If Mitt Romney wins tomorrow, I hope he embraces his Mormon Christian identity. I hope his presidency will be clearly marked by his faith. We could use some good Mormonism in the White House. So, if he wins, I hope he leads the United States as a faithful Mormon.
Many Christians want to exclude Mormons from the Christian family. Many Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians don’t think Mormons are Christians – they think the term “Mormon Christian” is an oxymoron. My Mormon friends claim that there are differences in doctrine, but they insist that they are Christians because they believe that Jesus is the savior of the world.
For the record, I’m happy to include Mormons into the Christian fold. Just as important, I believe Mormons are members of the Abrahamic tradition. Abraham and his descendants are endowed with a responsibility to the world. You’ll remember that in the beginning of Genesis, things went from “very good” in Genesis 1, to Adam and Eve throwing accusations around in Genesis 3, to Cain murdering his brother Abel in Genesis 4, to the whole earth being filled with apocalyptic violence by Genesis 6:7. Things had gone terribly wrong and God went in search of finding someone to help God set the world right. God found Abram (whose name would be changed to Abraham) and bestowed this responsibility upon him and his descendents – “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The responsibility that God gave Abram came in the form of a “No” and a “Yes.” It’s a “No” to the ways of human accusations and violence that can quickly create a situation of mutual destruction that we see in Genesis 1-6. It’s a “Yes” to partnering with the God of Genesis 12 who wants to bless “all the families of the earth.”
The first three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have all interpreted this responsibility as a God’s desire to care for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized of society. Take, for instance, Deuteronomy 15:7-10. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight –fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean though … and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing … Give liberally and be ungrudging.” The early church attempted to live this ethic toward the poor among them. “…no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned they held in common … There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-34). The Qur’an has a similar concern for the poor – “Alms are meant only for the poor, the needy, those who administer them, those whose hearts need winning over, to free slaves and help those in debt, for God’s cause, and for travelers in need” (9:60).
Mormonism shares in the Abrahamic tradition of embracing God’s call to care for the poor. How many of those who want to exclude Mormons from the Abrahamic traditions have actually read the Book of Mormon? The Book of Mormon tells a story about a King named Benjamin. He was the spiritual and political leader of his people. Benjamin had a successful and peaceful rule. The Book of Mosiah (chapters 1-6) records the end of his life. When Benjamin delivered his final speech to his people, he chose to connect wisdom to service. “And behold,” Benjamin said. “I tell you these things that you may learn wisdom; that you may learn that when you are in service to your fellow human beings you are only in service to your God.” King Benjamin clearly kept with the Abraham’s call to be a blessing through serving the needs of his fellow human beings. This, you will notice, is both an individual calling and a national calling. Benjamin talks to the people individually and as a whole. Benjamin emphasized service to the poor, as we see in Mosiah 4:16-19:
And also, you yourselves will help those that stand in need of your help; you will administer your substance to him that stands in need; and you will not neglect the beggar who puts up his petition to you in vain, and allow him to perish. Perhaps you will say, “The man has brought upon himself this misery; therefore I will not help him, and will not give unto him my food, nor impart to him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just.” But I say unto you, O man, whoever does this has great cause to repent; and he will perish forever unless he repents; for he has no interest in the Kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for the riches which we have of every kind?
King Benjamin’s words were challenging when they were first written, and they are just as challenging now. When it came to administering to those in need, Benjamin didn’t put up with excuses. He doesn’t care if we think the poor bring poverty upon themselves; he implores us to provide for the needs of our fellow human beings. He didn’t put up with any excuses. But he took it a step further – and this message is the culmination of the Abrahamic traditions. He told them to identify with the poor. Benjamin asks “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have?”
The spiritual truth of the Abrahamic traditions is that we are all dependent upon God, and with God, there is always enough for everyone. Yes, we need smart, efficient political policies. But if Mitt Romney becomes president tomorrow, I hope that President Romney is guided by the words of King Benjamin, who knew that the Kingdom of God is marked by the spirit of abundance, not scarcity. Living into the Kingdom of God as King Benjamin did means being faithful to the God of abundance. It means partnering with the God who seeks to bless all the families of the earth, especially families in need.
(For more on Mitt Romney and Mormonism, read Suzanne Ross’s great article “Mitt Romney the Mormon: Should We Be Afraid?“)
We become who we are in conjunction with other people becoming who they are. – David Brooks, The Social Animal
But if there is a divine creativity, surely it is active in this inner soulsphere, where brain matter produces emotion, where love rewires the neurons. – David Brooks, The Social Animal
David Brooks is one of the more controversial New York Times columnists. I frequently see posts from my Facebook friends condemning his recent articles. But what I find fascinating about Brooks is that the condemnations come from both sides of the political aisle – conservatives think he is too liberal and liberals think he is too conservative. It’s not that he refuses to take a political position on issues; it’s that he knows that our political situation is more complicated than simply taking positions on issues.
I had the opportunity to watch Brooks deliver a lecture yesterday in downtown Chicago. He talked about his recent book The Social Animal and the need for more humility in our culture. He started his lecture on humility in a strange way. Brooks made a humorous quip that Mitt Romney lacks the social skills to connect with the American people. It’s a common attack liberals use against Romney, and many in the Chicago audience laughed. But then Brooks turned the table. He told a story about a quick lunch he shared with Romney during the last presidential campaign. They met at a busy restaurant. Before they sat down, Romney went to every table to shake hands and briefly visit with people. Brooks and Romney ate quickly, and then left. As they walked through the restaurant, Romney made a point to say goodbye to each person he met, addressing them by their first names.
With that story, Brooks revealed our liberal arrogance that easily laughs at Romney. “I’m convinced that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are both good men who want to help our country,” Brooks asserted. “The problem they have is that they are running for President in a culture that is increasingly polarized and lacks humility.” He went on to state that this has been the most hostile election he has ever covered, and it’s getting worse as we come to the end. Obama is becoming increasingly negative and small concerning the issues, and Romney is becoming increasingly shifty in his persona.
This is what I love about Brooks. He challenges our black and white view of human nature. Depending on which side we are on, Americans find it very easy to blame Obama or Romney, the Democratic party or the Republican party, for the problems within our country. These accusations against the “other” make us arrogant and they increase the hostility within ourselves and within our country. When Brooks writes that “We become who we are in conjunction with other people becoming who they are” he is pointing to a profound truth about human nature. We are always becoming who we are in relation to others, who are becoming who they are in relation to us. As opposed to modern notions of individualism, identity is not formed in isolation, but rather in community, in culture. Modern scientific research on mirror neurons explains how humans unconsciously imitate the feelings and emotions of others in our community. Brooks calls this “deep imitation,” claiming that “human brains have an automatic ability to perform deep imitation, and in this way share mental processes across the invisible space between them … people are able to feel what others experience as if it were happening to them” (Social Animal, 39).
This aspect of our humanity is incredibly important, especially during the hostility of our political season. Our “deep imitation” (which has a lot in common with mimetic theory) means that our emotions are naturally and unconsciously contagious; human emotions, the good and the bad, spread among us like wild fire and, unless we are vigilantly aware, we will never see the fires coming. The fire of hostility is incredibly dangerous. It sneaks upon us with the power to burn neurological pathways of hostility, wiring us toward anger, bitterness, and resentment. If unchecked, we will soon live in a dangerous state of mutual hostility with one another.
But there is hope that a political culture of hostility can change. The truth that “We become who we are in conjunction with other people becoming who they are” doesn’t have to lead to hostility. “Deep imitation” can lead us into relationships of humility and love. Especially during political campaigns, our neurons are often wired by cultural patterns of hostility, but, as Brooks suggests, our neurons can be wired by the divine creativity of love. My friend Anthony Bartlett stated this best in his book Virtually Christian, “with the semiotic shift of the gospel based on the event of love my neural pathways are thrown into their other core possibility, of compassionate self-and-object-giving, otherwise known as love” (151).
At the end of his lecture, businessman Lester Crown interviewed Brooks. Crown’s last question was about how we can change the arrogance and hostility of our culture. “We need to surround ourselves with models of humility and love,” Brooks replied. “Lester,” Brooks humbly continued, “You have been one of those models for me. And I thank you.”
That’s the key. In order to be formed by a deep imitation of love, we need to intentionally surround ourselves with models of love and humility. Our ultimate model is the divine creativity of love that is working in the world to rewire our neurons away from hostility and arrogance and toward love and humility. That divine creativity is our hope. Our job is to model for one another what the hope of humility and love looks like. We need these models in every sphere of our lives – personal, business, religious, and especially, political. But we can’t wait for others to model it.
With divine love as our ultimate model, people like you and I need to actively model for the world what the hope of love and humility look like. The time is now. Let’s go do it before it’s too late.
We’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. – Barack Obama
The definitive renunciation of violence, without any second thoughts, will become for us the condition … for the survival of humanity itself and for each one of us. – René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 137.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will duke it out in another debate tonight, this time on foreign policy. Each candidate will attempt to make distinctions between his foreign policy and his opponent’s, and each will accuse the other of being a threat to our national security. Each will claim that his foreign policy is uniquely capable of make the world more peaceful. But don’t be fooled by their claims to be distinct or their claims to peace. The fact is that both Romney and Obama fundamentally agree on foreign policy. And, tragically, they are both a threat to our national security.
Mitt Romney used a phrase in last week’s presidential debate that is central to our pursuit peace both in the United States and in the world. That phrase was “culture of violence.” Romney and Obama, along with the vast majority of Americans, agree that we have to “change the culture of violence that we have.” The goal, of course, is to change our culture of violence into its opposite – a culture of peace. But there is a crucial component to making this change that neither candidate will debate tonight: Our methods for changing our culture of violence.
There are primarily two methods that people use to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace. Romney and Obama believe in the same method – there is no distinction between them. They believe that to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace we must use violence. Paul Ryan summed up this belief during the Vice Presidential debate when he said, “Look. Do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do.” The “strength” Ryan was referring to was strength in military violence. Obama agrees with Romney and Ryan, and he continues to remind us about his violent strength in hunting down our enemies.
If using violent methods with the hope of changing a culture of violence seems like an absurd contradiction to you, that’s because it is. As the anthropologist René Girard has warned, violence is supremely imitative. This is why Romney and Obama are threats to our own national security. Violence as a means to achieve peace will only lead to cycles of violence with our enemies. And we will each commit acts of violence in the name of peace. Humans, whether on a national or individual level, always think that the “other” is the violent aggressor who made the first blow and that peace can only be achieved if we rid ourselves of our enemies. “No one ever feels they are the aggressor,” Girard stated, “people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack” (Battling to the End, 18).
Adding to the problem of a foreign policy that is based on peace through violence is our violence at home. Violence is interconnected. Our violent foreign policy infects our national identity with violence. The belief that violence can defeat a culture of violence has infected our nation. We are taught that if someone uses verbal, physical, or emotional violence against you, peace requires that you use violence in return. We are thus infected by a culture of violence on a national and global scale. The infection of violence will continue to have disastrous consequences unless we find alternatives. Girard warns that the imitative “character of violence is so intense that once violence is installed in a community, it cannot burn itself out” (Violence and the Sacred, 81). Violence cannot burn itself out, and so everyone near violence will get burned. Unfortunately, neither presidential candidate is serious about offering an alternative means to peace. Until they do, we will all continue to get burned.
Fortunately, there are alternative means to peace. Ryan is correct that peace will come through strength, but it will never come through a violent strength. True peace requires the strength to renounce all forms of violence. We must have the courage to become anti-violent – not in a way that leads us violently over and against others we think are violent. Rather, we need to become anti-violent in a way that fosters a new identity within ourselves, within our communities, and within our world. This new identity has the courage to recognize that the only way to transform cultures of violence into cultures of peace is to use peaceful means. This new identity doesn’t seek to hunt our violent enemies down. Instead, it takes responsibility for our own violence and seeks to change our ways of violence into ways of peace. Many will accuse the “peaceful means” method as a sign weakness. That accusation is false. Confronting violence with imaginative forms of nonviolence takes great courage and strength. And it’s the only hope for our future. We are coming to a crossroads in human history – the point where violence will burn us all in a hell of our own making if we don’t find alternative, peaceful means of creating cultures of peace. Those alternatives involve forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.
But, tonight you won’t hear our presidential candidates inspiring us to create peace through peaceful means. Tragically, our candidates are enslaved to a culture of violence that attempts to use violence to create peace. It’s time we offered a different vision – the vision of peace through the strength of peaceful means.
We are a nation that is dangerously obsessed with “truth.” For example, before the debates end, internet fact checkers test every comment for its veracity. After the debates, political pundits continue the fact checking by telling us they are separating fact from fiction.
We say we want to know the truth, but in reality we are hiding from the truth. We don’t want the truth; we want to live in a myth. Unfortunately, the myth looks deceptively like truth. The myth doesn’t set us free; it enslaves us. I’ll risk the cliché about truth because, ironically, it is true. Jack Nicholson was right, we can’t handle the truth, because the truth about ourselves makes us uncomfortable.
We saw the myth last night during the second presidential debate. During a particularly awkward moment, President Obama and Governor Romney circled around one another as they pointed fingers of accusation. My Facebook friends called it the “alpha dog” moment. The image of our political candidates circling one another was symbolic of the toxic nature of this campaign where myth passes as truth.
Please, don’t be infected by the myths our candidates are spewing. They are grasping at truth and attempting to beat one another over the head with it. That use of the word “truth” enslaves us to rivalry with one another. Our politicians are enslaved, and especially during this political season, we are enslaved to the myth. We mirror one another and look like enemy twins, circling one another, ready to accuse one another of lies in the name of truth.
But truth is always false when you think you have it. Because you can’t hold the truth; if we are lucky, the truth holds us.
One thing is for sure: When we think we hold the truth, we have made the truth into our idol. By making the truth into an idol, we use it to scapegoat our opponent. We justify our open hatred, name calling, and a win-at-any-cost mentality. The problem is that scapegoating never leads to truth. Rather, scapegoating always leads to a mythical sense of our own goodness, which is mythical because it depends on the lie that our opponents are a filthy bunch of liars.
That version of truth is false. And our politicians are leading us into a toxic future of lies that lead to rivalry. The truth that we can’t handle is that in our mutual accusations against one another we become exactly the same. We become the filthy bunch of liars we see in our opponent.
I want our politicians to lead us out of this mess. I want them to have the courage to say this: “My opponent is a good and fair man. He wants what’s best for our country. He has served our country in the best way he knows how. I’m not going to accuse him of being a liar. I simply disagree with his policies.”
Is that political suicide? Maybe, but I don’t care. If it is political suicide, that’s a reflection of our culture. Our culture needs real leaders. Leaders who will guide us into a more truthful future with one another. Unfortunately, we don’t have those leaders. We have enemy twins.
It was 1:30 am when I heard her voice. My daughter was crying. But I couldn’t get my tired self out of bed. “Just wait a few minutes,” I thought. “If she’s still crying, then get up.” She fell back asleep within two minutes, but I did not. I was wide awake. Apparently, the invisible nurse who lives in my house decided to shoot me up with her invisible intravenous needle filled with invisible Red Bull. I was awake. Then the invisible Red Bull infected me with a strong case of the Thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking Thoughts. 1:30 soon turned into 2:00. Then I got up, did some more thinking and some reading, and then went back to bed. I kept thinking until the Red Bull wore off around 3:30. One of my midnight Thoughts was about politics and … Big Bird.
I kept thinking, How did Big Bird become embroiled in the 2012 political scandal?
Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the word “scandal.” A scandal is about the relationship between people. It occurs when two people desire the same thing, but their shared desire converges on something that they either can’t share or refuse to share. For example, let’s take last week’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both candidates wanted to win the debate, because both want to win the election. But there can only be one winner. When the debate was over, the majority within American media culture (even MSNBC!) declared that Romney was the clear winner. Obama’s desire to win the debate was blocked by Romney, who, according to the media reports, made Obama look foolish. Romney became Obama’s model for success. Romney possessed the object they both desired, but couldn’t share. And so Romney has become a scandal to Obama.
What do we do when we are scandalized? We fight back! We attempt to take back from our rival what we think should be ours. And we try to take it from our rival by using the same method that our rival used to take it from us. In other words, we imitate our rival. That’s what Obama did the morning after the debate. Obama’s desire to win intensified and he set out to thwart Romney’s momentum. Since Romney made Obama look foolish during the debate, Obama immediately attempted to make Romney look foolish after the debate. During a campaign rally the next morning, Obama emphasized Romney’s statement at the debate about PBS and Big Bird. Romney asserted, “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I love Big Bird … I’m not going to keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
President Obama tried to turn the tables on his model and rival by making Romney look foolish. If he could succeed, Obama would take back some of the prestige Romney gained by winning the debate. “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird,” Obama stated with heavy sarcasm – a clear sign he was trying to make Romney look foolish. “It’s about time. We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit, but that’s what we heard last night. How about that?”
Suddenly, Big Bird became entrenched in the 2012 political scandal. The Internet was all a-chirp with Big Bird. Twitter was tweeting, blogs were blogging, and Facebook was posting all about Big Bird. Conservative and liberal friends were using Big Bird as a political talking point. The Obama campaign took it a step further on Tuesday by creating the political advertisement above; a commercial that uses Big Bird to make an even more sarcastic attack against Romney than Obama’s comment after the debate.
As I laid there in bed thinking about this political scandal and Big Bird, I became depressed. Both candidates look foolish to me as they fight over Big Bird, using the star of Sesame Street as a pawn for their political careers. They are unwilling to share the bird whose sole purpose is to teach our children about sharing. And so I’m scandalized. I have a problem when adults, when our political leaders, can’t live up to the expectation we have for our children. I’m scandalized because I want candidates who will lead us above childish scandal and sarcasm.
Apparently, Big Bird does too. The Sesame Workshop, which was thrown into this scandal by both candidates, responded to Obama’s campaign ad. As opposed to siding with Obama and playing up their potential role as Romney’s victim, the company that produces Sesame Street took the high road by responding in the most non-scandalous way:
Sesame Workshop is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.
I’m not going to tell you who to vote for on November 6th, but I will tell you this: Big Bird just gained my vote. Whoever wins this election, I’ll support Sesame Street because it has taught us adults something crucially important about our lives together. We can do better than this. Let’s face it. Our political system is a set up for political scandals. We can’t share the victory on November 6th; the side that loses will want what the other side has. But Sesame Street teaches us that we can do better than our political candidates. They claim that they are in politics to help the American people, but their exploitation of Big Bird makes me suspicious. They don’t want to help us. They only want one thing – power. If our candidates really wanted to help the American people they would act more like Big Bird. Come November 6th we may not be able to avoid the scandal of desiring what our rival has, but we can wean ourselves away from responding with sarcasm and by demonizing the other. Only when we act a little more like Big Bird will we have a better chance of moving beyond our scandals and working together.
Sesame Street provides a positive model for our kids to imitate, and during this political season it is providing a positive model for us adults to imitate, too. And it’s a model that will help me sleep better at night.
How do you feel about Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith? Please notice that I did not ask, what do you think about his faith, but what do you feel. Imagine yourself in a conversation with him (or recall when you’ve talked to a Mormon about their faith, if you have had that experience). What is the tone of your comments? Are you curious and questioning, openly seeking information? Or is your tone judgmental, mocking and filled with ridicule? Perhaps you even get angry as your imaginary conversation progresses and Romney explains some uniquely Mormon tenet of faith that seems dangerous or cultish to you. Maybe you begin to worry seriously that this man with his odd beliefs could be leading our country one day soon.
As I write this reflection, I am sitting in the study of my home in Utah. My backyard faces the Wasatch mountain range. Yesterday I rafted down the Provo River past Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort and tonight I will be having dinner with friends in Salt Lake City. My friends are Mormon and they are members of a Mormon family that I have known for over 33 years. This family is why we own property in Utah, why we built a house here, and why Utah feels like home to us though we have never been tempted to convert. I was raised Catholic and became a Presbyterian when I married and then joined a United Church of Christ congregation with my husband when we moved from New Jersey to Illinois almost 25 years ago. Michael, who is now a member of the Raven board, was a zealous Mormon and we spent many nights deep in conversation about religion, God, and what it means to live a life of devotion to one’s faith. Though we have continued to differ theologically, I consider Michael one of my closest friends and a profound influence, for the better, on my life. I offer this background as a prelude to my comments about Mitt Romney, the Mormon.
Legitimate questions are being raised about how Romney’s faith will affect his conduct if he becomes president. A person is formed by the environment of their childhood and youth and so it is a reasonable question to ask about any candidate’s background. But the depth of ridicule and outrage that is being directed by some at Romney and Mormonism in general is not about an honest search for the truth about a potential US president. If your reaction or the reaction of the political commentators you listen to is filled with hate or ridicule, then the truth you seek will remain elusive. These emotional responses indicate one thing: that your identity has a hostile bent. Knowing that you and your beliefs are right depends, in this case, on Mormons being wrong. How do I know that? Because hatred and ridicule do not seek truth. These emotions want one thing only: self-confirmation. Hate and ridicule will see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and cling to condemnation no matter the evidence presented.
The Mormon faith generates a supporting culture, just as any religion does. It is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and my intention is not to indicate that rather than demonize Mormonism we should idealize it. My intention is to suggest that if we hate another’s belief, we tend to hunker down within our own. Questioning our own culture becomes taboo, a sign of disloyalty. Not only do we become blind to the truth about the other, we idealize our own culture to the point of self-deception. One defining characteristic of the Mormon culture is its emphasis on community. Mormons recognize that individuals do not exist in isolation, that we need one another to cope in this world and survive. The Mormon culture is a helping culture and it stands in stark contrast to the individualism at the heart of American culture at large. I find it interesting that some will accuse the Mormon religion of being a cult, when most of us are embedded in a cult of individualism without realizing it. We are indoctrinated in it from birth and shunned when we try to leave it. Just ask any practicing Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness for that matter. They’ll tell you the truth, if you want to hear it.
I think that the hostility many feel toward Mormonism has very little to do with Mormon theology or religious practices and everything to do with the way in which the Mormon culture challenges individualism. If we continue to pursue a conflictual relationship with one another, we will each become more entrenched in our positions, more one-sided in our practices, and that isn’t good for either of us. Many Americans, religious and secular, would be well served by allowing ourselves to become more like Mormons. Their focus on the community could provide an antidote to materialism, pleasure-seeking, selfishness, and other diseases of the soul. And Mormons could use a dose of me-first once in a while, a reassurance that it’s okay to withdraw from community to refresh and renew oneself for the larger purpose of service to others.
I’ll end with a story. Two days ago my son and his wife were at the Salt Lake City airport heading home from their vacation time with us. Unfortunately, my son left his wife’s laptop at the airport when they boarded the plane. When they landed back in Chicago, my daughter-in-law asked, if they found her laptop, would we pick it up at the airport for her. Of course, we said, and joked that if there is any airport where you want to lose your laptop, its SLC. And sure enough, before dinner with our friends tonight we will be picking up the laptop, returned by some conscientious Utahan who put the well-being of another ahead of herself. Nice, right? Not that it couldn’t happen anywhere, but my husband left his iPad on a plane at O’Hare once – never saw it again. This is anecdotal of course, but I use this story to illustrate that the ones we condemn most vehemently may be the ones who have the most to teach us. In fact, I’m sure that’s the case. A hostile identity is a frightened identity, frightened mostly of being wrong, of having to change. So, if you are sincerely seeking the truth about the impact that candidate Romney’s religion has on him remember to take the advice of the angels. Whenever they appear to humans, their first words are, “Be not afraid.”
If you are like me, you believe New Year’s Resolutions are made to be broken. I struggle with resolutions. I’ve already failed three of the top twelve resolutions Americans make. Lose weight? I always break that during football games on January 1st. Stop drinking? Again, January 1st football games. Eat healthy foods? Nachos, pizza, and burgers, all on January 1st.
January 1st is the day I resolve to make the hardest resolution I’ve ever had to make (and I make throughout the year) – to forgive myself.
To be more forgiving of one’s self and of others is certainly a resolution worth making, but the Iowa Caucus tonight reminds me of another resolution worthy of discussion. It’s a resolution few people will make this year. And it’s a resolution you are bound to break. Sometime during this first week of 2012, you are likely to be asked, “What’s your New Year’s Resolution?” Imagine their response when you reply, “I’m going to end scapegoating.”
It’s a big task. Scapegoating infects our culture, our lives, and our politics. For example, the Iowa Caucus is tonight and we find candidates scrambling to define themselves over and against their opponents. Mitt Romney, who seems to be the front-runner in Iowa, has attacked President Obama, accusing him of creating an entitlement society in the U.S. Romney said that Obama’s continued policies would “poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare.” He went on to say, “I prefer an America that is one nation under God and I will keep it that way.” While Romney attacks Obama, a Super PAC backing him has spent $3 million on ads slamming Romney’s Republican opponents. And Romney’s opponents have responded with similar attack ads. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post warns that this is just the beginning of negative ads run by Super PACs:
We are going to see hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads bombarding millions of voters for months on end, with no knowledge of who is paying for them, no accountability at all for the candidates who are directly benefiting from them, and no meaningful effort to rebut the countless lies, distortions and sleazy attacks they’ll be leveling on a daily basis — ones that will directly impact who controls Congress and the White House next year.”
That disturbs me, but it doesn’t surprise me. After Christmas and New Year’s Day, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that average folk like you and I spend much of our time in rivalry with others. You can always tell when you are in a rivalry with another person or group. You know that feeling you get when your uncle starts making political comments during Christmas dinner? Or the feeling you get when you arrive at your office and your supervisor won’t stop talking about her New Year’s weekend, and you know that in two hours she’ll come back and ask why you haven’t been productive? Your blood starts to boil. You need an outlet so you gossip to your cousins or your coworkers.
(Not that I know from experience.)
It’s true. Politicians are corrupted by rivalry and scapegoating. But so are we. We are, as James Alison says, formed in rivalry and scapegoating. “Our programming,” as Alison states in his book, Knowing Jesus, “forms us in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion.”
I can guarantee you one thing during this election year: The rivalry and scapegoating will heat up. Republican candidates and President Obama will continue to define themselves over and against one another in hopes of gaining a sense of superiority.
How do we end scapegoating? There are four key steps. First, I think it’s important to admit that we scapegoat others. Yes. You and I scapegoat. We scapegoat whenever we feel a sense of superiority by hating another person or group. Second, we can stop scapegoating when, instead of feeling superior through scapegoating others, we begin to mourn our scapegoating tendencies. Third, we know we are on our way to end scapegoating when we begin to honestly listen to our rival’s story. And fourth, to truly end scapegoating, we need to develop the courage to admit that maybe, just maybe, we don’t hold the truth, we were wrong about the truth of our rival’s story, and we were wrong about our feelings of superiority over and against our rival.
It’s 2012. And it’s time to end scapegoating
(For an example of how to end scapegoating, see “Rick Perry and Jesus: Strength and Weakness.”)
We at Raven were honored when we read Robert Koehler’s latest article over at the Huffington Post entitled “Captives to the Logic of Violence.” In his article, references our new project “Be a Hero for Peace” and cogently argues that during the last 10 years the United States has been held captive by violence. In the name of “freedom” we have enslaved ourselves to violence. Bob claims that after 9/11, “What fell into place was armed insanity as perpetual background noise, and any reach toward global community, understanding and forgiveness went on permanent hold.”
Of course, our captivity to violence is not isolated to the War on Terror. It infects every aspect of our lives. The logic of violence, including verbal, emotional, and physical violence, permeates American culture. As I read Bob’s article, I was reminded of another article written this week by Brian McLaren. Brian alluded to the infection of violence, provocatively referring to it as a “Spiritually Transmitted Disease.”
We saw an example of our captivity to violence and its spiritual transmission last night at the Republican presidential primary debate. Before, after, and during the debate, most journalists revealed their captivity to the logic of violence by setting the event up as a “battle” between the two former Governors Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. They used phrases like: “The fight,” “traded attacks,” “went at each other like heavyweights,” and “We’ll get right to the important horse race question: Who won?” Of course, journalists use violent phrases because they know the rest of us are held in the same captivity of violence.
There is a big problem with the spiritually transmitted disease we call violence: It is mimetic. Violence is imitative and in that imitation we become just like our enemy. We saw this last night, too. Perry and Romney didn’t fail to live up to our violent expectations. As they threw jabs at each other and tried to make distinctions between themselves, their “differences” were put aside and they looked remarkably similar. As the New York Times reported:
Mr. Perry attacked Mr. Romney’s record of creating jobs in Massachusetts and his championing of health care legislation when he was governor. Mr. Romney, in turn, cast Mr. Perry as a career politician.
“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Mr. Perry said, referring to the former Democratic governor who ran for president in 1988.
“Well, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Romney replied, “George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.
The crowd or Republicans burst into laughter.”
The American captivity to the spiritually transmitted disease of violence was on full display. In this example, the infection worked like this: If you insult me, I insult you back. I’m not sure why the crowd laughed, but sometimes laughing is all you can do when witnessing mimetic doubles. They fervently tried to assert their differences, but the paradox of violence is that in asserting our differences we become the same – mimetic doubles or enemy twins, as Rene Girard calls the phenomenon.
Fortunately for Perry, Romney, and the rest of us, there is a way out of the captivity. Koehler and McLaren both point to the solutions in their articles. That solution is the courageous spirit of love and forgiveness. Brian states that loving our enemies does not mean we cowardly submit to them. Rather, it means “standing up courageously—and in refusing flight, submission, and retaliation—you become less like your opponent. Previously unimagined creative responses become possible. You don’t submit to the game in order to win it: you change the game entirely.”
Bob puts flesh and blood on this principle through the story of Rais Bhuiyan. He is an example of someone who changed the game entirely. Bhuiyan, a Muslim immigrant living in Texas, was shot in the face just after 9/11 by Mark Stroman. Bhuian was lucky; two Muslims didn’t survive Stroman’s killing spree. Stroman was soon sent to death row. (State sanctioned murder … another sign of our captivity to mimetic violence.) Bhuian did something remarkable: He “changed the game entirely” by campaigning to save his assailant’s life. Bhuiyan has since dedicated his life to forgiveness, claiming, “We need to educate people about the healing power of forgiveness.”
We have two choices before us: The mimetic spirit of violence or the mimetic spirit of love and forgiveness. Please. For the sake of our future, choose love and forgiveness. It’s what our post 9/11 world needs.
The Wicked Truth
The Thinking Person’s Guide to The Wildly Successful Broadway Musical
Employing political, social, and historical examples against the backdrop of the musical Wicked, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things explores the ways in which modern society is not so different than the mythical land of Oz, challenging the very framework of our culture, our understanding of Good and Evil, as well as our sense of right and wrong. Written by Raven Foundation Co-Founder Suzanne Ross.
Tangles of Desire
In her second book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, Raven Foundation Co-Founder Suzanne Ross examines the trials and travails of romantic love through the lens of mimetic theory.
On the page, you can watch videos, take a quiz, download music, read a chapter of the book, and discover your romantic pattern. It's wicked fun!
Illustrations by Susan Drawbaugh of Wee Five Designs.
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