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Beyoncé at the Super Bowl (Image: Screenshot from YouTube)

How Beyoncé Slayed the Super Bowl and Fox News

…we are more than conquerors …

-St. Paul, Romans 8:37

Beyoncé slays. And she is more than a conqueror.

But before I tell you how Beyoncé slayed the Super Bowl and Fox News, I’m going to tell you about the ancient sacrificial rituals and their victims. (Trust me, this fits.)

Sacrificial Rituals in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, whenever there was social chaos, social order was created through a ritual of sacrificial violence. These sacrificial rituals channeled conflicts that threatened the life of the community onto an individual who was blamed for the chaos that threatened the group.

The community survived this social crisis by uniting against a common enemy. The 20th century anthropologist René Girard called this common enemy the “scapegoat.” After the scapegoat was sacrificed, a sense of peace and reconciliation fell upon the community. But it was only temporary. When conflicts re-emerged within the community, the ritual of sacrificial violence would repeat … over and over again.

The scapegoat had something that marked him as “different.” Sometimes the sacrificial victim had a limp or was blind or was captured from another tribe. The specific mark of the sacrificial victim didn’t really matter; what mattered was that the victim play the proper role of the scapegoat.

The scapegoat’s proper role was to remain quiet as the larger community channeled their collective conflicts onto him during the ritual. It was crucial that the sacrificial victim remain silent, or that their cries were drowned out by the pounding of a drum, chants, and prayers. That’s because the last thing that the sacrificers wanted was to hear the voice of their scapegoat. If they heard their victim’s voice, it would pierce their conscience and they would risk becoming aware of their own ritual violence and the innocence of their scapegoat.

Girard tells us that this was how ancient sacrificial rituals functioned, but we see the same ritual of sacrificial violence at work in in the modern world. Sadly, we humans have not evolved much beyond our sacrificial ancestors. We continue to silence the voice of our scapegoats. Indeed, white America has been silencing the voices of black people for 400 years through rituals of physical, political, and economic violence.

How Beyoncé Slayed the Modern Sacrificial Ritual

But make no mistake, Beyoncé is no victim. She is a conqueror because her voice will not be silenced. Yet, her black skin bears the mark of the American sacrificial system of racism. Unfortunately, that system is alive and well. In fact, it’s trying to silence her voice.

On Sunday, Beyoncé took to the main stage of American pop culture, the Super Bowl, and delivered a politically charged message to the United States. Beyoncé and her back up dancers claimed black power by dressing like Black Panthers from the 1960s. She performed her new song, Formation, which tells her story of being black in America.

The white power structures were offended, so they fought back. Fox News interviewed Rudy Giuliani about the half time show. The interview is a text book case in America’s 400 year history of ritually silencing black voices. The segment shows four white people critiquing Beyoncé’s performance and the black lives matter movement. They lectured Beyoncé on her performance. One commentator said, “In the end we find out that Beyoncé dressed up in a tribute to the Black Panthers, (the dancers) went to a Malcom X formation, and the song, the lyrics, which I couldn’t make out a syllable, were basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks!”

One way that white people continue the ritual of silencing black voices is to make them into the violent enemy seeking power. It’s a ritual as old as America itself. And it’s the kind of fear mongering that Fox News was fomenting by referring to the Black Panthers and Malcom X. The assumption is that black people are the violent ones, but it is black people who suffer from violence at a disproportionate rate.

I believe in nonviolence, but frankly, it’s hard for me to listen to white people as they criticize black people for advocating violence. In the face of 400 years of physical, emotional, social, and economic violence, I think a violent response would be understandable.

But that’s not what Beyoncé is advocating, nor is it what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. Formation is Beyoncé’s call for a political revolution, but it’s not a revolution based on violence. It’s a revolution based on the power of the spoken word.

In Formation, Beyoncé says that she “slays,” but her homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the video tells me she isn’t slaying through physical violence. She is a conqueror, but in the spirit of St. Paul, she is more than a conqueror. That’s because she isn’t advocating physical violence. It’s a lie to claim that she is. Rather, she slays through something much more powerful – the spoken word.

And so I shake my head, asking myself, how dare Fox News criticize Beyoncé for “basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks” when we know that “unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire”?

Here’s the truth about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance – the power of her words have pierced the conscience of white America. She is a conqueror because her voice will not be silenced. She refuses to play the proper role that much of white America expects her to play. She slays by speaking the truth about violence against not only black people, but against all people at the margins of American culture. As the New South Negress puts it, Formation “is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins – woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disables, undocumented, immigrant…”

So, to answer my question above, how does a commentator on Fox News and his fellow co-hosts dare attempt to silence the voice of Beyoncé? They dare it because their collective conscience has been pierced. They have heard Beyoncé’s voice. And in her voice they hear the voice of all those on the margins who suffer from systemic violence against the marginalized.

One way white people manage the voice of the marginalized that pierces our conscience is to lecture them and accuse them of being the violent ones. That’s what Fox News did.

But another way is to listen to those voices. Listen to the ways that we white folks participate in systemic racism that empowers not only police brutality, but economic oppression, enabling “the typical white family [to have] about 16 times as much wealth as the typical black family – and [enables] white households headed up by a high school dropout to have, on average, twice the wealth of black and Latino households headed by a college graduate.”

Beyoncé is slaying our conscience. Like the Word of God is compared to a sword that cuts through our ancient rituals of scapegoating so that we hear the voice of the oppressed, Beyoncé is slaying through the racism that infect the United States. She pierced the white conscience and is making many of us uncomfortable. Good for her. Let’s stop trying to drown out her voice by lecturing black people. Instead, let’s listen to their voices.

Do you feel Beyoncé’s words piercing your conscience? She has pierced mine. And that’s a good thing. Pay attention to that piercing and listen to more black voices crying out for a revolution of the American system of racism.

Photo: Beyoncé at the Super Bowl (Image: Screenshot from YouTube channel On Line Trending)

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Star Wars and Theology Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Good and Evil

One common critique of the Star Wars saga is that it holds a simplistic view of good and evil. For example, Star Wars makes it easy to tell the difference between good and evil. The distinction is as plain black and white. The Jedi are good and the Sith are evil. The Rebellion is good and the Empire is evil. Even the costumes point toward a simplistic understanding of evil – the Stormtroopers are white, while the main villains, Darth Vader and now Kylo Ren, wear black. And, of course, their humanity is hidden by the fact that they wear masks.

Unfortunately, this simplistic notion of good and evil doesn’t just exists in the movies. It’s alive and well in our culture today. Once we eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we are the force of good in the world, thus, they are the force of evil. We then tell mythical stories about the evil other. These myths lead to radical examples of claiming to be good while scapegoating others.

The latest example of this patently false myth are the “evil” Muslims who are out to conquer the United States. Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, recently held a rally in South Carolina. In good mythical fashion, he turned to the dark side by accusing Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country of “probably” being members of ISIS. You know, because they are Muslims. In response to Trumps remarks about Syrian refugees, a Muslim woman at the rally stood up in silent protest as she wore a shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.”

Despite her silence, the crowd turned against her, shouting at her to leave by chanting, “You have a bomb. You have a bomb.” For his part, Trump claimed, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred; it’s not our hatred.”

Trump and many of his supporters live in a mythical world. A world where the distinction between good and evil is as clear as the distinction between night and day, between Christian and Muslim. They are a force for good; whereas silent Muslims wearing “Peace” shirts are full of hatred. Of course, I can easily split the world into good and evil. As I critique Trump and his supporters at the rally, I risk doing to them the same thing that they are doing to Muslims. I risk making a mythical claim to be a force of goodness over and against their force of evil.

Fortunately, Star Wars offers us an alternative to that myth. The critique that Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil is false. Stars Wars constructs the myth of good and evil only to deconstruct it.

The deconstruction of the mythical understanding of good and evil emerges in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. As he runs and flips around the swamp-like forest with the little green alien on his back, Luke asks the mythical question, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda replies, “You will know, when you are calm, at peace.”

But Luke discovers a greater truth about knowing the good side from the bad. The Force leads him into “The Cave of Evil.” As he enters the cave, he asks Yoda what’s inside. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda responds. Luke took with him his fear of the dark side; his fear of confronting Darth Vader.

A few moments after entering the cave, Luke has a vision of Darth Vader walking towards him with his lightsaber extended. Their sabers strike three times, then Luke slices off Vader’s helmet. It rolls to the ground, stops, and the mask exploded, only to show Luke’s face in the helmet staring straight at him.

In that scene, Luke discovered the truth about good and evil. In Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of evil in cinematic history, Luke sees himself. Even before he knows that Vader is his father, Luke learns that his identity is connected with Darth Vader. That’s because the evil that we see in the other is the evil that is inside ourselves. But we’d rather not see the evil within ourselves, so we suppress it by projecting it onto others. And so, at this moment in the Star Wars saga, Luke begins to discover that the distinction between good and evil is not primarily a distinction between himself and Darth Vader. Rather, the distinction between good and evil is a distinction that exists within himself.

Luke’s spiritual awakening is in the fact that he didn’t banish the darkness from within himself. He didn’t scapegoat the fear and evil within his own soul. When we do that, the fear and evil within only grows bigger and more menacing. Rather, Luke acknowledged the evil within himself. Later in the saga, after he slices off Darth Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi, Luke stares at his own mechanical hand. Once again he becomes aware of the darkness within himself. He was able to resist the dark side not because he made a distinction between the good in himself and the evil in his enemies, but because he learned how to manage the darkness within his own soul.

Kylo Ren has a similar experience in the Force Awakens. He feels the tension between the light and the dark within himself, but manages it in a different way. Kylo holds his Grandfather’s helmet and offers a prayer, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the dark.” Luke and Kylo both feel the light and the dark within themselves. The difference is that Luke was able to incorporate the light and the dark. In doing so, Luke made peace with the darkness within. But Kylo felt tormented because he resisted the light that shined in the darkness of his soul.

The truth is that we are all a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. The great Russian novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn warned that, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus taught this lesson, too. He asked his followers, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Jesus and Star Wars both challenge us with the difficult spiritual practice of examining the darkness that lies within ourselves. Taking the log out of our own eye is painful work; I’d much rather point to the speck of evil that’s in my neighbor’s eye. But Christianity reminds us that we are much more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. We learn from Jesus, but we are much more like the disciples who abandoned, betrayed, and turned against Jesus during his darkest hour.

But the good news is that like Luke never gave up on his father, Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He resurrected to give his disciples a new mission. That mission wasn’t to locate evil out in the world and destroy it. Rather, Jesus’ mission is to “feed my sheep.” The great adventure that is Christianity is not to fight violence with more violence, but to care for those in need and to love even those we call our enemies.

More about that in the next part of this series.

Images: Luke Skywalker after defeating Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (Screenshot from YouTube) and Kylo Ren praying to Darth Vader’s helmet (Screenshot from YouTube)

Other parts of this series:
Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure
Part 2: The Myth of Good and Evil

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Martin Luther King, Jr. – Justice, Love, and the New Jim Crow

In 1955, Martin Luther King found himself as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement that would start a revolution in the United States.

Rosa Parks ignited the Civil Rights movement when stood up to the segregation laws of Jim Crow that demonized black people and forced them to live in conditions there were inferior to white people. Parks was arrested after she claimed her inherent dignity by refusing to move to the back of a bus. Just a few days after her arrest, King, who had recently moved to Montgomery, was elected to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

For weeks after his election, King received threatening phone calls from anonymous voices. The phone rang throughout the night and as King picked it up he heard voices saying things like, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery!” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 77.)

They were only threats, until one night. King was away from his home at a meeting for the boycott. His wife Coretta and their newborn baby girl were home. At about 9:30 pm Coretta heard a loud explosion that rocked their house. It was a bomb.

Word of the bombing reached the meeting. King saw people whispering secrets, as if they were trying to keep something from him. He went to three of his best friends and urged them to tell him what happened. His closest ally delivered the tragic news, “Your house has been bombed.”

The threats of violence suddenly became very real to King and his family. And he would deal with those threats throughout his life. He instructed those at the meeting to stay calm, go straight home, and adhere to their philosophy of nonviolence as they sought justice in the face of systemic racism.

King rushed to his house and found Coretta and their baby uninjured. Coretta was remarkably calm, all the more remarkable because the police commissioner, the mayor, and many white reporters had already made their way into King’s dining room. And a crowd already formed outside of their house to support the Kings and protest the bombing. Police were also in their yard, attempting to disperse the crowd, which, in turn, had begun to threaten the police with violence.

King knew that his love for nonviolence as a means to seek justice was at stake. He walked outside to his porch and calmed down the crowd. Then he delivered one of his many powerful impromptu speeches, saying to the crowd,

We believe in law and order. Don’t get panicky … Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that’s what God said. We are not advocating violence … I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. … For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, 80.)

This scene from Martin Luther King’s life tells us so much about the man. In the face of violent injustice, this great American hero set forth a vision of justice and love that was radical for his day, and his vision remains radical in ours.

King taught us that Justice and love go together. We often think that these two concepts are opposed to one another. That there’s a tension between justice and love. Love is nice, so this thought goes, but there are times when we need justice. Here, justice is seen as a form of punishment, as in a penal justice system.

This idea also affects our understanding of God. For instance, there’s an idea out there that there is a tension between the love and justice of God. My friend Michael Hardin says that if God is tense, then God should see a therapist.

But Martin Luther King resolved that tension. For him, God’s justice, true justice, didn’t mean punishing enemies. Rather, justice for him as he followed Jesus, was about reconciliation. Today we call it “restorative justice.” It’s a justice that restores individuals to themselves and it restores our relationships with one another. King wanted the persecuted and the persecutor to find healing. When we live into this justice that seeks restoration, healing, and reconciliation, King said that we live into the “Beloved Community.”

King also changed our understanding of love. For King, love wasn’t primarily an emotion. It wasn’t based on positive or romantic feelings for another. This isn’t a Valentine’s Day love. Rather, love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is a doing. Love refuses to imitate the hatred of our enemies, but shows the world an alternative way of being. When we live into that alternative, we know that we are living into a just love, what King called the Beloved Community.

I don’t know about you, but this form of justice and love is not easy for me to live into. And it wasn’t easy for Martin Luther King, either. He challenged America’s original sin of racism and when he did that the powers and principalities fought back. That’s because the violent oppression of racism was embedded in our nation from the beginning.

Fortunately, slavery ended in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. But unfortunately, the abolition of slavery didn’t abolish the sin of racism that continues to infect the United States with unjust social policies against African Americans.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains the pattern of racist structures that are still alive in our country. That pattern looks like this: we started with slavery, then moved to the segregation of Jim Crow, and now we have the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

The War on Drugs, started by Ronald Regan, targets African American men. Millions of black people have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes that many of them didn’t even commit. Once imprisoned, they become felons and, like the old Jim Crow laws, are denied basic civil and human rights.

The racism of mass incarceration is made more obvious by the fact that white people sell and use drugs at a higher rate than black people. And yet it is African Americans who suffer the unjust effects of mass incarceration. As the Huffington Post explains, “White America does the crime, black America does the time.”

Why? Michelle Alexander says it’s because of a political system that pits police against African Americans. When Regan waged the War on Drugs, drug use was actually on the decline in the United States. Police didn’t want to fight a War on Drugs because drug use wasn’t a major problem and was actually a distraction from more violent crimes.

But Regan was determined, so he provided financial incentives for police departments to arrest drug offenders. The federal government payed police departments for every drug arrest the police would make, but “Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, not even for violent crimes.” (New Jim Crow, 77). Regan got his drug war, and every president since has continued the demonic War on Drugs. The police aren’t bad in this scenario; they are caught up in an evil system, in the powers and principalities of the world that need to be transformed in the name of justice.

Why the emphasis on African Americans? Because they don’t have a defender. Tragically, that’s what continues to make African Americans easy scapegoats in the American social system. Imagine if millions of white people were incarcerated at the same rate as black people for nonviolent drug crimes that they may not have even committed. Because white people have social power, the white community wouldn’t stand for it. But the black community, which has been marginalized, disenfranchised, and demonized from the very beginning of American history, doesn’t have that kind of power.

Now, it’s easy for white people of good will to start feeling guilty or powerless or fall into denial when it comes to the massive racist systems of the United States. But those feelings aren’t helpful. What is helpful is to find ways to work for justice.

There is hope because there are things we can do. Stand up against the powers and principalities that lead to oppression. Name the forces of evil, including the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex. Seek friendships with our African American brothers and sisters as we share our lives together and walk hand in hand, seeking a more just America. Listen to their stories without becoming defensive when we hear the truth about racism. Read African American authors, particularly Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

We can stop racist jokes and comments when we hear them. We can keep talking about how racism infects our culture, especially as we continue in this presidential campaign that has been charged with racism against African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. We can confront gentrification and redistricting that benefits white people and pushes black people further to the margins of American society. We can participate in political campaigns and vote in ways that confront racist policies of our past and of our present. We can claim that black lives matter because for too much of our history we’ve claimed that black lives don’t matter.

And in all of these things that we can do, let us work together to follow in the spirit of Christ that breaks down the hostile barriers that divide us against one another. And let us heal that divide with the bridge of love and justice that is called the Kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Image: Flickr, United States Mission Geneva photo stream, Martin Luther King Day, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The State of the Union: Spiritual Wisdom to Heal the Political Divide

There was much to appreciate about President Obama’s speech last night. I also think that Nikki Haley’s Republican response was commendable on many levels. Both put forth a vision and a hope for renewed political cooperation, and they even repented in the ways they and their parties have contributed to the politics that have greatly divided the United States.

Governor Haley suggested some good spiritual wisdom about the loud political noise that has spread throughout the US, “Often the best thing we can do is turn down the volume,” she said. “When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Ah, yes, if we could just turn down the noise and listen to one another, even to those we call our political enemies, the world would be a radically different and much better place.

In a similar manner, President Obama modeled for us the spiritual practice of repentance. He repented of his part in propagating political divisions. “It’s been one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he stated. “That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have been better to bridge the divide.”

To listen better. To repent of our participation in systems that breed rancor and suspicion. Those are deep spiritual practices that will heal the politics of our nation.

Unfortunately, I fear that both Obama and Haley aren’t leading us far enough with their messages. In order to heal our national political divisions, we do need to listen. We do need to repent. But our problems are bigger than national politics. We need to heal our global political divisions. And to do that, the United States needs to have the courage to listen and repent on a global scale.

But instead, Obama and Haley offered the same old solutions to our global problems. In the face of terrorism they both claimed that the solution is not listening to our enemies, nor repenting of our own violence, but that we should be more violent. While Obama boasted that the United States already has the greatest military the world has ever seen and spends more on our military budget than the next eight countries combined, Haley stated that if the Republicans held the White House, “… we would actually strengthen our military.”

But military violence isn’t working. The more violent we become, the more we sow the seeds that produce more violence against us. The anthropologist René Girard taught us that violence is mimetic, or imitative. It’s human nature to respond to violence with more violence, but as Girard warns, the reciprocal exchange of violence for violence isn’t working to keep us sage. “[V]iolent imitation is the rule of the day,” writes Girard in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End, “not the imitation that slows and suspends the flow [of violence], but the one that accelerates it” (13). Violence is accelerating because we live in truly apocalyptic times. Weapons of mass destruction are easier to make and nuclear weapons threaten us with global annihilation.

If we want a future, we need to stop threatening our enemies with violence. Instead, we need follow Governor Haley’s advice and start listening to our enemies. Maybe if we listened to them, we would find the truth.

The truth is that our enemies, even those we label as “terrorists,” do not hate us because of our freedom. Rather, they are frustrated because of many American policies – policies that, following President Obama, we should repent from.

In a dig against Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Obama said that our answer to terrorism shouldn’t be to “carpet bomb civilians.” I agree. That would be disastrous for so many reasons, including the fact that to kill innocent civilians would be an act of terror. It would make us just like the terrorists that we condemn.

But that’s exactly what President Obama has done during his presidency. Drone warfare has terrorized civilians and created a breeding ground for recruiting terrorists. As this Huffington Post article states, “Nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target. U.S. drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.”

My colleague at the Raven Foundation, Lindsey Paris-Lopez, takes it a step further in her Open Letter to President Obama: End the War in Afghanistan,

Principled journalists have long published atrocities regularly committed by our military. These atrocities are rightly called acts of terrorism and war crimes when committed by others. The practice of “signature strikes”, assigning death sentences from afar to people whose identities are unknown based on patterns of their behavior, assumes that life and death judgments can be made without knowing a name or having a conversation. It puts the lives of Afghan citizens into the hands of a military that has been trained to dehumanize them (as killing without knowing someone’s identity is the very epitome of dehumanization). But our military goes beyond killing those whose behavior may reasonably be deemed suspicious, and targets people caught in the act of helping their fellow human beings. We kill rescuers. We attack mourners at funerals. And in one of the most callous, dishonest policies imaginable, we have effectively demonized the entire male population of countries we purport to be helping by preemptively labeling all military-aged males killed in attacks “enemy combatants.”

The best advice for the future of America, indeed, the future of human existence, came last night from both sides of the political aisle. We should repent of our national and international participation in violent atrocities. And we should listen to others, even to those we call our enemies.

The state of the world is in peril. If we do not repent and listen, we will continue to be the very terrorists we despise. Even worse, if we continue down this violent path, we will resign ourselves to the extinction of humanity.

Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. The same can be said about the gun, the tank, the drone, and the bomb. We must find another way, the way of listening and repenting, if we are to survive.

Image: President Obama deliver his State of the Union, 2016. Screenshot from YouTube.

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

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

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

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

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

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


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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 wagingnonviolence.org.

 

 

 

 

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.