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More Than Gun Control – What We Must Do To Stop Mass Shootings

The scariest thing about mass murderers is just how normal they are.

In the wake of Umpqua Community College shooting last week, the New York Times published an article titled, “Mass Murderers Fit Profile, as Do Many Others Who Don’t Kill.” Here’s a very disturbing line:

What seems telling about the killers, however, is not how much they have in common but how much they look and seem like so many others who do not inflict harm.

What’s so scary about these killers is that we’d really like to have an explanation that makes them “other” than the rest of us. So we say they are mentally ill – unlike the rest of us who are quite mentally healthy – and our society needs to do a better job of caring for them.

While it’s true that we need to do a better job caring for the mentally ill, the vast majority of people with mental illness will never harm anyone. Mass murderers don’t tend to be mentally ill. As Dr. James Alan Fox stated in the Times article, “They’re not out of touch with reality. They don’t hear voices. They don’t think the people they’re shooting are gophers.” In other words, the problem with these shooters have very little to do with mental illness.

What are the signs that someone may turn into a shooter? The Times makes another disturbing claim, “With many of the killers, the signs are of anger and disappointment and solitude.”

Anger, disappointment, and solitude. Those emotions are universal. We all feel them. How do we make sense of that? There’s a darkness that creeps up within all of us – and if we are honest with ourselves, we might just admit the horrifying truth that there’s not a lot that separates us from them.

Desire and Resentment

We are all united with a common desire for fame, notoriety, and love. We fear solitude. Everyone wants to be known. We gain a sense of value and worth in our lives through obtaining more likes and tweets on social media. As mimetic theory teaches us, we inevitably compare ourselves with others who become our models for success.

But what happens when we don’t gain the success, fame, or the love that we all desire? When others don’t validate us, when we don’t achieve the success we desire, we become resentful of our models. As Stefan Tomelleri states in his book Resentment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society, “We live in a world where many people, rightly or wrongly, feel blocked, or paralyzed, in all their aspirations, obstructed from achieving their most legitimate goals” (ix).The more we fall behind our models, the more resentful we become. Our model then becomes our rival and we seek some form of revenge against them for enflaming our desire for something we cannot have. Whenever we feel as if the path to fulfillment of our aspirations is being blocked by the ones who make those desires seem desirable, we risk becoming verbally, emotionally, or physically violent.

Typically, no one ever teaches us how to manage our feelings of resentment in nonviolent and healthy ways. In fact, we are taught the opposite. 9/11 taught us that if someone hits you, you hit them back. Only, you don’t just hit them back, you up the ante. You hit them with “Shock and Awe” to destroy the enemy’s will to fight back.

But Shock and Awe has only “worked” to embed violence deeper within our culture. Violence isn’t just “their” problem; it’s our problem. It infects all of us. Almost every day we hear about another violent attack. For example, just two days after the horrific shooting in Oregon last week, the United States bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 12 medical staff personnel and 10 patients, including three children. The U.S. has defended the bombing, while Doctors Without Borders calls it a war crime.

What’s the truth? The truth is that as long as our nation responds to violence with violence, we will continue to sow the seeds of violence and resentment within our nation and around the world.

What’s the Answer?

We need stricter gun control laws, no doubt. But we need so much more than gun control. We need models who will lead us toward a massive shift in our culture. Resentment and violence infects us all and we need to learn better ways to take responsibility to manage our anger, disappointment, and hatred.

God tells Cain that, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). God speaks those words to all of us. The truth is that there’s a little bit of Cain within everyone. The darkness is within us all. Unfortunately, many of us are too afraid to look at it. We’d much rather ignore our pain than examine it. But the way to master the “sin that is lurking at the door” is to acknowledge it, but like Cain, we typically suppress it. We bury our resentment and anger deep within ourselves, only for it to manifest through violence.

That’s why the ancient spiritual practice of confession is so important. It’s much healthier to talk out our emotions than it is to bottle them up. Without the ability to talk about our frustrations, we externalize our emotions by blaming others. Our shared desire for fame and admiration can then lead us to commit acts of violence when they become frustrated.

Much more than gun control, we must shift our culture of violence to a culture of peace. We need models who will lead us to move beyond resentment and towards an ethic of love, a love that embraces even our enemies.

The answer is to work through our resentment and come out the other side into love. More than anything, we need to be challenged with a daring and challenging mission. In the face of a culture that responds to violence with more violence, we need more people who will step up and model how to return love for hatred, forgiveness for anger, kindness for hostility, violence for peace.

Photo Copyright: flybird163 / 123RF Stock Photo


Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

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

My personal background is no different.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

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

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

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

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

All people. Not some. All.

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

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

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

Copyright: prazis / 123RF Stock Photo

The Ashley Madison Sex Scandal, Josh Duggar, and the Place of Shame

A woman who discovered that her husband was a member of the Ashley Madison website gives this advice to women through CNN: “To women who have no suspicions, I say: check anyway. It’s sad.”

The Ashley Madison sex leak is sad. Not because men are getting caught with their pants down, but because the website whose tagline is “Life is short. Have an affair,” has 32 million users.

32 million! It’s hard to wrap my mind around such a large number. So much attention has been given to Josh Duggar’s account with the Ashley Madison site. He was the first “star” to be outed by the leak. Duggar has dedicated his public persona to supporting “traditional family values.” He is the former executive director of the Family Research Council Action. The FRCA supports traditional family values, which means it is staunchly against LGBTQ rights.

Duggar’s opposition to LGBTQ rights means that he has put LGBTQ folk in the “place of shame.” It’s a common move among those who fight for “traditional family values.” To work for the sanctity of marriage means that they gain a sense of moral superiority by fighting against an “evil other” that threatens that sanctity. For example, Duggar and his friends fear that the LGBTQ community is a threat to the traditional family, so they work in opposition to LGBTQ rights, especially the right to marry.

Because it’s those LGBTQ people who threaten the sanctity of marriage. Right…

Of course, it’s easy to point out Josh Duggar’s hypocrisy. While working for the “sanctity of marriage” by shaming others he deemed a threat, he shamed his own marriage by having an affair. In other words, Duggar hid from his own shameful behavior by shaming others.

That’s how shaming works. We project our own shameful behavior upon others so that we don’t have to deal with our sense of shame.

And here we begin to see the problem when we gleefully unite against Josh Duggar. By shaming him we become what René Girard calls his “mimetic double.”

In the same way that Josh Duggar claimed a sense of moral superiority by shaming others, we claim the same sense of moral superiority by shaming him. By doing so, we risk hiding from our own sense of shame as we project it onto him.

James Alison, in his adult education course Jesus the Forgiving Victim, notes that we learn “to dance with others around the place of shame, close enough to get the benefits from someone being there but not so close as to be the person who is put there.” This is the pattern of life that adults tend to inhabit. We start to learn this pattern in middle school and high school, but we perfect it when we become adults. Putting others in the place of shame so that we don’t have to go there is how we survive – whether it’s immigrants, the poor, Muslims, prostitutes, the LGBTQ community, or Josh Duggar.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to avoid the place of shame. At some point in our lives, we will all find ourselves in that place, and we will all probably participate in putting someone else there. Because shaming is so mimetic, we tend to shift shame from one person to another, just as long as shame doesn’t fall upon me!

The Ashley Madison/Josh Duggar sex scandal is just one more example of how much our culture is run by shame. It infects each one of us.

That’s why Jesus is so important. He occupied the place of shame, the cross, without being run by it. The Atonement works in a very specific way – Humans put Jesus in the place of shame and Jesus freely went. He didn’t mimic that shame. He didn’t seek to defend himself by putting his enemies in the place of shame. He went to the place of shame and stopped the mimetic shame cycle by praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In the next few weeks, I have no doubt that many more people will be outed as having an Ashley Madison account. You will likely find out that prominent politicians, pastors, teachers, pop culture icons, star athletes, business owners, maybe even your coworker and your neighbors have an account.

How will we respond? Will we put them, and their already grieving families, in the place of shame? Will we experience a sense of glee as they are “outed”?

Because we don’t have to live our lives run by shame. We don’t have to shame others anymore. We don’t have to live our lives hiding from our own sense of shame by projecting it upon others. Rather, we can stop pointing fingers. We can start managing any sense of shame that we may have. And we can respond to others with empathy and compassion.

After all, the fact that 32 million people, men and women, have been involved in the Ashley Madison scandal shows how easy it is for any of us to get seduced into this kind of activity.

And when we are seduced into it, Jesus reveals that we are already forgiven. Thus, we don’t have to hide. We don’t have to project our own baggage, our own shame, upon anyone else. We can stop the mimetic cycle. Indeed, we can learn to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Photo: Copyright: prazis / 123RF Stock Photo

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Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Part 5: Yertle the Turtle and the “Wrath of God”

Dr. Seuss’ book Yertle the Turtle is about a King who rules through violence, oppression, and scapegoating. But the more he builds his kingdom on the backs of his subjects, the more likely his kingdom will come tumbling down into the mud. [Video Below]

What does Yertle the Turtle have to do with the Gospel? In his book, Must There Be Scapegoats, Raymund Schwager discusses St. Paul’s statement about that the “Wrath of God” in Romans 1. The “Wrath of God” isn’t something inherent to God. In fact, wrath is a purely human phenomenon. But God’s “wrath” for Paul has nothing to do with violence. Rather,

According to Paul, God’s anger consists only in the deliverance of humankind to themselves, their desires, passions, and perverse thinking. No external violence plays any further role. God’s wrath is identical with the granting of full respect for the human action that turns against God and leads to complete perversion of personal relationships.

We see the “complete perversion of personal relationships” as Yertle builds him empire on oppression, but his kingdom soon falls. The biblical prophets gave the same message to the ancient kings – if continue to scapegoat the poor, weak, and marginalized, your kingdom will fall. The alternative is to care for those who are marginalized.

Jesus picked up that strand within the prophets and showed that the kingdom of God was based not on oppression and scapegoating, but on caring for the marginalized. Schwager states that this is the new order of human relationships. “Whereas the old social order was founded on the scapegoat mechanism, the new people distinguished themselves by the fact that they no longer needed to compete with one another for supremacy.” This new way of life frees us to live into God’s realm of love and compassion for all people, including our scapegoats.

“The uncovering of the underlying process of violence through the message of boundless love must lead inevitably to a fundamental change in power structures,” writes Schwager. Those in power may experience that change in power structure as the “Wrath of God.” But it isn’t wrath. Rather, it’s God’s loving justice that seeks to heal our relationships with “boundless love.”

For more in the Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Series, see:

Part 1: On Beyond Zebra and the Restoration of all Things

Part 2: The Lorax, the Prophets, and the iPad

Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas



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ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

My blood boiled with rage as I read the New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” ISIS has been promoting the systematic rape of women and girls, some girls even younger than 12. The article starts with a horrific description,

He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her. When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

I have a daughter who will soon be 12. I’ve also been the youth pastor of teenage girls. Although I’m a staunch supporter of nonviolent action in the face of evil, and I don’t believe in hell as a place of torment after death, there is a significant part of me that wants to blow those bastard into a million pieces, sending them to the hell that they so richly deserve.

But there are two points that I would like to make in response to the article. First, ISIS is not Islamic. We need to stop calling ISIS a form of “radical Islam.” ISIS and other terror groups don’t deserve to have the name “Islam” attached to their identity.

As a Christian with many Muslim friends, I cannot allow ISIS to set the theological terms of Islam. When an ISIS fighter prostrates himself in prayer before and after raping a woman or a girl, he is not praying to Allah. He is praying to the devil.

Who Is Allah?

In Islamic terms, Allah is not a god who justifies rape and murder. Rather, Allah is the God of Mercy and Compassion. The chapters of the Qur’an begin with the phrase, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.” In Islam, mercy is God’s fundamental nature and Muslims are to imitate God’s mercy by acting in the ways of God’s mercy.

God states in the Qur’an that, “My Mercy and Compassion embrace all things” (7:156), but just what is God’s mercy like? The Arabic word for mercy is rahmah. It is intimately related to the Arabic word rahim, which means “womb.” In his book The Heart of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr claims that the connection between mercy and womb indicates that, “the world issues from the womb of Divine Mercy and Compassion.”

In Islam, Allah is like a Merciful Mother who loves and cares for her children. Now, one might claim that Allah’s children are only Muslims, and thus, only Muslims deserve mercy and compassion. But that would be false. As the Qur’an states, God’s “Mercy and Compassion embrace all things.” All that exists is embraced by God’s mercy. It doesn’t matter whether we are believers, polytheists, or atheists. In Islam, Allah responds to all things, including all people, with Mercy and Compassion.

Mercy and Compassion are so integral to Islam that Nasr states, “It is impossible for a Muslim to pray to God or even think of God without awareness of this essential dimension of Compassion and Mercy.”

Which leads me back to heinous acts of rape committed by ISIS. Their “theology of rape” has nothing to do with Islam. In fact, it is anti-Islamic because it goes against the very Mercy and Compassion that is the nature of Islam’s theology of God. True Islamic theology doesn’t lead to rape; it leads to compassion and mercy. ISIS is anti-Islamic because, as Nasr claims, “There are numerous teachings in the Quran and Hadith emphasizing the importance of having compassion toward the people who are one’s neighbors and being aware of their needs. Then beyond one’s neighborhood there is society at large, in which the same attitude of compassion and kindness must exist even beyond the boundary of one’s religion.”

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

This leads me to my second point. As much as I’d like to blow those bastards away, if we are to take seriously the fact that God’s “Mercy encompasses all things,” then God’s mercy might extend even to ISIS. Will bombing ISIS stop their violent quest? Well, it might stop their violent quest, but as we’ve seen during the last 13 years in the “War on Terror,” when we violently destroy one enemy, another more dangerous enemy emerges.

In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that the mismanagement of Iraq by the United States has “encouraged thousands of skilled Iraqis to take their expertise to the anti-American insurgency that eventually became the Islamic State.”

We don’t need more bombs. The “War on Terror” has taught us that attempting to solve our problems with violence only reinforces a worldwide culture of violence. It teaches us and our enemies that violence is the only real solution to our problems. It reveals that we don’t really believe in God or Jesus or Allah. We and our enemies believe in the same god. And that god’s name is Violence. Our faith in the demonic god of violence will only lead us to a future of mutually assured destruction.

I believe that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would have us look reality in the face. Violence is mimetic; it only leads to more violence. We must lay down our weapons and find more creative ways to solve our problem of violence. We have wasted enough money on war that will only doom us to a future of apocalyptic violence. I’ll end with a quote from Jean-Michel Oughoulian, who describes a better and more merciful way to solve our worldwide problem of violence in his book Psychopolotics:

Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace.

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The Girl and Emperor Palpatine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Star Wars Myth

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

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

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

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

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

How to Defeat Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way to defeat evil is to forgive it.

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

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

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Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.


Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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Soldiers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division salute the American flag as the United States anthem is being played during their departure ceremony at historic Fort Snelling May 22, 2011.  1st BCT will be deploying to Kuwait in support of Operation New Dawn.

Demons of War: Recovery from Moral Injury

Colonel Theodore Westhusing had a highly successful military career. He was a professor of philosophy and English at West Point. At 43 years old with a wife and three young children, Westhusing felt morally dutybound to re-enlist as a soldier in the Iraq War. As a philosopher of war, Westhusing received his military training in moral decision making. His doctoral dissertation emphasized the morality, ethical values, and virtues of American wars.

Despite his success, his life had a tragic ending that was the result of moral injury to his soul.

In 2004, Westhusing was honored with the very long military title, “Director, Counter Terrorism/Special Operations, Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.” He was to supervise Iraqis who were being trained as civilian police officers. A few months into his deployment, General David Petraeus praised his extraordinary ability to work with U.S. contractors and Iraqi leaders.

The Moral Injury of a Soldier

But in 2005, Westhusing faced a moral crisis. Based on an anonymous tip, he discovered enormous moral failures within the U.S. military. Those moral failures called into question his trust in the moral authority of an organization that was asking soldiers to kill and die for a perceived moral good. Those moral failures included illegal activity – for example, contractor’s severe mismanagement of resources, forged resumes that claimed background with elite forces, equipment theft, inadequate training, and employees bragging about murdering Iraqis.

Westhusing was morally compelled to report his findings to General Petraeus, who pressured him to deny the truth behind the anonymous tip. Westhusing initially complied, but continued to feel a moral obligation to report his findings. After a heated argument with Petraeus about the morality of the situation, Westhusing’s personal crisis came to a boiling point as he struggled with the demons of war. He committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the head. In his suicide note to his commanding officer he wrote,

I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored…I don’t know who to trust anymore…Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support, and selfishness?

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini tell Westhusing’s story of moral injury in their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Moral injury is described by Brock and Lettini as resulting, “when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”

Like the other personal stories of soldiers in Soul Repair, Westhusing was trained by the military to be a moral agent for good in the world. Among other things, this meant standing up for justice and discerning between innocent civilians and non-civilian combatants.

But as soldiers are trained on morality, they are also put through “reflexive fire training.” This training conditions soldiers to shoot before making any moral decisions. The goal of “reflexive fire training” is to literally bypass the moral decision making of a soldier so that they are enslaved to an immoral ability to shoot to kill anyone.

Following the work of Gregory Bateson, mimetic theory calls the message to “be moral, but don’t be moral” a double bind. It’s a situation in which we are told to do something, and then told not to do that very thing. Brock and Lettin point to this double bind when they write,

Few major social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives of others better than the armed services. And none works so thoroughly to compromise, deny, dismantle, and destroy the very values it teaches. This is the paradox of war.

Sadly, Westhusing isn’t alone in suffering from the paradox of this double bind. Soul Repair reports that the demons of war have caused more harm than many of us have imagined – Brock and Lettin claim, “Veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes, an unprecedented eighteen a day or six thousand a year. They are 20 percent of all U.S. suicides, though veterans of all wars are only about 7 percent of the U.S. population … Veterans are also disproportionately homeless, unemployed, poor, divorced, and imprisoned.”

The Moral Injury of the U.S.

Mimetic theory also teaches us about scapegoating. Many in the U.S. demonize soldiers, labeling them as killers fighting an unjust war. Others valorize soldiers, honoring them as heroes. Both are methods of scapegoating soldiers. They are convenient ways for us to avoid our own moral injury. Dealing with the burden of immoral and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not just the responsibility of soldiers – it’s our responsibility as a society. America’s very soul is morally injured by these wars and by the fact that we turned a blind eye to the suffering of veterans after they go through the hell of war. The way to heal from moral injury is not to conveniently scapegoat soldiers or ignore the suffering of veterans, but to take responsibility for the harm that we as a nation have caused soldiers by sending them to war.

Soldiers know on a deep moral level that in committing great harm to others, they have committed great harm to themselves. They don’t need our society to project our demons of war – our own moral injury – upon them as we point the finger of accusation against them. Soldiers have suffered enough moral injury. We need to take responsibility for our own.

We begin to take responsibility for our collective moral injury by listening with a non-judgmental presence to soldiers as they tell their stories. Even saying thank you to soldiers implies a judgement that stops a soldier from talking about the pain of moral injury. Brock and Lettini claim that soldiers “need the civilians in their lives, those of us with whom they must learn to live again.

They continue,

To listen to veterans requires patience with their silence and with the confusion, grief, anger, and shame it carries…We must be willing to engage their moral and theological questions with openness and to journey with them as we are mutually transformed in the process.

Mutual transformation from moral injury to healing should be our goal. As individuals and as a nation, the only way we will heal from the demons of war is to stop scapegoating one another and take responsibility to love to our neighbors, especially our neighbors who have fought in immoral wars, as we love ourselves.

Photo: Flickr, The National Guard, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)

Rachel Dolezal, Matt Lauer, and the African American Experience

The Rachel Dolezal story getting more bizarre by the minute. Yesterday we discovered that while she identifies as black, she sued Howard University for racial discrimination against her because she’s white.

I’m confused and, like many others, I’m offended.

Rachel’s interview this morning with Matt Lauer confirms my reason for being offended. The interview begins with this question and answer:

Matt Lauer: Are you an African American woman?

Rachel Dolezal: I identify as black.

Then Rachel continues to defend herself for 10 minutes, claiming that she identifies with the black experience.

But Rachel is doing more than identifying with the black experience. She’s claiming to be part of the black experience. She said she “had to go there with the [African American] experience…and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Isaiah [her adopted brother], and he said, ‘You’re my real mom’ and for that to be plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white.” She also told Lauer that she has identified as black since she was five years old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair.”

On national television, that’s the story she tells about her “black experience”? She gained custody of her African American adopted brother? I adopted my daughter from China, am I now Chinese? And crayons? I don’t get it.

Now, I don’t know what Rachel has been through in her life, but Jamelle Bouie makes an important distinction in understanding Rachel’s situation over at Slate. He writes that “To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.” Here’s a bit of information about the modern black experience of racism, discrimination, and violence in the US. FYI – being black in American is more dangerous than gaining custody of an adopted brother and drawing with crayons:

Of course, racism has infected the United States since its founding. It’s been called America’s Original Sin. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney are just a few of the latest examples of modern day racism. As mimetic theory helps us understand, group identity formation is usually constructed in a negative way that pits us over-and-against another group. For example, racism is an identity construct in America that gives white people a sense of superiority over-and-against black people. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to segregation to the modern day prison system, racism continues to infect the US.

Unfortunately, this way of constructing identity is bigger than American racism. It is an aspect of the Christian notion of Original Sin. Throughout American history in particular, and world history in general, we find that the easiest way to find group solidarity is to channel our inner hostility against a common enemy.

Mimetic theory calls this the scapegoat mechanism. The demonic aspect of scapegoating is that it feels right because it gives us a sense of “goodness.” But scapegoating, like racism, is based on a lie. That lie claims that another’s life, no matter how guilty or innocent, is less valuable than ours. As such, another’s life can be demonized and sacrificed for our benefit.

It’s hard for me to condemn Rachel too much because we have a bigger problem. Rachel is likely very deluded, but her story shows how addicted we are to the scapegoat mechanism. Just seven days ago, nobody knew the name Rachel Dolezal, but now she has become the lightning rod for our cultural hostility. White, black, brown, whatever color we are, we can now unite against Rachel.

And that’s the problem because next week Rachel Dolezal will be old news. But the cycle of scapegoating will continue as we find someone new to unite against.

Our cultural hostility against Rachel isn’t going to solve the problem. Next week when we’ve forgotten all about her and move on to our next scapegoat, we will still have the problems of racism and white privilege. As a white man, I know that the statistics I provided above doesn’t come close to telling the black experience of racism in the US. I also know that the flip side of those statistics show the clear privilege of being born white. Because I am white, police and security guards do not hover over me, I have never been “stopped and frisked,” flesh colored Band-Aids are always my flesh, I can turn on the television and be 95% sure that I will see a white person, and I know that my middle class white neighborhood will stay a middle class and white neighborhood.

White privilege is summed up by an important study of two economists. They discovered that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are “white, male, and highly educated.” But even more interesting is that in their high school and college years, they were more likely than average Americans to have committed “aggressive, illicit, risk taking activities.” Among those activities are smoking pot, skipping class, shoplifting, and gambling.

But that’s okay because they were privileged by being born white.

In claiming to be black, Dolezal denies the truth about the privileges of being white and she diminishes the plight of the African American experience in America. Neither are helpful. The best way for white people to deal with racism in America is to recognize the privileges of being white and begin the process of critiquing and giving up those privileges.

Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)

Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)