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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.

Bruce Jenner and God’s Response to Transgendered People

jennerCaryn Riswold wrote a moving article about Bruce Jenner’s interview last night with Dianne Sawyer. In the interview, Bruce states, “For all intents and purposes, I’m a woman. People look at me differently. They see you as this macho male, but my heart and my soul and everything I do in life – it is part of me. That female side of me. That’s who I am.”

Caryn’s article is titled “How Should People of Faith Respond to Bruce Jenner?” It is a compassionate response to Jenner and all people who identify as transgendered. She states that all people are created in the image of God and so deserve our love and compassion. Sadly, many religious people disagree with Caryn, insisting that Jenner is confused, crazy, or just out for attention.

Caryn worries that Jenner will be mocked and ridiculed. She states that people of faith should not respond with ridicule, but rather with acceptance and compassion. Caryn writes

Pay attention to the one who isn’t laughing. The one who looks upset. The one who is desperately trying to escape the gaze and the mockery.

Pay attention to the ones on the margins. Whose image are they created in?

As I read Caryn’s article, my thoughts went to someone I met last year. A friend of mine asked me to visit his friend – a woman in her 50s. My friend described her as being depressed and questioning if her existence mattered to anyone. “Oh, and she’s transgendered,” my friend explained. “Her parents are conservative Christians and have rejected her. I don’t know how she will respond to a pastor, but she needs to talk with someone.”

My heart broke for this woman before I even met her. A lifetime of being rejected, mocked, and “on the margins” of her Christian family.

This was my first conscious experience with a transgendered person. Before I met her at our local coffee house, I said a brief prayer and I reminded myself of my job – to be a nonjudgmental presence as I “pay attention to the ones on the margins.”

Surprisingly, she opened up right away about her parents and siblings. She experienced rejection from her family and church, yet she had friends who introduced her to God’s unconditional love. She knew, deep in her bones, that while her family and church had rejected her, God hadn’t. God responded to her as a transgendered woman by accepting her and loving her for who she was.

Sometimes I take my role in ministry too seriously. I start to think that it’s my job to minister and heal people. But it’s in moments when I sit across from a transgendered woman who tells me about God’s unconditional love that I discover that I am the one who is being ministered to. Here was a transgendered woman who had been scapegoated, despised, and rejected. Yet she pointed beyond that hatred to the unconditional, unmerited, gracious love of God.

I found myself holding her hand. Man. Woman. Transgendered. Whatever. In the face of God’s holy love that this woman was mediating to me, those constructs didn’t matter.

What mattered was the truth that transcends our social constructs that divides the world into us and them – that God loves us as we are and for who we are. Period.

But it’s hard to live this way, isn’t it? After all, there are those people who continue to be judgmental, who do divide the world into us “good, normally gendered people” and those “bad, abnormally confused people like Bruce Jenner.”

And so, the question Caryn asks about how we should respond to Bruce Jenner is crucially important. Another crucially important question is “How should people of faith respond to those we think are judgmental?”

Here’s what I learned from the transgendered woman I met: You don’t respond by mimicking harsh judgment. You don’t mock the mockers, marginalize the marginalizers, or scapegoat the scapegoaters. Rather, you respond by mediating God’s unconditional love to them.

That doesn’t mean we ignore the pain of being marginalized. No, we talk about our pain because that’s the way we move toward healing. And as we talk and move toward healing, we begin to discover that those who judge us have their own pain and their own wounds that they project on us. What they need isn’t for us to mimic their judgment, but for us to be vessels of the love of God.

It’s in that love, the love modeled by a transgendered woman, that we are healed from our pain, our wounds, and our judgmentalism.

Why Biblical Violence is Good for Children

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What’s all that violence doing in the Bible? Does it make you uncomfortable? How are we supposed to teach these stories to children?

I mean, the first family was marked by violence. Cain killed his brother Abel. How’s that for a dysfunctional family system?

Just two chapters later, God floods the earth, killing everyone and everything on the planet except for one family and two of every animal… And somehow we’ve made that a cute children’s story?

A boy named David kills a mean, nasty giant named Goliath. Hey, kids! You know that bully at your school? Go ahead and fight that jerk! You may think you’re weaker, but God’s on your side. You got this!

And then there’s Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It takes years of therapy to recover from that one.

But here’s the thing. Violence doesn’t just happen in the Bible. Children see violence all the time on the news, in cartoons, and in video games. Unless children are growing up in a bubble, we can’t stop them from witnessing violence.

Nor should we want to. Violence happens. It happened in biblical times and it happens in our time. The problem isn’t that there’s violence in the Bible. If there wasn’t violence in the Bible we would accuse it of naively hiding the truth that humans have a tendency to be violent.

The problem is how we interpret that violence. Children and adults shouldn’t avoid those violent texts. Rather, we need to learn how deal with them.

Suzanne and I recently delivered a presentation on biblical violence at the Faith Forward conference. We specifically examined the murder that started it all – Cain and Abel.

We began by explaining that mimetic theory claims that the Bible is a “text in travail.” It struggles with two competing forces. One force seeks to hide the voice of the victim. It tells us the story from the point of view of the perpetrator. The victim is silenced in these stories, which are known as myths. Interestingly, the word “Myth” comes from the Greek root “muo,” which means “to close eyes or mouth” or “to keep secret.” By closing the mouth of the victim and our eyes to the victim’s suffering, myths keep the victim’s story a secret.

The competing force in the biblical narrative keeps our eyes open and listens to the unheard voice of the victim. Generally speaking, victims get to tell their side of the story in the biblical account. I say “generally” because there are plenty of mythical stories in the Bible, but we also frequently hear the voice of the victim. That’s what makes the Bible a text in travail.

To highlight the difference between myths and Bible, we compared the two ancient stories of sibling murder. First, the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and then the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel. Romulus and Remus were sons of the Roman god of war, Mars. Together, they killed their great uncle, who was a threat to their rule. Then they decided to build a city. Romulus built walls to protect the city, but Remus thought the walls were too short. To prove his point, he jumped over them. Romulus was enraged, so he killed his brother. Romulus continued building the city and named it Rome, after himself. He populated with city with outlaws and fugitives, all of whom were men. Without any women around, what was Rome to do? Romulus came up with a plan. He kidnapped Sabine women. How romantic! Well, the Sabines didn’t like that, so they went to war with Rome. Romulus defeated the Sabines and the Sabines accepted him as their king. When Romulus died, Mars looked with favor upon his beloved son of war and welcomed him to the heavens. Romulus was then deified as the god Quirinus.

The Bible tells a similar story. The founding of the first city was also based on a murder, but this time God doesn’t approve.

Cain became jealous of his brother Abel. God responded to Cain’s jealousy by saying, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

From the very beginning of the story, God doesn’t condone violence. Later, Jesus would say, “You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” The Cain and Abel story is a warning against anger, for anger leads to murder.

But Cain didn’t master the sinful anger that was crouching at his door. He was consumed by it. He invited his brother to the field, where he killed Abel. God came to Abel and said, “Where is your brother?… What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

In the myth, we never hear from Remus after his death. The mythical gods don’t care about Remus. But the Biblical God listens for the voice of the victim, whose blood cries out from the earth. God not only hears the voice of the victim, but disapproves of the murder. God holds the perpetrator of violence accountable. Whereas the myth endorses violence, the Bible disapproves of it.

Cain then freaks out. He has an anxiety fest as he worries that he has unleashed a cycle of violence and cries out, “whoever finds me may kill me.”

Interestingly, God also hears the cry of the perpetrator of violence. God’s purpose for human life isn’t a cycle of violence, but to end violence with nonviolence. So, God “put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”

Cain then built the first city and named it after his son. Romulus named his city after himself – after a murderer – thus locking Rome into a pattern of pride and violence. Cain, on the other hand, named the city after his son, Enoch. In doing so, Cain offered a new pattern of being in the world – one based on humility, repentance, and new beginnings.

Both stories attribute the founding of cities to a murder. In the myth, the murder is condoned, the victim silenced, and the murderer is vindicated in his violence by being elevated to divine status. In the Bible, God disapproves of the murder, speaks for the victim and reveals the truth of the utter nonviolence of God.

But what about those other stories? You know, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath?

The violence is critiqued in all three stories. God actually repents of violence in the flood story. It is the gods (Elohim is the Hebrew word for gods) who call Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But it is the specific Hebrew God Yahweh who stops the sacrifice. While it seems that God endorses David’s violence and wars, do you remember why David wasn’t allowed to build God’s Temple. He had blood on his hands. It was his son Solomon, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for peace (shalom), who built the Temple.

Biblical violence is good to teach our children because in virtually every biblical story that seems to endorse violence, even God sanctioned violence, there is a critique of that violence. If Christianity is to have any credibility moving forward into the 21st century, it is that critique of violence that we need to teach our children.

The future of Christianity, indeed, the future of the human race, depends on it.

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ: How to Overcome the Place of Shame

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had the same experience. Their shared experience could have defined their lives. It could have made them bitter. They could have sought revenge. But they didn’t. Instead, they invited us to change. They invited us to live into a better world.

Monica Lewinsky and the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both occupied the place of shame. In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture.  In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.

The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”

But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”

And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:

The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors… that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created.

A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over-and-against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!

Sure, Monica made “wrong turns.” But by shaming her, we gained a false sense of moral superiority that is rooted in our lack of self-esteem. After all, deep down we know that we have made wrong turns, too. We have all compromised ourselves morally and ethically. Shaming allows us to project our own sense of shame upon another. When it comes to shaming, it’s not really about them. It’s really about us.

Monica’s statement is prophetic because she is putting the price of public shaming where it belongs – on us. We are all responsible for the culture of shame. By claiming that “we have created” a culture of shame, Monica admits that she also needs to take responsibility for her part in participating in that culture. But she is also taking responsibility for transforming our culture of shame. Monica explains how we can change that culture,

Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop. And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. The shift begins by… returning to a long held value of compassion and empathy.

That’s the key. Yet, typically we respond to shame and humiliation by mimicking shame and humiliation. We shame the shamers. We scapegoat the scapegoater. We project our own shame upon someone else. When we do this, we have only reinforced the spirit of shame that permeates our culture.

The answer to shame is not more shame. It’s more compassion, more empathy, and more love for others and for ourselves.

Jesus Christ and the Place of Shame

jesus teacherJesus and Monica were both publicly exposed, shamed, and humiliated. Of course, Jesus’ public humiliation didn’t happen on the Internet; it happened on a cross. Jesus hung on the cross, naked, exposed, and humiliated for everyone to see. The cross was a place of torture and shame.

Jesus didn’t make “wrong turns” as Monica did. He was innocent. And yet the cross reveals that innocence doesn’t matter. He was still mocked, shamed, tortured, and killed.

The remarkable thing about Jesus is the same thing that I find remarkable about Monica Lewinsky – neither are defined by their experience of shame. Neither want revenge. Rather, both invite us into a new reality where the cycle of shame stops and a new cycle of compassion and empathy begins.

Jesus invites us into a new life – a new way of being in the world. Unfortunately, human cultures run on shaming a scapegoat. As James Alison states in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, we humans would much rather someone else occupy the place of shame than we occupy that place ourselves. And so we point the finger of accusation and shame against others so that we can feel safe.

But when we play by the rules of shame, no one escapes life without experiencing it. Everyone, whether we make wrong turns or not, experiences shame. The good news is that we don’t have to play by those rules. In fact, we can learn an entirely new game.

Jesus called that new game the “Kingdom of God.” He based that game on two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Your neighbor, Jesus reminded us, might just be your enemy, the one who shames you. While that often hurts, Jesus gives us the freedom to respond to shame with compassion and empathy.

Even more important, Jesus invites us to take responsibility for the way we all participate in the culture of shame. We all stand in need of forgiveness and Jesus hung on the cross to offer that forgiveness. In the face of human violence and shame committed against him, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

How Monica and Jesus Overcame the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both reveal that we can overcome our experience of shame. The place of shame is overcome not by projecting our own sense of shame upon another or by the revenge of shaming those who shame us. Rather, it is overcome by responding to shame with compassion and empathy for ourselves, our neighbors, and even those we call our enemies.

Our culture is run by cycles of shame, but we don’t have to be. By receiving the forgiveness and compassion of God, we can run our lives by different rules. The only way to transform a culture of violence and shame is to play by different rules – the rules of self-giving love and compassion.

Ishtar vs. Easter: Pick Your Story

In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.

But this meme also appeared on my feed:

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The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?

The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme. First, she points out that the English word “Easter” isn’t related to an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, but rather to a Germanic goddess named Eostre or Ostara. This was the goddess of the dawn, who brought light to the people. McArdle also observes that other European languages don’t use the word “Easter” at all. Instead, they call the day of the resurrection “Pascha,” which comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” meaning “Passover.”

Second, she claims that there is no evidence that Ishtar’s symbols were eggs and bunnies. In fact, Ishtar’s symbols were ancient symbols of power – a lion and stars.

For argument’s sake, I’m willing to concede that while the meme’s comparison of Ishtar to Easter is problematic, there are some interesting similarities between the goddess Ishtar and the Easter story. But what I find really interesting are the differences.

Since the meme brought it up, let’s compare the Ishtar myth to the Easter story. First, I’d like to tell you about my guide when it comes to understanding ancient myths, René Girard. In his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard claims that the Gospels and ancient myths have a lot in common. They are both structured around what he calls a “mimetic crisis.” For our purpose here, “mimetic crisis” basically means a cycle of violence. Ancient myths and the Gospels are similar in that they both have violence in them. But that similarity only heightens the fact that they deal with that violence in radically different ways. Let’s first take a look at how the Ishtar myth deals with violence.

Ishtar and Violence

Ishtar was the goddess of sexuality, love, fertility, storms, and war. She had many lovers and a violent streak. Don’t mess with Ishtar. This goddess gets her revenge! According to mythologist Felix Guirand, “Woe to him whom Ishtar has honoured! The fickle goddess treated her lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly…Even for the gods Ishtar’s love was fatal. In her youth the goddess had loved Tammuz, god of the harvest,…This love caused the death of Tammuz.”

Ishtar proposed marriage to the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, but he refused, citing the violent faith of her previous lovers. “And why should I marry you?” Gilgamesh asked the goddess. “You have harmed everyone you have ever loved!” Ishtar was enraged by his refusal and sought revenge by asking her Father, the god Anu, for special permission to use the Bull of Heaven as her secret weapon against Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, that great warrior, killed the Bull. In a clear example of a mimetic crisis, Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh, then Gilgamesh cursed Ishtar. After they were done with their playground taunts, (I can hear my children teasing each other, “neener-neener-neener”) Ishtar got her revenge by killing Gilgamesh’s best friend. (Hopefully my children won’t do that!)

Ishtar is a god of violence and Gilgamesh is a man of violence. The ancient myths legitimate violence against women and against men. No one is spared from violence and revenge is taken for granted as a way of life.

Easter and Violence

Easter is an anti-myth. It de-legitimizes violence. As Girard observes, there’s no denying the violence in the story. Just a few days before Easter, Jesus was abandoned by his followers and executed at the hands of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities of his day. But as opposed to Ishtar who asked her Father for revenge, Jesus literally prayed his Father would forgive those who killed him. “Father,” Jesus prayed from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

On Easter, Jesus continued to reveal that mythical violence has no place in the heart of God. Jesus was resurrected to transform our world; to transform us. Because of the resurrection, we no longer have to believe in the mythical ways of violence. Instead, we can believe in the nonviolent love of God.

If Jesus were a myth like Ishtar, he would have come back for revenge. He would have killed his Roman persecutors and their religious allies. He probably would have murdered his cowardly disciples. But Easter is no myth. It’s Gospel. It’s the Good News that God doesn’t seek revenge, but rather offers forgiveness and peace to the world.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What did Jesus teach his disciples? In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught them the anti-myth. He taught them that the true God has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with nonviolent love. He modeled for them an alternative way relating to their fellow human beings, not with mimetic cycles of violence, but with forgiveness and nonviolent love.

Ishtar vs Easter

In the end, the Ishtar and Easter stories do have some things in common. They both offer strategies for dealing with violence. Those strategies are clear. Ishtar legitimizes a life of violence while Easter provides the alternative of forgiveness.

Which story will you pick?