In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death

Many scholars have claimed that René Girard’s mimetic theory is one of the most important insights of the 20th century. But those of us who have been highly influenced by René know better. For us, it is not an overstatement to state that René’s explanation of mimetic theory is the most important discovery of human nature in the last 2,000 years. That is, since the Gospels.

This morning brought the news that René has passed away at age 91. “Girardians,” as we are called, have been on social media sharing our sorrow at his passing, but also our profound sense of gratitude for this giant among human beings. We stand on his shoulders. And our vision is all the clearer for it.

As I reflected upon the news, I was struck by the fact that René taught us so much about death. Specifically, about the scapegoat mechanism. René confronted us with the truth about being human. We all have a propensity to manage our conflicts by blaming someone else for them. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community, but it is only temporary. For the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.

But if René taught us about death, he also taught us about life. The solution to our natural inclination toward scapegoating is found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically in the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death. “Christ agrees to die,” wrote René in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, “so that mankind will live.”

Many progressive Christians who do not know René’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading René’s books, it could sound like a form of penal subsitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that René revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read René’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.

Still, at this point, we should warn ourselves not to scapegoat penal substitutionary atonement theory. After all, if René taught us anything it’s that human have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice or whatever we deem to be a important to our well-being.

René taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God. Once at a conference, René was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful. He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”

To end scapegoating and to truly live we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, in the spirit of love and nonviolence.

René not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that René wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him – instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others. For example, I remember sitting across the table from him. He smiled as he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve watched your Mimetic Theory 101 videos. They’re good.” That’s the way he was. He affirmed all of us and encouraged us to follow the truth, no matter where it led.

René always gave the last word to the Gospels. It’s where he found the truth about life and death. It’s only fitting that I end with this quote that sums up René’s theory about God, violence, and love,

The following is the basic text, in my opinion, that shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45, Things Hidden, 183)

May our brother René Girard rest in peace and rise in the glorious love of God.

Image: Screenshot from YouTube.

girl praying 3

ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Jesus The Way, The Truth And The Life? A Progressive Interpretation

You know the passage. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This passage from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the most controversial passages in all of scripture. Conservatives tend to interpret this passage in an exclusive way. They claim it as a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell, because there is no other way to the Father.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to fear the passage’s truth statement about Jesus. They either ignore such passages or pull their hair out when reading them. Some liberals perform the Jiu Jitsu of post-modern biblical criticism. With the Jesus Seminar in mind, many liberal Christians will ignore this verse by claiming that Jesus probably never said anything like this. It was John who imposed these words on Jesus. That truth statement was a reflection of John’s issues, not the meek, mild, and humble Jesus.

Problems with Conservative and Liberal Interpretations

As a progressive Christian, I think Jesus was radically inclusive. A conservative interpretation of this passage that claims it excludes people from heaven has to deal with the whole passage. Just four verses earlier, Jesus stated, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” If Jesus wanted to be exclusive, he would have said, “There are very few rooms in my Father’s house. So, be sure you behave!” But Jesus didn’t reveal the scarcity of God’s generosity. Rather, Jesus revealed the abundance of God’s generous, all-inclusive love. Thus, an exclusive interpretation of Jesus statement that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” fails to incorporate the abundance of God that Jesus revealed. There are many rooms in God’s house.

And yet I can’t go along with liberal interpretations that fears the truth statement of the passage. I’m uncomfortable throwing out such verses. Even more, I believe in truth. Whether or not Jesus actually said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” I trust John’s Gospel enough to believe that the passage tells us something important about Jesus and his mission.

A Progressive Understanding – How is Jesus the Way, and the Truth, and the Life?

Jesus made the statement while having a conversation with his disciples. Jesus said to them:

…you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

This passage is frequently called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” because, as the New Interpreter’s Bible explains, “it resembles the common literary form of the farewell or last testament of a famous man.” That matters because it answers Thomas’s question, “How can we know the way?”

Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples because he knows where the way, and the truth, and the life are leading him. He knows they are leading him to the cross.

Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life in a very particular way. It’s the way, and the truth, and the life of nonviolent love. As he was saying goodbye to his disciples, he was preparing them for his death. Jesus said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Where was Jesus going? He was going to the cross. He was going to become the victim of human violence.

As James Alison states, Jesus was the Forgiving Victim. Instead of mimetically responding to violence with violence, Jesus did something different. He revealed that the way, the truth, and the life responds to those who killed him with all inclusive love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Progressive Christians need to reclaim this passage. It’s a truth claim, but it’s a truth claim that reveals the nonviolent and all-inclusive love of God that embraces everyone, even those we call our enemies.

After all, if you know the truth about the nonviolent love of Jesus, you will know the truth about the nonviolent love of his Father also. As Jesus said, “From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

That is the way, and the truth, and the life.

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Mother’s Day Book Feature Friday: It Runs In The Family by Frida Berrigan

Berrigan book 2I am a stay-at-home mom, and I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker. It often feels like a strange, paradoxical life. At any given moment, when my mind is filled with the major challenges of the 21st-century world – a constant “war on terror,” environmental degradation, racism, sexism, and homophobia in all of their violent manifestations – my hands are filled with a squirming toddler demanding, and deserving, my undivided attention. Or I’ll find myself writing an article on forgiveness and empathy, only to see the latest “experiment” of my six-year-old leave a mess of flower petals and water strewn across the bathroom sink, feel tempted to lash out, and struggle to live up to my own rhetoric. How do I strive to make some small difference in a desperate and vulnerable world, and remember that the most important difference I can make is in the lives of two small, vulnerable human beings? How do I strike the best balance for the world, my children and myself?

My answers will differ from those of Frida Berrigan, but her witness as an activist, a peacemaker, and a mother of three children, makes her a powerful role model for me. Her autobiography It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood is filled with deep wisdom of dedicated, faithful activists and humbling, humorous lessons learned through trial and error to which any parent can relate. With the blood of renowned peacemakers Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister running through her veins, Frida’s own life is a credit to the inspiring activism of her parents. She and her sister and brother are living proof that one of the most important tasks of a peacemaker is helping to inspire the next generation, those who must continue the work of healing this bruised and battered world.

But the task of raising conscientious, dedicated persons – aware of but undeterred by the many troubles of the day – is difficult and complicated. The urgency of the world’s needs often clash with the need to stop everything and nurse or change a diaper. The mimetic pressure to throw our children the perfect birthday party to fit in with other kids (and for us to fit in with their parents) clashes with a desire to teach them not to be materialistic and to live with an awareness of others in true need. And knowledge of the importance of modeling peaceful behavior does not stop the occasional outburst when they push all our buttons in the ways that only our own offspring can. Seeing Frida Berrigan – whose last name is synonymous with the peace movement – struggle with all of these matters is deeply comforting. Within the pages of her autobiography, I have found someone that I can relate to in addition to a model I would like to try to emulate.

Relatable though she is, however, I confess that, had I not learned about her life through the lens of motherhood, I might have been a little intimidated by Frida Berrigan. I look at her activism – cofounding Witness Against Torture, traveling to Guantanamo, at the forefront of peace and social justice issues long before I found my voice on such matters – and I feel a sense of awe. I cannot help being impressed by someone who was out on picket lines since she was in cloth diapers, raised in a counter-cultural commune by a small village that helped to care for her and her siblings when her parents served jail sentences for witness against war. I admit it is a little hard to read this book and not feel like my own witness is far behind. At the same time, Frida’s wise and compassionate words help me to realize that what I am doing right now – beyond writing, beyond any volunteering or marching or petitioning I may find time to do – this crazy, messy, sometimes unpredictable job called motherhood – is one of the most important and meaningful ways I will ever make a difference for peace, not only for the way I am shaping my children, but for the way I am letting them shape me. So as I read, I strive to keep my model from becoming my obstacle by recognizing all the challenges and opportunities for nonviolent witness that motherhood provides.

Frida herself, of course, provides a wonderful model of resistance to the scandal of model-obstacle relationships! After all, her parents gave her “big shoes to fill.” “I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace,” she writes. “So what can I offer my own children?” Exchanging communal life for a single-family home but still participating in co-ops and community gardens, avoiding arrest for civil disobedience but being a legal war tax resister, Frida Berrigan has learned from her own upbringing without replicating it. Grateful to her parents and the many role models who inspired her, she and her family are making their way in the world as peacemakers in their own right, inspired but not burdened by the examples of a generation gone before.

I am not ready to become a war tax resister. I am not even ready to trade in the convenience of disposable diapers for the environmentalism of cloth. But with the help of this book I am inspired to explore nonviolent living and parenting in more holistic, integrated ways than ever before. I am ready to cut back on waste and materialism and consumption, and teach my children to do the same. I am inspired to be more present with my children and fully listen, reducing the distractions of technology. I want to help them become more involved with our communities and more aware of the world around them. I want to teach them how to respond to the troubles of our time with determination and compassion. Frida Berrigan may not have all the answers, but seeing her ask the same questions is encouraging.

But above all, I am encouraged and humbled by the reminder that activism and peacemaking are not “put on hold” for raising children. Rather, it is in raising children that peacemaking and activism take on their most complex, integrated, and authentic forms. In our relationships with the most vulnerable members of our community, we have the opportunity and awesome responsibility to model compassion and humility. My knowledge of mimetic theory makes me even more aware of how much children are influenced by the examples of their surrounding adults. Showing them that they are loved by modeling conscientiousness and compassion to them is perhaps the most important way I can influence peace. It will certainly leave its impact after I am gone in a way that nothing else can. Motherhood is but one manifestation of this responsibility that we all have to children; in whatever capacity we relate to them, we have a duty to model the kindness and compassion that we wish for the world when it is in their hands. And in modeling such kindness, we can begin to create such a world today.

But as Frida and my own children constantly remind me, the peacemakers in the child-parent relationships are not exclusively or even primarily the parents!

Children are little insurrectionists. They turn our lives upside down and they insist we see it through their eyes—and they care more than anything about fairness and friendship. Maybe we have more to learn than to teach.

I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker, but It Runs In The Family reminds me that in truth, as a mother, I am a peacemaker, at least when I am at my best. I add Frida Berrigan to a growing list of role models who bring out the peacemaker in me, including my own parents, my patient and compassionate husband, and my wonderful, world-upending daughters, who have shown me new dimensions of unconditional love.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about rebellious motherhood by following Frida Berrigan’s column “Little Insurrections” at





Nonviolence in Action: Good News from Mel Duncan

NPWe often hear from readers about the difficulties they face advocating for the power of nonviolence in places where faith in violence runs deep. It’s especially difficult – and all the more necessary – when the airwaves echo with faith in American firepower to restore peace in places like Syria, Iraq, or Ukraine. Faith in the goodness of America’s violence is matched by an equal faith in the wickedness of the violence directed against us.

What’s a nonviolent advocate to do?

I suggest that you get the help you need to build your case for nonviolence from Mel Duncan, the founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). Listen to his interview with Stephanie Van Hook and Michael Nagler of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, two incredible peacemakers in their own right. Beginning at about 16:45 minutes into the recording, you can listen as Mel brings good news straight from conflict zones like South Sudan where unarmed peacekeepers are creating safety for civilians and changing the hearts and minds of combatants. Hear his stories of hope from Syria where NP is supporting the work already being done by women and men leading peace building, human rights and reconciliation work that doesn’t make the news. And attached to the end of this article is a report about NP’s newest initiative in Ukraine where Raven Foundation is supporting the training of local leaders to operate in conflict zones to provide civilian protection, monitor human rights violations, develop early warning and response systems, and much more.

Mel Duncan and NP are part of the emerging phenomenon taking place around the globe in which unarmed responses to violence are being demonstrated to be more effective and sustainable than any military response. Even the United Nations is getting on board, working with NP to develop online training for unarmed peacekeepers that will enable anyone anywhere to be trained in nonviolent responses in their own communities. This good news is rooted in experience, objectively verifiable, and undeniably powerful. We hope that the good news from NP will help you challenge the persistent depictions of violence as divisible into two types – ours as the good kind and the bad kind wielded by our enemies. There is only one kind of violence because violence can do only one thing: destroy. The power to resolve conflict, to end hatred, and build sustainable peace belongs to nonviolent action. NP is doing the work that proves it for all to see.

If you’d like to be part of the Nonviolent Peaceforce movement, do what you can to spread the word by sharing this post with others. Find out how you can support NPs work directly at their website. And please let us know if this evidence for the power of nonviolence persuaded you or anyone you know. Leave your comments hear or on our Facebook page.

4 Things You Need to Know about Terrorism and Religion

Rene on differences and mimeticism 1After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence.  What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:


1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.


2. Scapegoat Blindness

We should therefore not be afraid to have an honest discussion about the similarities between the victims and the perpetrators in this or in any case of violence. This is the only way to cut through the haze of confused differences generated by the archaic sacred. Here’s the similarity we need to find the courage to acknowledge – everyone who engages in violence thinks of themselves as good people, their enemies as wicked and their violence as legitimate. If we can be “good” and still use violence without remorse then we are actively engaged in scapegoating and have become unwitting agents of the archaic sacred.

The archaic sacred generates and is fueled by scapegoats, which is another term for “legitimate target for our violence”. Our scapegoats always appear guilty to us and we consider it a duty, even a sacred duty, to hate, expel or destroy them. To be clear, scapegoats can be wicked people, guilty of flawed thinking, dangerous beliefs, and remorseless atrocities. But it is not these things which make them our scapegoats: it is the role they play in the construction of our own goodness. When we construct our identities over against some other who we think is as utterly misguided as we are noble, then we become blind to the ways in which we are behaving just like them! We glorify our own violence and condemn theirs while they do the same thing, ensuring that violence will continue in perpetuity without anyone ever acknowledging just how dangerous their goodness has become.

You will rightly protest that the staff at Charlie Hebdo was not engaging in violent behavior. Satire is not the same thing as violence, and I agree. But the editors at Charlie Hebdo had their scapegoats nonetheless: anyone whose beliefs seemed ridiculous to them became a legitimate target for ridicule. They have been called equal opportunity offenders because they satirized any “sacred” belief whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. As I said in the previous article, believers from any religion seem to them to be stupidly clinging to a dead dragon and so by comparison they considered themselves enlightened secularists on a mission to save the world from religious belief. What I hoped to make possible by pointing out that even victims of terrorism can be guilty of scapegoating was to open our eyes to the ways in which we are all scapegoaters without knowing it.


3. Enemy Twins

Scapegoating is the driving mechanism behind an unfortunate outcome of the sacred: enemies become more and more alike while more loudly proclaiming their differences. Girard refers to such adversaries as enemy twins and the war on terror is sadly a very good example. The Charlie Hebdo newspaper is part of a larger political-military system that has waged war in Muslim neighborhoods to keep violence out of ours. As President Bush famously explained in 2002, “The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide. And that work goes on around the world.”

We should not be surprised that the terrorists agree so completely that they embrace the same strategy – they plan to keep their neighborhoods safe from invading coalition forces by going after us where we plan and live. As one New York Times reporter explained: “In each decade, a familiar pattern has emerged: a radicalized minority of European Muslims — whether they have gone abroad for jihad or not — have been angered and inspired by wars the West has waged in the Arab world, Africa and beyond, and have sought to bring the costs of those conflicts home.” (emphasis mine)

Less than a week after the attacks, millions in Europe gathered in public demonstrations to express their unity over against extremists. Many wore or carried “Je Suis Charlie” signs, a poignant identification with the victims. From heads of state down to the average citizen, all proclaimed their determination not to be cowed by terrorism. Unfortunately, politicians then recommitted themselves to rooting out the wicked, violent people in their midst without any hint that they might disavow their own violence. Until all violence is condemned, especially our own, the archaic sacred will continue to thrive and we will continue to be its puppets.


4. Revelation

Secularists make the mistake of confusing the archaic sacred with revelation: they are not the same thing. I used the image of the dragon to talk about the sacred because that’s an image used in the text of revelation we call the bible. For Girard, the bible is a primary source of knowledge about the relationship between violence and the sacred. For example, Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation is rife with dragon imagery, an image of the frenzied escalation of violence that has been unleashed by the revelation of Christ.

The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)

Jesus uses this same imagery, of the sacred dragon being expelled from the heavens: “He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’” (Luke 10:18) Please do not make the mistake of reading these passages too metaphorically. What is being unmasked here is the human practice of sacralizing violence and blaming God for it. If we continue to scapegoat the bible, lumping it in with the archaic sacred, we will leave ourselves bereft of its wisdom that a dragon of our own making is about to devour us. In that case, Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies will be fulfilled and no amount of satire will be able to save us from ourselves. Recognizing our complicity in sacred violence is the only sure path to peace. As James Alison wrote recently about Jesus’ warning about our reaction to his murder and our complicity in it:

“From now on, those who are scandalized by their involvement in the murder that is to happen and by this teaching about it, will remain scandalized by it; while those who recognize their complicity with the perpetrators of what has gone on and allow themselves to be forgiven will find themselves producing the desired fruit of the vineyard.”

Admitting that we and our enemies are equally complicit in the violence of this world is the only way to end the plague of justified violence. If we can repent and allow ourselves to be forgiven, then the legacy of this tragedy will be a turning point in human history.

The Nonviolent Atonement: God’s Grace upon Grace

She was 85 and nearing the end of her life. I’d never met her before. You might call her a “lapsed Christian,” or maybe she was one of the “nones.” She hadn’t been to church in decades. She called for a visit because she had anxiety about death. But what broke my heart was her anxiety about God.

“Hi,” I gently greeted her.

“Hello pastor.” She replied. She began telling me about her Catholic parents, her “fall” from Catholicism, and that she never felt “at home” in a Protestant church. She stated that she hadn’t stepped into a church in thirty years, and her relationship with God had suffered for it. And now, on her death bed, she felt the weight of guilt and anxiety of abandoning God.

“I’m not in a state of grace,” she said with spiritual and emotional pain.

That’s when my heart broke. She felt guilty because she believed she had abandoned God and so God had abandoned her. I began to think of all the damage many religious people have caused throughout the centuries by imposing guilt upon people. A religion that piles on the guilt isn’t worth following. A god who inflicts guilt upon us isn’t a god worthy of belief.

There is a pernicious theological claim that states God responds mimetically to us. That God imitates us. So, when we turn away from God, God turns away from us. When we abandon God, God abandons us.

That’s a lie. Don’t believe it.

Sure, the Bible can be interpreted in that way. People often point to the Adam and Eve story as evidence. Adam and Eve turned their back on God by eating the forbidden fruit, so God turned God’s back on them. Many claim that God has been angry at Adam, Eve, and their children (that’s everyone!) ever since. Strangely, these people continue, God had no other way of dealing with his pent up anger than to inflict violence upon His own Son.

You’ve heard that story before. It’s called penal substitutionary atonement. Again, don’t believe. It’s a lie.

The whole premise of penal substitutionary atonement is a lie. God didn’t respond to Adam and Eve by mimicking them. God didn’t turn from them. In fact, God went in search for them. “Where are you?” God asked Adam and Eve.

That’s the truth of the Adam and Eve story, it’s the truth of the biblical story, and it’s our truth. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. God doesn’t respond with wrathful anger. Rather, God responds with grace and compassion that seeks to be in relationship with us.

As the great 20th century rabbi Abraham Heschel explained, the primary point is not our search for God, but rather God’s search for us. “All of human history as described in the Bible,” wrote Heschel, “may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [humans].” (God in Search of Man, 136).

For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s search for humanity. In this particular human being we see that atonement has nothing to do with God’s pent up wrath or violence, but everything to do with the truth of God’s grace and forgiveness. The Gospel of John tells us that, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” In each Gospel we discover that God didn’t need the cross in order to forgive. The truth of God’s “grace upon grace” is that God forgives sinners, tax collectors, and cowardly disciples, in other words, everyone, before Jesus even went to the cross.

God has never atoned for sins through wrathful violence. God doesn’t respond to us mimetically. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. Jesus is the particular revelation of what the Bible generally reveals: That God makes atonement, that God became at-one with us, not through wrathful violence, but through nonviolent love and forgiveness. It was human wrath that hung Jesus on a cross, not God’s. How does God respond to our wrath? As John wrote, with “grace upon grace.” Jesus revealed that grace as he hung on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

That’s the truth about God. But the truth about Adam and Eve is also our truth. We often find ourselves abandoning God. And when we do, we don’t need to feel guilty because we know that God will never abandon us. God doesn’t respond to human sin with wrathful anger, but rather God searches for us, responding with the divine truth of grace upon grace and love upon love.

But from experience I can tell you this – imposing God’s gracious and nonviolent love upon others doesn’t work. It only increases their anxieties and makes them defensive. So, how did I respond to the elderly woman suffering from anxiety? Not by saying, “No! You are wrong about God! You’re always in a state of grace!” and then lecturing her about God’s nonviolent love. Rather, I tried to channel God’s nonviolent and nonjudgmental love to her. I listened to her story and invited her to talk about her anxieties about death and God. A strange thing happened as she expressed her anxieties – her body, voice, and emotional state became calm.

That might seem strange, but as we channel the nonjudgmental and nonviolent love of God in the face of fear and anxiety, we give and we receive God’s grace upon grace.

And that’s what God’s nonviolent atonement is all about.

(For more on the Nonviolent Atonement, see Michael Hardin’s recent article “Penal Substitution is Dying, Thank God!”)

Book Feature Friday: “In Borrowed Houses” by Frances Fuller



Update: 12-16-14: Congratulations to Frances Fuller! In Borrowed Houses has won the GRAND PRIZE from The Author’s Show 2014-2015 Edition of “50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading“!

Involuntarily hosting a goat in her living room, while tremendously inconvenient, turned out to be one of the more benign adventures. Living as a missionary for Baptist Publications, part of the Near East Baptist Mission, during the Lebanese Civil War, Frances Fuller narrowly avoided sniper fire and suicide bombers, shared tears and embraces, worked hard, prayed harder, and above all manifested the wondrous love of Christ. With wisdom, pathos, humility and humor, Frances tells in exquisite detail the stories that make up her life in Lebanon. Absurd, terrifying, and joyful experiences are interwoven through the fabric of day-to-day living, held together by faith in the extraordinary God to whom Frances testifies. “In Borrowed Houses” is more than an autobiography, it is a love story for a war-torn yet resilient nation.

Much of what we write about here at the Raven Foundation can be distilled down to a few simple messages, among them that violence is contagious, but ultimately love is stronger, all-embracing and transformative. While Frances’s vivid reflections upon the war in Lebanon illustrate the former point, her life bears witness to the latter truth. The same love that compels Frances to travel to Lebanon to produce Christian material in Arabic is reflected in the people she meets who help each other survive and comfort one-another in grief through the trials and tragedies of war. All of this love comes from the same Source, the Living Love that shapes Frances even as she submits to being an instrument of it. The peacemaking and reconciliation that flow from this love is illuminated on the pages of her story.

The “goat-in-the-living-room” saga is one of the more amusing anecdotes that evoked sympathy along with giggles from this reader. More than just an anecdote, however, this incident in Frances’s life is also portrayed as a window to some of the wisdom her experience imparted. While furloughed in America, the house that she and her husband Wayne had selected but not yet renovated was overtaken by neighbors who needed a more secure shelter because of the fighting. The experience of having her own house “borrowed” provoked a rather mimetic reflection touching on the ubiquity of injustice and humanity’s tendency to pass it on:

[I]n having my own house seized unjustly, I tasted, only tasted, like merely touching my tongue to it, the bitterness of a host of people – Palestinians who lost both house and country, citizens of Beirut who had aided refugees and then been victimized by them, Lebanese in the grip of a foreign army, the Jews of Europe dragged from their homes to death camps, Christian Armenians massacred by the Turks, the Native Americans who were killed or pushed off their lands, Africans carried away into slavery, old ladies whose small, loved corners were sacrificed for a new freeway, and long lists of people down through history who were victimized by tyrants or invaders of thieves or arsonists.

The antidote to this bitterness and the cycle of injustice it perpetuates is empathy that comes from a learning, listening presence. Frances provides this presence for the people of Lebanon as well as for the Holy Spirit within herself, allowing Love to work miracles. One of the most poignant passages in the book describes how Frances witnessed reconciliation between a Palestinian family and a man from a Lebanese town that had committed a massacre against Palestinian refugees. The man, Jean, had found it in his heart to love a people he had been taught were the enemy, saying, “[A]fter all, the Lord did tell us to love our enemies.” Jean and others from his Maronite village went into the refugee camps with tea and cookies, ears to listen and arms to embrace, sharing the Bible only after asking and receiving permission. He came to Frances asking for Christian materials to share, and later also asking her to provide a listening presence for some of the lonely women refugees. While providing Christian materials for these families, the reconciliation she witnessed between people who might have been destined to be enemies, the compassion she felt between them, the love she herself gave and received, infused her, too, with a reinvigorated understanding of the Gospel. She writes,

 In time I realized that, just as the massacre in the camp exposed the raw evil in human beings and threatened to unravel my last scrap of confidence in the people around me, what happened afterwards gave me a glimpse of the amazing possibilities that still existed. I heard Jean say, “I could go and live with the Palestinians,” and I heard Um Na’im say, “Jean is like a son to me.” Twice there seemed to be hope for the human race, and Jesus sounded sane.

Jesus sounded sane. What an amazing statement. We worship him as Lord and Savior, but we are reluctant to follow his teachings that run contrary to our world’s logic of violence. That logic of violence ends in massacres and persecutions, shooting sprees and drone strikes, yet in times of terror we tend to take up arms rather than open them. Following Jesus in loving our enemies is something I like to talk about but have never had the opportunity to actually do in matters of life and death. It seems like an impossible risk. And yet, Frances witnessed this irresistible love, the only thing that can reverse the contagion of violence in its tracks. She saw “natural enemies” embrace and call each other family. Is this not exactly what Jesus calls us to do, what God did in Jesus when He was born into a hostile world to reconcile it to Himself?

This is not to say that all questions of peace and violence were reconciled in Frances’s mind during her time in Lebanon. There have been times when violence has seemed tragically necessary, and Frances has born witness to those who have claimed that violence has saved their lives. Sometimes, violence can protect, but never without cost, and rarely without blowback. In her own words again:

 And now I have to admit that intellectually I never untangled all the contradictions of war and morality – all those perceived necessities that make people fight; the discrepancy between the commandment not to kill and the orders quoted in the Old Testament stories; the presumed duties that conflict with humane and civilized impulses, as well as the teachings of the New Testament; the example of the early Christians and the compromises of “just war” philosophies; the selfless courage and the bestiality; parades and flags and blood coagulating in the streets; the fear that drives all of it.

The clarity I had then and the clarity I have now is this: I hate war, and in my Christian gut I know this hatred is right. Living in a world so wicked that it tries to solve its problems by killing people, I recognize my participation and guilt, and I speak up now and then for peace. I pray for peace. I vote for peace.

And with “In Borrowed Houses,” Frances raises her voice for peace to the world. I desperately hope that the world listens. With war raging in the Middle East, in Syria and Iraq and Palestine and beyond, Frances’s words of wisdom are timely, and her witness of compassion is essential.

In mimetic theory, we talk about the need we have as humans for models, how relationship with others is how we learn and form our identities. It is clear that the relationships Frances had with the people and land of Lebanon changed her life; moreover, simply reading her story has changed mine. As I let her witness permeate to my heart, I am moved to take risks for the sake of Christ and all of God’s children, to be more patient, more diligent, more present in the world. Like the Saint with whom she shares a name, Frances is an instrument of God’s peace and a role model for me. I cannot recommend “In Borrowed Houses” highly enough.

I will be interviewing Frances Fuller on “In Borrowed Houses” on Sunday, November 2nd, which is, appropriately, All Saints Sunday. I highly encourage everyone who is able to read her book and send me questions — either on this blog or on Facebook, so that I may ask them in the interview. I will try to ask her as many reader questions as I can. “In Borrowed Houses” is available at WestBow Press, and readers are also highly encouraged to check out Mrs. Fuller’s website for more stories and her perspective on today’s crises in the Middle East. 


A Prayer for Abraham’s Children

abrahamic-religions2Abraham’s children do not always get along.

Exclusive claims made by his descendants have been catalysts for bloodshed over the centuries. This is especially tragic because the distinctions between the faiths should never override the central message common to all of them: that God is loving and merciful. Far more important than any name by which we could call God — whether we say Ha Shem (the Name), Allah, or Jesus — is the character of God that we reflect in worship and action. Violent actions belie our claims to worship a God of peace. With fighting in the holy land, ISIS killing indiscriminately, and many Christians calling for war on Islam, 2014 has been an especially violent year, and we are falling short of the destiny promised to our common patriarch: to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and the horrors of the year thus far throw into sharp relief a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for peacemaking.

This year, Judaism’s 10 Days of Repentance, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating in Yom Kippur, align with the 10 holiest days in Islam, which culminate in Eid Al-Adha. Yom Kippur will commence this year on October 3rd and conclude October 4th, while Eid al-Adha will commence October 4th and conclude October 5th. The striking conjunction means Jews and Muslims around the world will simultaneously be praying, fasting, and opening wider the door to God in their hearts. Furthermore, on October 4th Christians will celebrate the feast of St. Francis, a man ahead of his time in Christian-Muslim relations as well as the patron saint of animals and the environment. With all these holy days converging, it appears that this year has been ordained as a time for interfaith dialogue and reconciliation for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We estranged siblings should heed this call not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of a suffering world where stewardship has been forsaken for war.

These holidays share common stories, rituals, and themes of renewing our trust in God’s love and restoring us to God’s service. Both Rosh Hashanah, which marks the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the 10 holiest days of Judaism, and Eid al-Adha, which marks the feast of the Hajj and the culmination of the 10 most blessed days of Islam, commemorate Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son. The Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions differ on the details of this story but concur on the ultimate message. Abraham’s understanding of a call to sacrifice his son would have been in keeping with the traditional understanding of the gods of his time. In a terrifying, pre-modern world of tribal feuds and plagues, sacrifice of children was considered pacifying gods to safeguard against disaster. When God stays Abraham’s hand, he is not simply rewarding Abraham’s personal obedience, but directly refuting a pervasive misunderstanding. The God of Israel, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds, is not the fearsome god who demands sacrifice, but rather the One who generously provides for all.

God’s generosity is reinforced by the practice of fasting. Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) and the Day of Arafah (one day before Eid Al-Adha) are days of fasting for Jews and Muslims respectively that coincide this year. Believers who fast rely on God in times of weakness and enter into solidarity with those who have no choice but to go hungry. In contrast to pre-Abrahamic gods who were thought to afflict the weak, the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam calls believers to empathy on behalf of the suffering.

St. Francis heeded this call and forsook a life of privilege for poverty to bear witness to the loving God of all creation. Understanding that communicating the heart of God was more important than imposing dogma, St. Francis’ missions among Muslims focused on service rather than proselytizing, earning him reverence among Muslims to this day. His model of interfaith relations should be remembered on his feast day in addition to the traditional animal blessing. With the havoc war wreaks upon the environment, there is no hope for the animals or plants of the world unless people can be reconciled.

During the 10 holiest days of Judaism and Islam, believers are invited to repent of their sins and hope in God’s forgiveness. This year, following St. Francis’ example of humility, Christians should join them. The most egregious sin we commit is recreating God in our own selfish images at the expense of each other. When we harm others in the name of faith, we betray our vocations as God’s servants. Let us instead be restored to our calling as image-bearers of Divine Love, praying in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

This article was originally published as an Op/Ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.