Unfortunately, all of the liberal animosity against Coulter gave her exactly what she wanted – more attention. She thrives on liberal criticism. As her follow up article demonstrates, it allows her to prove her point that liberals are not open minded, but rather very hostile and closed minded. In fact, Coulter is dependent upon the negative attention of her opponents. So, she becomes increasingly controversial. If liberals just ignored Coulter’s intensifying diatribes, she would disappear.

But we liberals won’t ignore her – nor do we really want her to disappear. As we become scandalized by Coulter, we gain a sense of righteous and moral indignation in our opposition to her. The more she opposes us, the more we oppose her. In fact, in our mutual opposition, we believe the exact same thing about Coulter that she believes about us. We think she is the one who is causing the nation’s moral decay.

Both sides are caught up in what René Girard calls a mimetic rivalry. Each side defensively imitates the other in mutual accusations of immorality. Whereas each side believes it is different than the other, that it is fundamentally good and the other is fundamentally bad, both sides are actually guided by the same spirit of hostility and opposition.

All in the name of moral goodness.

That’s why I hope Coulter is right. I hope that the nation is experiencing a moral decay, at least the decay of morals that defines itself as “good” in opposition to “bad.” Morals are a good thing, of course. I teach my children that killing, stealing, and lying are bad and that compassion, sharing, and honesty are good. But morals are also very dangerous. Emphasizing morals – behaviors that are good or bad – can quickly lead to moralism. Moralism is toxic because it binds one group of “good guys” in opposition to another group of “bad guys.” It’s a trap because each side of the rivalry for goodness genuinely believes that it is good and that the other is bad – and both sides engage the other with the same bitter hostility, which only proves to each side that they are good and moral while the other is bad and immoral. I don’t want to scapegoat Coulter or her opponents for being hostile moralists. After all, we see this dynamic of moralism in every aspect of our lives: from siblings to neighbors to sports to business leaders to religion to national politics.

The Bible’s Alternative to Moralism

It’s time for that way of being moral to decay. Fortunately, the Bible provides an alternative to the hostility and rivalry of moralism. If you want to be truly different than your rival, then the only way to act is with compassion and forgiveness. Like all of us, Paul had his moments of moralism, but he clearly showed the alternative in his letter to the Colossians:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Being compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient are the ways of being holy and authentically moral, but they are inherently not moralistic. They are the Bible’s alternative to moralism because they are not in rivalry. As “God’s chosen ones,” our sense of being morally good is not dependent upon labeling someone else as morally bad. Notice that Paul did not say, “If anyone has a complaint against another, you must decide which one is immoral and then criticize that person until the bad behavior stops!” No, he said, “you must forgive each other.”  As God’s chosen ones, we are chosen not to bind ourselves moralistically against another in the spirit of hostility; rather, we are chosen to bind ourselves together in the spirit of love and forgiveness.

Moralism’s Decay: Let’s Play More Soccer

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Courtesy of imgur.com

In fact, we saw an example of this alternative way of being moral during the World Cup. After Brazil’s devastating 7 – 1 loss to Germany, a Brazilian fan did something remarkably un-moralistic. Throughout the game he tightly held a replica of the World Cup trophy. It was an emblem of the hope he had for his nation and his team. As Germany scored humiliating goal after humiliating goal, that hope vanished and he became very sad. In fact, he’s been dubbed “Brazil’s saddest fan.” One can imagine not only sadness, but also hostility and resentment building up in him against Germany. Sports fans, after all, are not immune to gaining a sense of “goodness” in opposition to their rival team.

But after losing he didn’t respond with predictable hostility or resentment; rather he responded to his rivals with compassion and kindness. He walked to some Germans, handed them his trophy, and said, “Take it to the final! … You deserve it. Congratulations.” Full of smiles and good will, he then posed with the German fans for some pictures. He was surprisingly happy for his rivals.

Celebrating with a rival is very risky. Under the spell of moralism that binds “good” people against “bad” people with mutual hostility, celebrating a rival’s win is interpreted as immoral and even disloyal. But from God’s perspective, it is holy and authentically moral because it shows we are not in rivalry. Rather, it responds to opposition with compassion, humility, forgiveness, and the hope for reconciliation. As Paul stated, it’s how we clothe ourselves “with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

So, if soccer can help decay the moralism that infects the United States, I say let’s play more soccer.

Investing In Peace: Israel, Palestine and the Presbyterian Church.

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A couple weeks ago, I decided I would write in support of the Presbyterian Church USA’s decision, by a narrow vote of the 221st General Assembly, to divest from three particular businesses that facilitate the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel: Caterpillar, Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. While I feel anxiety speaking up on such a controversial topic, I am proud of my childhood church for lending a bold voice for peace. It is imminently clear to me that this selective divestment is not a condemnation of the state of Israel but a prophetic critique against a particular policy — the demolition of homes and the acquisition of further land in the occupied West Bank — which is destructive not only to Palestine but to Israel itself and the peace process. The resolution is clear in its affirmation of Israel’s right to statehood and security, its hope for viable Palestinian statehood, and its desire for interfaith dialogue. Despite what appears to be a very carefully deliberated decision and language that expresses the desire for peace common to all sides, the inevitable blowback against this decision is well underway. Dissenting Presbyterians are outraged, while many Christians of other denominations and many Jews are expressing anger, sorrow, and hurt, perceiving this to be a blow to Israel. I do not doubt the sincerity of their convictions and emotions, but I also do not understand how there can be a path to peace and stability if policies as counterproductive as home demolitions and displacements, which inevitably lead to outrage and sometimes violence, cannot be critiqued and countered.

So, I decided to do some research to prepare myself for inevitable criticism, making sure I read the PCUSA resolution thoroughly and preparing to have my facts straight on the surrounding context, including the formation of Israel in 1948, the 6 Day War of 1967, UN resolutions, statistics about violence and home demolitions, etc. But, in the midst of all my research, violence once again exploded in this volatile region. Angry voices on multiple sides have drowned out my naive notions that a reasonable presentation of facts and history can persuade anyone heavily invested, spiritually and emotionally, in either side at the expense of the other. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed. While HAMAS was blamed, Palestinians civilians were collectively punished and some were killed. Tracing this violence back to its origin is impossible; ongoing mimetic slaughter has plagued the land for decades. Intertwined within this vicious cycle of violence is mimetic blame and dehumanization — both sides accusing the other of moral depravity, indiscriminate targeting, and delight in death.

There are also hopeful voices, eloquent calls for peace, impassioned pleas for recognizing the humanity and dignity of everyone. But those who consider the other to be an enemy won’t be persuaded by arguments.

What will persuade someone violently opposed to another to listen to an enemy, respect the inherent dignity of an enemy, finally come to eschew the notion of “enemy” altogether? Only love. Only love can penetrate the fortresses built by generations of fear and misunderstanding. Israel and Palestine are full of love, for Love is God and God is everywhere and especially with the suffering; Love is in the beat of the human heart, it shines in the eyes and lives in the soul of every Israeli and Palestinian. But in a land of insecurity and fear on both sides, love manifests in self-protection, defense of home and family, making it difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to see in one another the brothers and sisters that they truly are. Such a volatile environment brings out the “stork-like” love, as Lee (Tzvi) Weissman writes, that to a greater or lesser extent characterizes all of us. Weissman explains,

In Hebrew the stork is called a “chasida” and the Torah tells us that it is a non-kosher bird. Chasida means “Kindly one”. How could a bird with such a nice name not be kosher? The Rabbis explain, it is called “kindly” because it is exceedingly kind to its own, its own family, children, even other chasidas. But let an outsider come, and they are vicious.. We are storks. We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with “the other.” Then all bets are off.”

This “storkish” love, fiercely protective, territorial love that lashes out at perceived threats, is understandable when neighbors live in fear of one another, laying claim to the same land and constantly looking over their shoulders. Even when the majority of people on both sides long for peace and strive to live peacefully, a “strike first or be struck” attitude is easily understood. How can a trusting, out-reaching, other-embracing love take root in the midst of such hostilities?

When security and safety are threatened, this kind of love can feel impossible. I admit that for all I preach about love of enemies, for all that I believe in it, I have never believed my life or home to be threatened by an enemy. This fear is common to Palestinians and Israelis, and as an outsider, I can only try to imagine it and certainly cannot judge it. Some consider the divestment of the Presbyterian Church to be a judgment against Israel. But I believe that it was for the sake of enhancing the security of both Israelis and Palestinians in the region, that neighbors may have the courage to look each other in the eyes, recognize the love in each other and let their own love reach out, that the Presbyterian Church made the decision to selectively divest. Home demolitions and increasing acquisition of land threaten the livelihoods of Palestinians, and thus inevitably, reciprocally, threaten the security of Israelis. Sometimes, when one recognizes a friend on a destructive path, love comes not as unconditional support but as critique. I believe the Presbyterian Church was reaching out in love to Israel as well as Palestine with its decision to divest.

Of course, there is so much more to say, so many questions raised, so much healing needed, so much more to pray for. Christians are ever indebted to Judaism for our faith, and indebted historically and morally to the Jewish people because of horrible, violent atrocities committed in every generation against them. But while we atone for our sins we must not compound our guilt by ignoring and facilitating the suffering of the Palestinians. We are all brothers and sisters, children of Abraham and moreover children of the living God. When God called Abraham out of his land, he chose him not for an exclusive blessing but for a responsibility to bless the whole world. Abraham’s children — Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide — have an obligation to all of humanity to reflect the generous love of God, and we cannot do this while we remain unreconciled to one another. And while I support the PCUSA for giving prophetic critique as a difficult but necessary step toward reconciliation, I also acknowledge the need for American Christians in particular (with our sordid history of imperialism intermingled with Christian triumphalism) to hear the critiques of our Jewish and Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) siblings. May we ever be willing to seek the truth and both speak and hear it in love, that we may rid our hearts and souls of rivalry, bless one another, and be the family we were created to be, reflecting the divine image of our God.

 (For more on Israel and Palestine, see Suzanne Ross’s article Battling to the End in Israel and Palestine.)

Rachel Held Evans and the Friendly Atheist on CNN: Grasping for Truth

On Sunday, CNN hosted a debate between two insanely popular bloggers. It was titled, “Debating why millennials are leaving the church.” The debaters were both born after 1980, which makes them millennials – evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, who blogs at rachelheldevans.com, and atheist Hemant Mehta, who is the primary blogger and editor at the friendly atheist blog.

As for the debate, Rachel’s best argument is that millennials are leaving the church because they “aren’t connecting with Jesus, and so I think they are looking for churches that care for the poor, that make social justice like anti-trafficking a priority…” Although she was cut off before finishing her point, you get the gist – millenials aren’t going to church because churches aren’t being the “church”; they aren’t fulfilling their mission of being the Body of Christ in our world. Rachel and Hemant agree on this point: Christianity has bad PR. As Hemant wrote in his CNN article leading up to the debate, millennials are leaving the churches because, “They’re anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex education, and anti-doubt, to name a few of the most common criticisms.”

These are superficial and broad brush strokes about “church” that don’t quite answer the question for me. Of course, it’s difficult to paint an in-depth picture in a six minute debate. But what I found most interesting about the debate was Hemant’s truth claims:

It’s very easy as an atheist to say, ‘You know what? You should just abandon those faiths altogether because it’s not just that Christianity is unpopular, but it’s untrue.’ And there are so many resources now that young people have access to that shows why it’s not just Christianity that is unpopular, it’s not just that it’s wrong, it’s that all religion just has no merit when it comes to the truth.

Hemant sounds very – how do I put this – religious in the debate. In fact, he seems to be mirroring his religious rivals. In his battle against religion, this staunch atheist makes the same claims to truth as staunch evangelicals. In the debate over the truth, Hemant and Pat Robertson, his straw man in the debate, begin to sound identical:

Join our side! We hold the truth! They don’t!

The anthropologist René Girard calls this phenomena a “mimetic rivalry.” We tend to see only differences between us and our rivals, but in fact rivalry isn’t based on differences. Rather, rivalries are based on our similarities, specifically our shared desire.

In this case, Hemant shares the same desire as Pat Roberston – a desire to hold the truth, which necessarily means that the other doesn’t hold the truth. The great danger here, whether one is an atheist or a theist, is that once one claims to hold the truth one uses the truth as a weapon. For example, in the video Hemant states that, “As atheists… we like exposing the church for all the bad things it does.” The problem is that many religious people mirror Hemant’s desire, only instead of exposing the church, they expose atheist for all the bad things they do. I frequently hear Christians expose atheistic and secular political regimes of the 20th century for the bad things they’ve done, including state sanctioned mass murder, killing an estimated 85 to 100 million people.

The unfortunate truth is that these types of accusations are universal. Humans like to expose the ugly truth about our opponents. We love to expose all the ugly truths and bad things about our rivals. This creates a cycle of accusations, as we defend ourselves by mimicking one another in an attempt to expose the ugly truth of our enemy, “I’m not the one who does bad things. He’s the one doing bad things!”

This is where I find religion, and particularly Christianity, helpful. One of the radical truth claims of Christianity is that I don’t hold the truth about myself or my rival.

A shiver will crawl up the spine of my liberal Christian friends when I say this, but when it comes to truth, I love it when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Obviously, if Jesus is the truth, I am not. Followers of Christ don’t hold the truth because the truth is not ours to hold. If we attempt to grasp our fist around the truth of Jesus, it will slip through our fingers like grains of sand. We don’t hold the truth; if anything, the truth holds us.

And since we don’t hold the truth, we can’t wield it as a weapon to expose the evil in the other. If we attempt to wield the truth as a weapon, it is no longer the truth. Rather, it is scapegoating: projecting our own evil upon another so that we don’t have to deal with the bad things we do. The truth of Jesus calls us to be self-critical by exposing the evil within ourselves before we expose the evil within anyone else. As Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This is what I appreciate most about Rachel Held Evans. As opposed mirroring Hemant’s accusations against Christianity with her own accusations against atheism, she does something much more radical. The CNN show was a setup for rivalry, and Rachel didn’t take the bait. She actually agreed with Hemant. The church has frequently scapegoated others by blaming them for the problems of the world. Indeed, it has often failed to connect people to Jesus and live out the Gospel message.

But Rachel is modeling another way. She reveals how we can model the truth that sets us free from rivalry with others and free to do the work of Christ in a broken world. It is always easy and, yes, even enjoyable to point out the bad things other people do. The much more challenging thing is to take responsibility for our own bad behavior so that we can be transformed into more loving and compassion human beings. I don’t know if that’s enough for millennials to come back to church, but I think Rachel offers a great place to start.