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Hillary Clinton’s Emails, Donald Trump, and Moving through Scandal

Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay claims that the Justice Department is preparing to file charges against Hillary Clinton for mishandling of classified information in her emails. Delay said in an interview, “I have friends who are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict.”

I don’t know the veracity of Delay’s statement. Nothing would surprise me during this political season. His statement could be a complete fabrication made to cause more drama in a presidential election season already filled with enough drama, or an indictment could happen tomorrow.

Clinton’s email scandal isn’t going away any time soon because Republicans will keep bringing it up. Delay guaranteed as much, claiming that if the attorney general doesn’t move forward with an indictment, she will be put on trial. “One way or another, either she’s going to be indicted and that process begins, or we try her in the public eye with her campaign. One way or another, she’s going to have to face these charges.”

I don’t want to scapegoat Republicans for bringing up the scandal. Democrats have called for similar indictments of their Republican counterparts. Many have insisted that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and former CIA directors be charged with crimes against humanity. Hillary may have her email problems, but the Bush/Cheney administration is plagued by torture reports.

Whether it’s emails or war crimes, both sides are scandalized by the other. What we often fail to see, however, is that scandals have a paradoxical nature to them. We may despise or condemn those who we think cause scandals, like committing war crimes or being sloppy with allegedly classified information, but deep inside we are also attracted to them.

René Girard has a helpful way of explaining the term scandal. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard states that the more a scandal “repels us, the more it attracts us.”

In other words, the more we hate our political rivals, the more we are attracted to them. What attracts us to them? They have the things that we want – success, power, and prestige. The very things we want is what they have, and because they have the things that we want, they seek to prevent us from taking those things away from them.

Republicans are both repelled and attracted to Hillary Clinton because she has the successful political career that they want. Scandal is driven by this form of rivalry and resentment. Underneath the obsession with Clinton’s email is a resentful feeling of superiority – that where she failed, we could have succeeded. As Jeremiah Alberg points out, “… what drives scandal is the secret thought, ‘I could have done it better.’”

And so we find ourselves trying to outdo our rivals, competing for the same prize. We tend to deny that we have anything in common with our enemies, but underneath our denial, our mutual desire for power and prestige makes us the same. But we aren’t just the same in our desires, we also become the same in our actions.

That Democrats and Republicans seek to indict one another is a good example of becoming similar in our actions, but the scandal that is Donald Trump is another good example. Trump has scandalized not just the United States, but many throughout the world. In response to Trump’s suggestion that we ban all Muslims from the United States, Great Britain responded with perfect imitation as politicians suggested that they should place a ban on Trump. They were repelled by Trump, something they openly admitted, but as loud as they denounced his policy suggestions, they could not see that, in fact, they were mirroring the very thing they condemned. In fact, they were so attracted to Trump that they perfectly imitated him in the desire to banish people from their country.

There’s an ancient proverb that says, “Like a dog returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” That’s a good description of scandals. It’s inevitable that we will return to scandals like a dog returns to its vomit. Of course, we don’t just return to political scandals, but we return to scandals with family members, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. When we become scandalized, we drive a wedge between ourselves and others by refusing to admit how alike we are. Scandals may be inevitable, but the good news is that we can learn to manage them in three healthy ways:

First, when scandals come your way, don’t deny them. Don’t deny that you are repelled and attracted to the one who is causing scandal. Try not to blame them. Instead, ask yourself why you are repelled and attracted to this person. What is it about them that you want to have or to be? What do you admire about him or her?

Second, remind yourself that it’s okay to be repelled and attracted by your scandalous rival. Don’t beat yourself up for falling into a scandal. It’s okay. In fact, it’s human.

Third, find the good in your rival. Find ways to verbally affirm the good things that they are doing and seek to work together to accomplish those good things. Working with them builds a trustful rapport and the possibility for working together on the good things that you want to accomplish, too. Even more important, since we are more like our rival than we generally like to admit, finding the good in them means that we will also find the good in ourselves.

Jesus said that, “It is impossible that scandals should not come.” So, expect scandals to come. Instead of denying them or getting stuck in them, by following these three steps we can move through them. As we move through scandals, we find ourselves less scandalized, more forgiving of ourselves and others, and better able to work with others for a better future.

*Photo: Flicker, Marc Nozell, Hillary Clinton in Hampton, NH, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Jareth

“You Have No Power Over Me”: When David Bowie Was Satan (A Tribute Of Sorts)

Introduction

Oh you’ve turned my world, you precious thing…

These haunting words reverberated through my mind upon learning, two weeks ago, of David Bowie’s death. A great number of people feel his loss in the world of music, but I didn’t know him best as a musician. I knew him as Jareth, the compelling, charismatic Goblin King from the 80s cult classic, Labyrinth.

I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me as the loss of my favorite childhood villain began to sink in. And then I wondered if it might be possible to write a mimetic analysis of Labyrinth in honor of David Bowie. Admittedly, when the thought occurred, I had not yet pondered any sort of in-depth analysis. I was simply looking forward to my “research” (that is, watching the movie and singing and dancing along to all of the songs.)

Yet even before my research began, as I started to contemplate the story and the characters, I had to wonder if filmmaker Jim Henson was a closet Girardian himself! Labyrinth is ripe for mimetic analysis, beginning with a scapegoating sacrifice and culminating in a reorientation of desire. Between these extremes is the labyrinth itself – an arduous, winding physical and spiritual journey during which circumstances, priorities, and values are subconsciously reevaluated and new meaning is discovered.

And it has only been through the lens of mimetic theory that I have come to fully understand and appreciate the magnitude of David Bowie’s character. He is not merely a magnetic, enigmatic and striking villain; he is Satan himself! True, mimetic theory does not accede to a personal view of “the satan.” But if the principal of accusation, deceit, and twisted desire had a face, it would be Jareth’s. It feels a little odd to “honor” someone by naming him as the embodiment of all evil. David Bowie, after all, was not the devil… but he played one wickedly well.

Sacrifice and the World of the Satan

Labyrinth begins with a sacrifice. Our heroine, Sarah, is in the midst of a personal crisis, augmented, no doubt, by teenage hormones, but genuine. After the opening scene foreshadowing her epic showdown with the Goblin King, we can imply from visual clues that her mother has died. Perhaps this has kept her in a semi-fantasy state of mind. Her room is filled with stuffed animals, the books on her desk are classic children’s fantasies, and she seems to prefer to escape to a world of make-believe.

Were she merely role-playing, there may not be much cause for concern, but Sarah soon proves herself not merely childlike, but, to a degree, childish. Upon discovering that one of her stuffed animals has been used to comfort her little brother, Toby, she storms into the infant’s room screaming, “I hate you! I hate you!” Clearly, the child is innocent. But Sarah scapegoats the poor baby for far more than being caught with her toy. This child is a sign that her father, grieved though he may be from the loss of Sarah’s mother, is moving forward in his life. He has remarried, and the new baby has cemented a familial bond that Sarah resists. She resents her stepmother, resents her half-brother, and seems to wish to revert to an earlier time when she was an only child, before her mother’s death. She longs for love, perhaps unable to see the love she already possesses. Little of this is consciously acknowledged, however, and on first viewing, Sarah seems only concerned about her loss of freedom as she must babysit a child while her parents go out. Hyperbolically, Sarah fancies herself a modern Cinderella and cries out for rescue. Though she exaggerates, there is real pain behind her melodramatic façade. All the same, she clearly scapegoats her brother Toby, and in the end, sacrifices him, if accidentally, to the Goblin King by wishing him away. “I wish the goblins would come and take you away,” she says to her screaming brother. “Right now.”

An instant later, Toby is gone, and the Goblin King arrives in a flash of evil glory. When Sarah begs for her brother back, he patronizes her, then bribes her with her “dreams,” before whisking her away to his underground world where his castle beyond the Goblin City lies at the end of a vast, foreboding labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours in which to solve the labyrinth before her baby brother becomes a goblin forever.

Simultaneously condescending and tempting, manipulative, deceitful, and magnetically attractive, Jareth indeed embodies a very particular form of evil: the satanic principal. He feeds off of scapegoating sacrifice, as seen by his desire for Toby. Yet his wickedness is disguised by a false benevolence. He is Sarah’s dream and her nightmare, offering to liberate her a life she cannot tolerate by relieving her of her responsibility for her brother, yet capturing her in a lie. Because the lines between fantasy and reality are so blurred in Labyrinth, it is hard to say definitively when he began to manipulate Sarah, whether or not their worlds collided before he stole Toby. But I imagine him whispering through the pages of her storybook (the story she acts out in the beginning and must live out in the end), compelling her to believe that he loves her and wants to rescue her from the bane of her existence, whom he helps her identify as Toby. If only Toby were taken away, he urges, all her problems would be solved.

That is, of course, exactly the way scapegoating works. People come to believe that their problems will be solved if they could only get rid of someone. The satanic principal is the principal of accusation and blame, the lie that a person or a community can only experience peace, success, fortune or joy at the expense of someone else. It has manifested in all kinds of violence, from expulsion to murder to oppression to war. The human propensity to project blame onto another and deflect one’s own responsibility is so deeply embedded within our psyche that there is no need for a “personal” satan. In fact, to accuse someone of being the embodiment of Satan is to employ the satanic principal one’s self.

Yet in this fantasy, Jareth, the Goblin King, is the demand for sacrifice come to life, the embodiment of Satan. He clearly feeds off of receiving those who have been thrown away, cast out by society, as Sarah has cast out Toby. He stops at nothing to ensure that Sarah does not reach her brother. This includes attempts at physical harm as well as psychological manipulation. He strives to reorient her desires toward himself and away from her sisterly love (which, hidden under a mess of trauma, angst, and deception, surfaces like a nearly-drowned victim gasping for air as soon as the fantasy to rid herself of Toby becomes a reality). The twisting of desire away from harmonious connection with others toward self-fulfillment at another’s expense is yet another manifestation of the satanic principal, which builds identity over and against another. Jareth seeks to deceive Sarah into loving him at the expense of her brother. But real love calls instead for mercy, not sacrifice.

Love Robs the Devil of Its Power

In spite of all of his manipulation, in spite of attempts to impede Sarah with obstacles, disorient her and undo all of her progress, or trap her in a false paradise of her dreams, Jareth cannot hinder Sarah, who is propelled forward by love. It is not only the love of her brother that motivates her. Along her journey, Sarah encounters three creatures who are clearly outcasts. Hoggle is a dwarf with no friends who ostensibly works for Jareth, though only out of fear, not loyalty. Ludo is a beast – intimidating on the surface but with a heart of gold – being tortured in captivity when Sarah takes the risk of rescuing him. And Sir Didymus is a talking raccoon who lives on the shores of the Bog of Eternal Stench, clearly beyond the margins of any “decent” society. Sarah befriends them all. In a world of outcasts under the power of the devil, Sarah manages to find and give love. No wonder she “turned [Jareth’s] world.”

One must wonder if Jareth finds the befriending of outcasts as intolerable as the thought of rescuing, or unsacrificing, Toby. If Jareth’s power lies in deceiving others into believing in the need for sacrifice, dividing creatures against each other, or building a kingdom out of controlling the rejected, then it seems that this is the case. In particular, Sarah’s friendship with Hoggle infuriates Jareth. In his threatening, manipulative fashion, Jareth seeks to breed self-contempt in Hoggle to keep him from believing he could ever be valued by anyone. “You don’t think a young girl could ever like a repulsive little scab like you, do you?” he asks. One of the devil’s tricks is convincing the victim of his or her own guilt or insignificance. For a long time, such manipulation has worked to intimidate Hoggle, but Sarah’s friendship empowers him. Hoggle’s character arc is in many ways the most compelling of the entire movie, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. For now it is simply worth reflecting on how his relationship with Jareth brings to light the ways in which blame and accusation can deceive people into the lie of self-worthlessness, making it that much easier to harm others or acquiesce to harm of one’s self. Jareth makes Hoggle feel worthless and compels selfishness. Yet Sarah helps Hoggle find his sense of worth, and thus enables his selflessness.

In the end, Sarah’s friendships become a part of her. Though she must face Jareth “alone,” as interdividuals we are never alone. Sarah takes the love of her friends to her final confrontation with Jareth. In this stunning scene of magnificent mimetic proportions, we not only see Sarah stronger for having embraced the love of others, but we also see Jareth admit to being formed by Sarah’s desires as well. In a succinct monologue, Jareth details how he has lived up to the compelling and formidable villain of Sarah’s fantasies. “I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me,” he concludes. “Isn’t that generous?” His speech is a manipulative blend of truth and deception; truth, for indeed, mimetic theory illumines to us how our formation of identity over and against others creates enemies. Sarah had fantasized herself as a hero in contrast to the villain that Jareth lived into. Yet Jareth is also deceitful, for he evades responsibility for his actions by, again, accusing Sarah of being the reason for his anguish and ignoring the hell he has put her through. Yet Sarah has come through hell stronger, and rather than let herself be intimidated or angered, rather than speak in her own defense, she remains focused on her mission to rescue her brother.

If there is any doubt that Jareth is Satan, it should be laid to rest in his final scene, which is reminiscent to Christ’s temptation in the desert. In his last attempt to win Sarah over, Jareth once again offers her everything she once desired:

I ask for so little. Just let me rule you. And you can have anything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.

His request is so reasonable. Just live within the confines of the world he has created, a world of sacrifice and outcasts, and he can be generous. Keep the focus on your own desires, Jareth implies, and he can fulfill them… at the expense of everyone else.  “Do as I say and I will be your slave” is a perfect encapsulation of the satanic temptation. When we wield the power of accusation and deceit, when we run the world on sacrifice, expulsion and murder, we may acquire our desires, but we do not rule our desires. In such a world, desire rules over us. Even when the satan works for us, we are slaves to it.

Sarah can no longer be held in the thrall of the satan. The world he controls, the “love” he offers and demands, is false. She knows that now, because she has come to know and be capable of true love, self-giving love, through embracing and being embraced by outcasts (as she herself had been, not only in the Labyrinth, but in her (mis)understanding of her “real” life) and through her recognition of her brother’s innocence and vulnerability. Jareth may offer everything she once desired, but her desires have been reoriented by love. Thus she can truthfully proclaim to him: “You have no power over me!”

Conclusion

Sarah “turned Jareth’s world,” as surely as Christ turned the world under the control of the satanic principal. She brought out the love that was there all along, and discovered it within herself. Whether the labyrinth and the underground world were “real” or inside her mind (but why on earth should that mean it is not real?), Sarah found love within it that she could carry with her for the rest of her life. Even in the depths of hell, the outer margins where we cast the victims we see as monsters, there is love. Sarah demonized her little brother and cast him out, to a hellish world where he was destined to become a monster, but recognizing his innocence and discovering a courageous love within herself, she not only pulled him from the brink, but brought others out of their misery and loneliness along the way, redeeming herself in the service of others.

And what of Jareth, the Goblin King, the satan? I hope if David Bowie looks down upon this tribute from Heaven, he takes no offense at being called out as Satan. I hope he is amused and honored. After all, if you’re going to play the Big Bad, you might as well play the Biggest Bad!

Yet I also believe that even Jareth can be redeemed, by the same love that Sarah discovered and magnified. It may take an eternity, but Love redeems all. Labyrinth, the Gospel in Muppet Form, tells that quintessential truth, in a way we can all dance to.

Rest in Peace, David Bowie, you devil you.

 

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly David Bowie End Scene by Anni53

paddington 2

The 2015 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment Goes to Paddington

It is a great pleasure to announce that the winner of the 2015 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment is Paul King for his work as writer and director of the 2015 live action feature length movie, Paddington. The movie chronicles the adventures of a Peruvian bear with a fondness for all things British and is based on Michael Bond’s universally beloved books. Raising issues of immigration, fear, and the longing to belong this animated film is not romantic or idealistic about the problems faced by both the immigrant and the community which must choose to welcome or reject him. Rather it offers an insightful reflection on the risks and rewards of welcoming a stranger onto our shores and into our homes. Suzanne Ross’ review of the movie is available here.

Paddington-rev

The Raven award honors an artist for an insightful representation of some aspect of mimetic theory. Paul King’s story of the Brown family’s transformative relationship with an alien in their midst creatively dramatizes the paradoxes of violence and peace that result from the scapegoat mechanism. As demonstrated by the founder of mimetic theory, René Girard, the violent exclusion of scapegoats is the foundation and sustaining principle of human community. And as developed by the theologian James Alison, this mimetic insight reveals the process by which peace emerges as a scapegoat is transformed from dangerous other to beloved member of the community. This is the very journey that the Brown family takes with Paddington and we hear a line of dialogue near the end of the movie that sums up this reversal perfectly: “This family needed that wee bear every bit as much as he needed us.” That very neediness or vulnerability turns out to be the essential ingredient for the transformation to occur. Paul King’s insightful portrayal of this vulnerable, trusting bear offers an antidote to the fear and anxiety that currently dominates immigration debates.

Suzanne Ross’ interview with Mr. King appears below.

More about Paul King and Paddington

Paul King began his career in the theatre, where he conceived and directed a number of comedy shows, collaborating with Richard Ayoade, David Mitchell, Robert Webb, and Noel Fielding, among others. In 2001 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, which led to various television commissions including the wildly successful cult series The Mighty Boosh, for which Paul was BAFTA nominated and went on to direct for three seasons. In 2009 Paul wrote and directed his first feature film, the brilliantly inventive imaginary road trip Bunny and the Bull. This was followed by the Little Britain BBC Christmas Special Come Fly With Me (the first of a series), which Paul directed in 2010. A lifelong fan of Michael Bond’s Paddington books, Paul is both writer and director of the film adaptation of Paddington Bear.

Paddington was nominated in two categories by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2015, Best British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won Best Film in the 2015 Children’s BAFTA awards. Paddington also received the Empire award for Best Comedy in 2015. And according to the film’s executive producer, Rosie Alison, it was a big box office success around the world.

2015 Raven Award Press Release

ayatollah

Divine Revenge? Islam and Khamenei’s False Doctrine of God

Iran and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties yesterday after a weekend of escalating violence. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed a popular Shiite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who angered the Saudi Royal Family by calling for their removal in 2011. The Saudi Royal Family claims that the execution was an act of national defense, because it accuses Iran of creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.

In response to the execution, Iran requested that the Saudi ambassador condemn the execution. Saudi Arabia said, “Hey, two can play that game” and requested that the Iranian ambassador “vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation” of the execution.

Then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter (as apparently you do when you are a supreme leader) to proclaim God’s vengeance! “Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.”

Ouch.

There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine.

Girard claimed that humans are mimetic, and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. In other words, humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But the violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow. In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings. According to Girard, humans tend to believe that,

Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating. Everyone wants to strike the last blow, and reprisal can thus follow reprisal without any true conclusion ever being reached. (Violence and the Sacred, 26)

Throughout his long career, Girard revealed the human aspect of violence. Like the Saudis and Iranians, it is we who condemn one another with escalating threats of condemnation and violence. According to Girard, violence is purely human.

Which means that God has nothing to do with violence or vengeance or revenge.

Girard was a Christian who claimed that the long trajectory of the Bible reveals the distinction between human violence and God’s nonviolent love. He challenged any notion that God is associated with violence. Girard only made a few comments about Islam during his career, but I’d like to show how the Islamic tradition offers a similar challenge to associating God with violence.

Because I want to be clear that I am not imposing my Christian theology onto Islam, I’ll tell you about Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster in Germany. As with the Bible, Khorchide knows that there are different images of God in the Qur’an. For him, the question is, “Which image of God are we talking about?” Khorchide says that some Muslims choose to believe that God is a dictator who acts like a violent tribal leader that cannot be challenged.

Political leaders, like the Ayatollah, promote this understanding of God because they view themselves as “shadows of God on earth.” Khorchide says, “This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God.” This makes God into a tribal deity, who pits “us” against “them.”

Of course, one can read any holy book, including the Koran and the Bible, and find images of a violent tribal deity. But Khorchide asserts that the God of the Koran is not like that. “I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful?’ There has to be a reason for this.”

The reason is that the God of the Koran is Grace and Mercy. For Khorchide, “The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and a child.” The God of Grace and Mercy radically transforms the human understanding of God and violence.

Khorchide talks specifically about the Islamic concept of Hell. For many, Hell is the ultimate example of God’s violence and revenge. This is where evil doers will burn forever as a result of divine vengeance. But Khorchide states that idea is a complete misunderstanding of Islam’s view of Hell. “Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without.”

The Ayatollah is wrong to associate God with revenge. And so are we whenever we associate God with violence. The God of Islam has nothing to do with revenge. Rather, the God of Islam, the God of Mercy, wants us to stop the cycles of vengeance that threaten the future of our world. In fact, God wants us to transform our bitter enmity with friendship. As the Koran states that God’s goal for human relationships is reconciliation – “Good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).

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Image: Flickr, Khamenei poster in Persepolis, by Nick Taylor, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

All Set Free

Special Book Feature Saturday: All Set Free by Matthew Distefano

Introduction: From Fear to Freedom

Fear is a terrible prison. Navigating the dark corridors of confusion and anxiety, searching for clarity and understanding and relief only to run into walls of self-doubt and torturous demons haunting your consciousness with the most terrifying “what ifs,” living in fear can be paralyzing, isolating, and self-diminishing. When the cause of such fear is anxiety about the nature or existence of God, it can be overwhelming, because the consequences it threatens are eternal. For one who struggles to believe in a God who is described by many to be both the very source of love and the author of the most excruciating eternal torments, admitting such fear is in itself a source of anxiety. In apprehension of isolating yourself by expressing worries no one else seems to acknowledge, in trepidation of essentially sealing a dreaded fate by admitting aloud that you just don’t know – when the horrors of hell for disbelieving somehow seem more palpable than the God whose blend of love and torture is impossible to comprehend – wrestling with such doubt, like Jacob in the Jabbok, can feel like drowning.

Although I come from a very different background within the Christian tradition than author Matthew Distefano, he has articulately expressed the fear that once held me captive – fear of my own unbelief, fear of hell, fear of God. But much more, he has succinctly and eloquently shone a light on his journey to the perfect Love that casts out such fear. The revelation of God’s universal healing and reconciling love in Jesus is undoubtedly a gift of grace, but Matthew has also put much effort into the metanoia – the transformation through the renewal of mind — that was begun in him by Christ. His assurance that God’s love enfolds everyone has come through careful study of theology, anthropology, hermeneutics, and the historical context of Jesus’s life and ministry. I saw parallels to my own journey while reading this book, and find that it both enhances my understanding of God’s love and helps me to communicate to others the amazing process of moving from anxiety to adoration and distress to discipleship. Should you be haunted by frightening interpretations of scripture or perplexed by the violence of God, reading this book with an open heart and mind (and an open Bible!) will not only illumine Matthew’s journey from fear to freedom, but may well propel you on a journey of your own! I know it is Matthew’s hope, and mine as well, that all will one day be All Set Free.

 Is God Violent?

 Though Matthew’s faith journey is different from mine, the fears that haunted us both, along, perhaps, with the desire in spite (or partly because) of those fears to know God better, led us both to the same question: “If there is a God, is he/she violent?” (xii) It is perhaps the most important question that can be asked, for how it is answered according to each person who asks (or subconsciously assumes) will have profound implications on that person’s understanding of the world and, thus, the mark that person leaves on the world. Belief in a violent God will lead to justification of violence, even if the goal of such violence is peace through the eradication or subduing of enemies. It is clear that a great deal of humanity is caught up in such an understanding of God. Yet the significance of this question encompasses but also transcends how it is answered by people. If the answer is “No, God is not violent at all,” then there is hope beyond the vicious cycle of violence that has entrapped so many, and hope for reconciliation for all within the all-encompassing mercy of God. The implications of this exceedingly good news are mind-blowing; to think, all the pain, suffering, heartache, devastation – physical and social and economic and psychological and spiritual violence – will all one day be made well by One who will wipe every tear from every eye!

Matthew’s continuing theological journey led him to a conclusive “No” to the question of God’s violence. The fullness of God’s peace that surpasses all human understanding is a continuing revelation, but the affirmation that “God is Love and in Him there is no darkness at all,” is assured. The beauty of this news has made Matthew want to shout God’s grace from the rooftops at any cost, and he writes with passion. However, coming out of fear, coming out of a well-meaning community that interpreted the violence of scripture at face value, Matthew shows deep empathy for those who believe in, or fear, eternal consequences for incorrect belief. The God portrayed in scripture is indeed frightening without a particular hermeneutical lens. That lens is Jesus, but Jesus can only be properly understood in the context not only of his human history, but in the context of what it means to be human at all. Thus, after a brief examination of the roots of Universalism within historic Christianity, giving the skeptical reader an initial hope that such all-encompassing love may not be “too good to be true” after all, Matthew leads the reader on a journey through anthropology as well as theology. Embarking on the path laid by Matthew’s scholarship, the reader travels beyond the walls of fear to the astonishing light of news that is better than many have ever dared to imagine.

Journey Through Science, Scripture, and Spirit

 Matthew convincingly argues that if we do not know ourselves, we will project unconscious presuppositions onto whatever it is that we study or engage. This is particularly problematic when we seek to understand God, for we will inevitably recreate God in our own image, with devastating consequences! Thus it is necessary to approach scripture – the record of humanity’s relationship with God – from an anthropological perspective as well as a theological perspective. And for understanding what it means to be human, Matthew turns to René Girard.

Matthew’s treatment of Girard’s mimetic theory and its implications on human nature and the link between religion and violence at the foundation of human culture is succinct but sufficient to illumine the necessity of an anthropological lens upon scripture. Such a lens changes everything! Understanding how human beings are formed in relationship to one-another, how we are designed for imitation, gives profound insight into the inner workings of both love and violence, for both are products of human connection. Imitation of not only behavior, but of desires, can lead to connection when the object of those desires is shared, but conflict when the object of those desires is coveted exclusively for oneself.

In the section “The Girardian Trajectory,” Matthew efficiently shows how shared desires lead to conflict, how conflict escalates, and how the ensuing violence that threatens to consume and destroy the community finds an outlet in a scapegoat. Onto the scapegoat all the evil intention of the community to destroy one-another is projected, so that s/he is seen as the origin of the conflict; the original objects of shared desire are forgotten in the focused, righteous hatred against the scapegoat. Once expelled from the community, by collective murder or expulsion, the resulting catharsis brings such a euphoria that the scapegoat once considered evil is now the bringer of peace, supernatural, divine. However, because conflicts will inevitably arise again, it will be necessary to repeat such collective violence. Eventually, these patterns of violence and violent peacemaking will turn into conscious safeguards against all-out violence – rules, routines, and sacred stories to remember them by – that will form human culture. Matthew eloquently traces the initial murderous event that unifies the community through the pillars of culture – prohibition, ritual, and myth – to show how the violent resolution to conflict gave rise to religion.

Once one understands the link between violence and religion, once one sees religion as a violent safeguard against violence, the violence of scripture begins to make sense. The notion of a violent god is deeply ingrained in the origins of human civilization, and the demands for sacrifice in scripture are illuminated. Yet scripture tells another story as well, a story of humanity on its way out of the darkness of fearful subservience to a violent god, out of its entrapment in violent conflict with one another. There are signs of a God who brings peace and order not through violence, but through mercy, who resolves human conflict by rechanneling desires so that people live for the good of others rather than themselves. There are injunctions from the prophets to care for the poor and marginalized, those who had been scapegoated and ostracized by their communities in order to “keep the peace.” All of this culminates in, and is fully revealed by, the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus, our model, our liberator from the cycle of violence, our Prince of Peace, shows us what it means to be fully-human, to live into our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano can take a discerning eye to scripture, separating the anthropological revelation – the human understanding of a warrior God who brings limited peace to limited people through sacrifice and conquest – from theological revelation, the breaking-in of God’s mercy to challenge sacrifice, bring the marginalized into the sphere of public concern, and halt cycles of violence with forgiving love. With Jesus as the ultimate model, imitating the Father and enjoining us to imitate him, scripture presents the alternative – the cure – to negative mimesis as positive mimesis. Matthew traces Jesus’s hermeneutic, his interpretive lens, on scripture through the New Testament references to the Hebrew Bible to show how Jesus rejected the violence of God. Instead, Jesus modeled the concern for the poor and marginalized that the prophets spoke about – concern that was a critique of human violence mistakenly attributed to or thought to be commanded by God. Ultimately, however, Jesus confronts the depths of human violence not only through his teachings, but through his death and resurrection. After illuminating the scapegoating mechanism, Matthew deftly explains how Jesus – God incarnate – undergoes that very mechanism, enduring all of humanity’s violent projections, all of the hate and fear and shame and blame – becoming the victim of humanity’s deadly curse of violence – in order to undo humanity’s violent mechanism for achieving peace. In the resurrection, Jesus’s innocence was vindicated, and all of the prohibitions, rituals, labels and walls that humans use to keep peace by casting others out were put on trial and exposed for the unholy violence that they are. Through his analysis of scripture informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that God has nothing to do with violence, that the violence in the atonement is ours, and we are “atoned” (at-one-d) by God’s gracious mercy in spite, not because, of violence. Yet if violence has always been humanity’s means of achieving peace, and violence is now exposed for the evil that it is and rendered impotent, what now will save us from imitating one-another’s desires and becoming entrapped in conflict, rivalry, and war?

Only Love can bring peace. That is the message of Jesus. Peace built on the backs of scapegoats, peace built over the graves of victims, will always fail, but Love will restore all things, just as love restored Jesus to life. Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that this Love must embrace all, for to sacrifice any one is to leave the scapegoat mechanism in tact. A God who saves us from sacrifice must save us all, must not sacrifice any one of us. Matthew makes it abundantly clear a God who answers violence with love will not inflict violence in an everlasting torment of hell. However, he explains the references to hell in scripture as the temporal consequences of human violence. He even explains how the mercy of God may involve pain – pain as of a wound being healed, as we are disciplined, corrected, purged of the violence so deeply ingrained in our identities which are ultimately foreign to the image of God in which we were created. He takes on some of the difficult sayings of Jesus and reads them, not in the light of a violent god whom we now know is a product of deficient human understanding, but in the light of mercy that can be experienced as severe. Being embraced in God’s mercy ultimately means becoming aware of the pain one has inflicted upon others, because God brings every victim, including our own, out of the shadows. Such mercy may indeed sting, but it is grace. Matthew articulates God’s severe but undeniably beautiful grace with passion, compassion, wisdom and humility.

Conclusion

But if you are a long time reader of Raven, none of this is new to you. You may not be trapped in an existential fear of hell (though there is much here to read if you are in doubt or anxiety!) Perhaps your greatest fear right now is in finding the perfect gift for your loved one. If that is the case, I encourage you to become All Set Free of your holiday stress and buy Matthew Distefano’s book today! (P.S. If this hard-sell, which is just an attempt at humor, bugs you, please pretend I ended this review with the penultimate paragraph above! Happy Holidays!)

 

Image: Cover of All Set Free via Amazon.

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America Is Possessed: Guns, War, and the Gospel’s Answers to Violence

Another mass shooting on U.S. soil and we’re all looking for answers.

Actually, there were two mass shootings on Wednesday. One in San Bernardino, California, and the other in Savannah, Georgia. We also know that “there have been 355 mass shooting in 336 days.” We are averaging more than one mass shooting a day.

America clearly has a problem.

In response, politicians are quick to spread a popular myth about mass shootings: that mental illness is to blame. I’m all for having better healthcare for the mentally ill, but mental illness has very little to do with mass shootings.

Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, states that mental illness accounts for a very small percentage of violent crimes in America. The website mentalhealth.gov backs up his claim, “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illness are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”

Unfortunately, when politicians quickly point to mental illness as the cause of mass shootings they scapegoat the mentally ill. Scapegoating does two interrelated things. First, it blames someone else for the problem. Second, in blaming someone else, it allows us to think that we are innocent of the problem.

But the truth is that the United States is not innocent. We are a violent nation. And politicians generally pride themselves on just how violent the United States is. Of course, they will say that the goal of our violence is a more secure and peaceful America, but we can’t afford to fool ourselves any longer. Our addiction to violence won’t bring peace. It will only bring more violence.

The Gospels, Demon Possession, and Roman Military Violence

There’s an important story in the Gospels that relates to Americas problem with violence. According to Mark, Jesus was traveling through to the country of the Gerasenes, where he encountered a man possessed by demons living on the outskirts of town. The man was naked, isolated, and living in a graveyard.

Demon possession just sounds weird to my Western mind, but if we stick with the story we will find a key insight into being human.

Jesus asked the man, “What is your name?” The man replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

The term “legion” was a Roman military term that referred to a company of 6,000 soldiers. The Roman legions had conquered the area, crushing anyone who got in their way.

How did the man become possessed by a legion of demons? It happened in two ways, both explained by mimetic theory. Because humans are mimetic, we absorb the culture around us. The man became possessed because he absorbed the demonic violence of the Roman military. He managed his inner demons by shouting day and night and inflicting himself with wounds.

But the other Garasenes were also possessed by Roman military violence. They were the crowd that united violently against the man possessed by the legions. He was their scapegoat, the one excluded from their community. The Garasenes knew that they were good because they defined themselves over and against this violent man possessed by demons. The balance of good and evil within their community depended upon viewing their scapegoated victim as evil.

The Gospel, Demon Possession, and American Military Violence

The political critique of military violence in the Gospels is obvious. The Kingdom of God is the alternative to the Kingdom of Rome, but not just the Kingdom of Rome. It’s the alternative to any political ideology that condones their use of violence. In the story of the man possessed by demons, we find that violence cannot be contained; it spreads like a contagious disease until we are all possessed by its demons.

And that’s what is happening throughout the United States. Like the Roman legions who sought to spread the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) with the sword, the United States seeks to spread peace and security through drone attacks, sniper rifles, and smart bombs.

We are possessed by that same spirit of violence and hostility. The more we attempt to wage peace through violence, the more we reinforce the spirit of violence that possesses us all.

For example, the United States spends $610 billion on “defensive spending” – in other words, on the ability kill our enemies. That’s more than the next seven countries (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany) combined! Those seven countries *only* spend a combined $601 billion on defense.

Despite that astronomical spending on the American War Machine, we continue to fight the never ending War on Terror. All the while presidential candidates say, with a straight face, that our military isn’t strong enough!

It’s time to acknowledge the truth. The United States, from our government to our citizenry, believes that violence is the way to solve our problems. Many US citizens think the solution to our gun problem is to have more guns.

The Gospels claim that there is only one solution to ending the spirit of violence. It begins with refusing to participate in the cycle of violence. But it’s more than that. It’s also to identify with the victims of violence. Whereas human culture is founded on the scapegoat mechanism that violently defines “us” against “them,” the Gospels invert the scapegoat mechanism so that a new human culture is born – one that finds community not by uniting against a scapegoat, but by identifying with scapegoats in the inclusive spirit of love and compassion.

NT Wright brilliantly makes this point in his commentary on this story. Within this story we detect shades of the cross, where Jesus identifies with all victims of violence,

At the climax of Mark’s story Jesus himself will end up naked, isolated, outside the town among the tombs, shouting incomprehensible things as he is torn apart on the cross by the standard Roman torture, his flesh torn to ribbons by the small stones in the Roman lash. And that, Mark is saying, will be how the demons are dealt with. That is how healing takes place. Jesus is coming to share the plight of the people, to let the enemy do its worst to him, to take the full force of evil on himself and let the others go free.

Jesus sets us free by revealing that violence is a force of evil, not by violently fighting back. That would only reinforce the demonic forces of evil. No, Jesus sets us free by taking violence upon himself and offering forgiveness in return.

If we are to finally end these mass murders in the United States, we do need gun legislation. But even that’s not radical enough. We need to end our dependence on military violence because it’s infecting our nation with the demonic spirit of violence. Instead, we need to foster peace by identifying with our scapegoats, rather than by killing them.

Copyright: outsiderzone / 123RF Stock Photo

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast Episode 6 with Dr. Jason Okrzynski on the Saints and Friendship with God

Dr. Jason Okrzynsi, M.Div., PhD, recently joined the RavenCast to discuss why Protestants should reclaim the saints as models of faith by helping us find friendship with God.

Jason is the Director of Christian Education for Children, Youth and Families at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, Illinois. Jason earned his Master of Divinity at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and his PhD in Christian Education and Congregational Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. He recently delivered a paper titled, “For All the Saints: The Cult of Saints and Theological Imagination in the Art of Liberal Protestant Youth Ministry.”

MP3

Video:

Show Notes:

  • God as gift giver.
  • Our response to God’s gift is our vocation, which is to be Christ in the world. The two primary places we do that is in our family and in our work.
  • The saints stir imagination that invite us to live out radical lives of love and service. The saints present a different picture than the consumer identity of the modern world.
  • Francis rejects the materialism and privilege of his youth and find joy in serving others.
  • Children and youth yearn for transcendence and the saints offer a witness to what that looks like.
  • For Martin Luther, our jobs are not about personal fulfillment, but is about offering ourselves to care for earthly needs.
  • The saints are called “friends of God.” They find friendship with God by intentionally detaching from certain material goods and gaining social status so that they can intentionally attach themselves to God.
  • Most of the saints carried great pain and sadness and struggled through incredible temptation. Most of them have skeletons in their closet. They are models because they are real people who had real struggles.
  • The Christian faith isn’t about making us try harder to be good or worthy. It’s about God giving God’s self. You can reject the gift, you can receive it poorly, but God gives the gift.
  • Liberal modernity tells us that we need to produce enough and be good enough. But the saints claim that we just need to receive the gifts that God offers to us.
  • We often want to know what we can do to produce holiness, righteousness and justice. But the saints ask what do we have to do to receive holiness, righteousness and justice.
  • Paul says “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” This is the perfect theology of the saints. It’s not that we need to be more religious. The point of claiming the saints is not to be them or compare our lives to theirs. It’s that here is one example of what it means to be a friend of God.

 

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Happy Toddler Thanksgiving: Tips From a Montessori Parent

Thanksgiving can be a toddler parenting nightmare: distant relatives who want hugs and kisses; bowls of nuts and candy within your toddler’s reach; expectations for dinner table etiquette; and of course, all with no nap! What’s a family in search of a happy Thanksgiving to do? That’s just what I discussed with my daughter Emily as she prepares for turkey day with her toddler. Grace is two and a half and attending a Montessori toddler program and Emily is doing a wonderful job implementing Montessori at home. Interestingly for our work at Raven, Dr. Montessori’s theory is founded on the role of imitation in early childhood development – a perfect fit with mimetic theory. I hope this video conversation helps your family to have a Happy Toddler Thanksgiving! And please share your tips for an enjoyable toddler Thanksgiving on The Montessori Project Facebook page.

Image: From Pixabay.

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The Anti-Christ Immigration Response of US Governors and the Kingdom of God

Christians are called to be a light to the nations. The world can’t wait any longer for us to live into that mission.

And make no mistake about it – that mission is political. After all, Jesus preached the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom. Of. God.

This is not simply a personal ethic. I often hear evangelicals and conservatives say, “God wants everything from us” and “God demands our all.” But somehow many also claim that “everything” and “all” doesn’t include our politics because Jesus only gave us a personal ethic.

The fact is that the Kingdom of God is more than personal. It is political, but it is a radically different kind of politics because it subverts the political status quo. From the beginning of human history, the political status quo has been run by the same dynamic – violence.

But the Kingdom of God subverts the politics of violence. Make no mistake: When Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God,” he was being politically subversive. He was charged with high treason, because in using that phrase he was directly confronting the Kingdom of Rome.

These two political realms function in entirely different ways. The Kingdom of Rome functioned with violence, terror, and exclusion. But this point is crucial: Rome wanted peace. In fact, Rome named its project the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, and wanted to spread it throughout the known world. Unfortunately, the only method Rome knew to achieve “peace” was through violence. As Rome conquered new lands in the contradictory name of the Pax Romana, it carried the sword and the crucifix along with it. And if anyone resisted, they would likely be killed.

As all Christians know, that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Why was Jesus killed? It wasn’t because he said, “Hey guys. I’ve got a personal ethic here, let’s all just love each other! Look, bunnies. Yay! Aren’t they cute!”

No.

Jesus resisted the Kingdom of Rome with the Kingdom of God. But let’s be clear: Jesus subverted Rome in the most subversive way possible – he stood up for justice with nonviolent love. Jesus knew that Rome wasn’t the real enemy. As one of his earliest followers stated, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The real enemy wasn’t Rome. The real enemy was the anti-Christ – the forces of evil, hatred, and violence. So here’s the crucial contrast:

Where Rome sought to terrorize, exclude, and kill their enemies, Jesus taught us to love our enemies in the way that Jesus loved his enemies, with self-offering love and nonviolence. Yes, Jesus, along with the prophets before him, stood up to political, economic, and religious injustice. He named it. He confronted it. He resisted it.

But why didn’t Jesus ever kill in the name of peace and justice, like Rome did? Because he knew that violence and exclusion would make him just like his enemies. He would become the enemy twin of those he opposed. On a personal and political level, mimicking the violence, hatred, and exclusion of our enemies makes us exactly like our enemies. And so Jesus offers the only alternative – renounce violence by loving your neighbor, who includes even your enemies.

René Girard makes this point while quoting Jesus on love in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

Since violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result (of peace):

And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35).

In the face of terrorism in France and throughout the world, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist violence with nonviolent love.

In the face of refugees fleeing countries torn to shreds by terrorism, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist the urge to exclude refugees by showing them gracious hospitality that lends without hope of receiving anything in return.

If we choose any other personal or political ethic, we aren’t living by the Kingdom of God. We deny God and worship at the feet of the anti-Christ. And Jesus had harsh words for those who claim to follow him but refuse to live by the love, nonviolence, and radical hospitality of the Kingdom of God:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father. On that day, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

For those of us living in the 21st century, that prophetic warning is as important as ever. If Christians are serious about following Jesus and being a light to the nations, then we must follow Jesus by living into his personal and political ethic. Otherwise we become just like those we call our enemies.

If the governors of the United States exclude refugees who are fleeing from the violence of ISIS, then that act of exclusion by the United States makes us just like ISIS. But it’s actually worse than that. If we are honest with ourselves, we in the United States will admit that ISIS is just like us. We are the violent models that ISIS is imitating. We are the ones who, like ancient Rome, have been spreading “peace” and “justice” through violence. ISIS is simply mimicking our methods. If the United States really wants to lead the world into a more just and peaceful future, then we need to change our methods in fighting for justice from violence to nonviolent love.

Because if we continue down this path, we will ensure ourselves a future of apocalyptic violence. And Jesus will say to us, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

But fortunately there is a clear alternative. Jesus calls us to love. That love is risky and can be scary. That’s because love doesn’t guarantee security, but neither does violence. The point for Christians is to not be run by fear, but by love. To follow him means to trust that as we live into the Kingdom of God we can show hospitality and lend to everyone in need, without expecting anything in return, because we know that there will be enough for everyone.


 

Image Copyright: adrenalinapura / 123RF Stock Photo

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 4 – The Politics of Terrorism and the Politics of Jesus

The Discussion:

MP3

 

Show Notes*

How should we respond to terrorist attacks in Paris?

Nearly 90% of people killed in American drone attacks were not targeted. American violence is terrorizing the Middle East, labeling all “unknown people it kills as ‘Enemies Killed in Action,’” but they are often civilians. (The Intercept: The Drone Papers: The Assassination Complex.)

Last Thursday, the United States killed “Jihadi John” in a drone strike, killing the man responsible for beheading Western journalists. (In the discussion, Adam mistakenly said he beheaded monks. That was a different ISIS group.) The Huffington Post wrote, “Britain said the death of the militant would strike at the heart of the Islamic State group.” Tragically, killing Jihadi John didn’t stop ISIS from striking back. The mimetic nature of violence reveals that violence is imitative and it escalates. Jesus gave the prophetic message that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We are experiencing the horrific pattern of escalating violence at work.

The logic of terrorism hopes to get a violent response in return for violence. That way terrorists can continue a narrative that they are actually the victims of Western aggression. In striking back, we give terrorists exactly what they want.

The Politics of Violence and the Politics of Jesus

Our violent political message isn’t working. Francois Hollande, President of France, said, “We are going to lead a war that will be pitiless.” He vowed to show “no mercy.” For Christians, this is in stark contrast to the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites us to living into. In the Beatitudes, Jesus claimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Just as violence is mimetic and will lead to a future of more violence, mercy is also mimetic. In other words, violence only ensures a future of violence. Mercy is our only possibility for a future of mercy and peace.

Negotiations alone won’t work. We also need reparations. So, what is a better solution to terrorism than responding with violence? Girardian Jean Michel-Oughourlian provides the answer in his book Psychopolitics,

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. (page 23)


*You may hear sounds in the background. That’s Lindsey’s toddler, which is also the reason for Lindsey’s side-glances.

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