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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.

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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)

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

A Natural Peace: Evidence for the Abnormality of Violence

Is war an inevitable part of human existence? Is violence woven into the strands of our DNA? Or is it possible that human nature is loving, compassionate, and altruistic? Much ink has been spilled on the question and you can read social science and psychology studies that support the view that civilization is only a thin veneer over a violent natures or that altruism has an evolutionary advantage and is coded into our DNA. Unfortunately, nothing definitive on the question yet, not from the experimental sciences anyway. But I don’t think a definitive answer is all that elusive: If you want to know if humans are violent by nature, look at the face of a child who has been impacted by violence.

I know that mimetic theory (MT), my life’s work, has taken a beating on the subject of human violence. It has been accused of forging an indissoluble link between humanity and violence, though nothing could be further from the truth. Mimetic theory explains how violence became embedded in human culture, indeed how human culture as it is currently constructed relies on a foundation of violence. But MT also clearly illuminates the contingency of our current predicament. In other words, though violence is the beating heart of human culture today, it doesn’t have to be.

The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal”, then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal, in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally, then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.

In her observational studies of young children, Dr. Maria Montessori concluded that normal childhood development was surprisingly peaceful. What she called “normalized” children – children freed from the oppression of adult ideas of what children should be and do – were calm, capable of intense and prolonged periods of concentration, filled with wonder and joy, and overflowed with creativity. They were not violent, angry, anxious or mean. On the contrary, Dr. Montessori explained that “We might say that if love appears, we are within the range of the normal, and if it does not, within the range of the abnormal.”

In fact, I can allow her to interpret the images of children afflicted by violence for us. She called for a “revolution [in childhood education], one in which everything we know today will be transformed. I think of this as the final revolution,” she explained. “Not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.” Faces stricken to death in the presence of violence are not evidence of the normal human condition.

If war is inevitable, as some believe, then human development will forever be abnormal. We will never truly flourish and discover our way into new cultural forms that do not rely on constant infusions of violence to sustain them. We have been too long slogging through what Dr. Montessori called the “adult period” of human evolution, one that is “characterized by constant outbreak of war.” With her revolution in education, she hoped to usher in “the age of the child… the period in which we will begin to build peace.” If adults dedicate themselves to supporting the normal development of children we may be taking the first step to “organizing humanity for peace”. Social peace and harmony have too long relied on winner takes all wars of domination and defeat. True peace must be grounded in its only true foundation: the natural peace of a normalized humanity.

How the Warrior Mindset Has Damaged Policing, Children and Youth

One reason I love having Bob Koehler’s weekly political analysis on our site is that he is an intuitive mimetic thinker. Just as Girard claims for mimetic theory, Bob’s analysis consistently “contradicts the thesis of human autonomy.” Most politicians and law enforcement experts don’t even know that “human autonomy” is a speculative theory. They believe in it as an article of faith, and in his latest post, Zero Tolerance about the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Community Policing, Bob points out how that faith has led to disastrous results for children and youth, especially in policing practices.

If you take human autonomy as your starting point, you lose sight of the most central characteristic of human nature: we learn who we are and how to behave from one another. How we treat children is who they will become. This bit of wisdom has gone by many names, among them the popular notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. If teachers consistently have low expectations for certain groups of kids, say minorities or those labeled as “problem kids”, the kids will meet those meager expectations but rarely exceed them. Why? Because our sense of identity is not something we own or develop in isolation. We become ourselves in and through the significant relationships that nurture us from the cradle and envelop us as we move out into the world.

When police officers and teachers greet children with suspicion, as problems to manage as if they are expendable and useless to the world, why would we be surprised that such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline” exists? Bob isn’t. And though he finds some hopeful signs for a change of heart in the Task Force’s report, he is also rightly skeptical. Because though the report shows signs of mimetic insights, Bob tells us that it fails dismally at telling the truth about our “nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism.” Addiction to the illusion of autonomy is an addiction to a lie, so telling the truth is out of character, to say the least. Sadly, autonomy is a lie that enables us to blame the kids who become inmates rather than examine our complicity in their failure to thrive.

The Task Force calls for a shift in law enforcement culture from a “warrior mindset” to that of a “guardian” role. It acknowledges that a better goal for policing is “protection” rather than enforcement or suppression of crime. Well bravo! A sure way to change outcomes for kids is to change attitudes of the adults that engage with them. What if the police actually saw it as their duty to protect children and adolescents from mistreatment and abuse, even and especially the mistreatment and abuse that can come from the police? Not only would this change outcomes for kids, it has the potential to change our entire society. Because when we treat children as a problem to manage, we are depriving our world of a valuable resource that comes from the children themselves.

It’s been a long time since we thought of children as miniature adults. We’ve known for over one hundred years that childhood is a special and unique stage in human development. The Task Force actually acknowledged the need for officers to be “trained in child and adolescent development” – wouldn’t that be a game changer! But I’d like to suggest we take it a step further, a step that Dr. Maria Montessori encourages us to take. We owe the understanding of childhood as a distinct stage of development in large part to her work and here’s how she pushes her own insight further:

We ought not to consider the child and the adult merely as successive phases in the individual’s life. We ought rather to look upon them as two different forms of human life, going on at the same time, and exerting upon one another a reciprocal influence. The child and the adult are in fact two different and separate parts of humanity which should interpenetrate and work together in the harmony of mutual aid.

The idea that is hard for adults to swallow, even harder to swallow than the illusion of human autonomy, is that we might be better off if we let children set the tone and content of our policing policies. The mimetic insight works both ways: Yes, we make children into our own image, but they can remake us into their image if we let them. As Dr. Montessori puts it, “… not everyone realizes that the child is a wonderfully precious aid to the adult, and that he can, and should… exercise a formative influence on the adult world.”

Can we learn to see children as resources rather than burdens; adolescents as creative contributors rather than drains on society? If you haven’t read Bob’s article yet, I’m including it here in its entirety. It’s a poignant argument for pushing ourselves to make that shift, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our shared future. 

Zero Tolerance

by Robert Koehler

As I walked down the hall, one of the police officers employed in the school noticed I did not have my identification badge with me.”

The speaker is testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He was a high school freshman at the time. Ah, school days!

“Before I could explain why I did not have my badge,” he went on, “I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week. I had to leave the school premises immediately.”

It gets better.

“Walking to the bus stop, a different police officer pulled me over and demanded to know why I was not in school. As I tried to explain, I was thrown into the back of the police car. They drove back to my school to see if I was telling the truth, and I was left waiting in the car for over two hours. When they came back, they told me I was in fact suspended, but because the school did not provide me with the proper forms, my guardian and I both had to pay tickets for me being off of school property. The tickets together were $600, and I had a court date for each one.”

Dear Mr. President, the American judicial system, especially as it is applied to low-income neighborhoods, was designed by Franz Kafka. Here it is, the insane truth of its bureaucratic pointlessness, sitting in the public record: “I was at home alone watching Jerry Springer, doing nothing,” the witness concluded his testimony, describing the ultimate effect of his banishment from school.

Take “zero tolerance” and multiply it by the Defense Department’s weapon storage bin and you start to get a picture of what policing and justice have come to look like in low-income America.

This week, coinciding with the release of the task force’s Final Report, President Obama has prohibited the transfer, to local police departments, of: “grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher,” according to the Associated Press. In addition, explosives, specialized firearms, battering rams, riot batons, Humvees and drones, among many other items, are now under “tighter control.”

The point of Obama’s action was, I guess, to scale back the insanity, although he put it a little more gently. Trotting out this sort of gear “can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message,” he said. And AP called it “an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities.”

God bless euphemisms! If you call it what it is – oppression, institutional racism, murder – and demand an unequivocal end to it, you face a wall of police armed with this very gear and certain that YOU are the problem.

All this said, I welcome – cautiously, skeptically – the release of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. At least it opens up a certain awareness on a topic the nation has, otherwise, officially refused to face. The report is full of recommendations for positive (some would say “feel good”) policing:

  • “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”
  • “It must also be stressed that the absence of crime is not the final goal of law enforcement. Rather, it is the promotion and protection of public safety while respecting the dignity and rights of all.”
  • “Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development and are unable to recognize and manage a child’s emotional, intellectual, and physical development issues.”
  • “Community policing emphasizes working with neighborhood residents to co-produce public safety.”

There’s plenty of room for devil’s advocacy in such observations. For instance, former prosecutor and New York City police officer Eugene O’Donnell noted recently in an interview on NPR that community policing – at least the kind that elected officials and members of the public seemingly like – “sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there’s no room for conflict.”

There’s a grain of truth here, of course, mixed in with a deliberate oversimplification of the concept of “community policing,” which, however tenuous and flawed, at least begins with the idea that police actually serve the community they patrol and are not an occupying army. Furthermore, it acknowledges that life is complex. Young people are complex. And “zero tolerance” has been four decades of disaster for communities of color, wrecking families, guaranteeing the rise of street gangs and feeding the prison-industrial complex.

Where the Final Report truly fails, in my opinion, is in its refusal to acknowledge the nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism. While it acknowledges that there’s such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and cites witnesses, like the one quoted above, who give a picture of what this actually looks like, it opts out of any deep and structural analysis of American society. It fails to challenge, you might say, the nation’s zero tolerance for truth.