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Nostalgia at Two – Who Knew!

I certainly did not know that a two year old could look back fondly on her babyhood. But my daughter and I think that’s what’s happening with her daughter, Grace. Here’s what Grace has been doing:

  • Grace has been potty trained for almost six months (it was her idea, really, and my daughter just followed Grace’s lead – but that’s another story!). Lately she has asked to wear diapers during the day and she’ll say things like, “Pooping in the diaper” even though she isn’t actually pooping in it.
  • And she will go in the closet to find the changing pad my daughter used when they weren’t home. Grace will unfold it and lay down and insist that my daughter “change her diaper,” but this go-round Grace helps with the changing routine, which she remembers precisely.
  • She will get down on all fours and say, “Crawl like a baby”.
  • She talks about things that happened when she wasn’t verbal, like pooping in the diaper. Here are two other examples: She points to the fireplace in my new house and says, “Fireplace. Don.” Don is her uncle who last Christmas was in charge of building fires in the fireplace in our vacation home in Utah. Grace was 19 months old then. And last summer, when she was 15 months old, her dad twisted his ankle in the park with Grace in his arms. They both fell to the ground and her dad managed to land Grace safely while he writhed in pain. She now points to her dad’s ankle and says things like, “Ankle. Owie,” and gives her dad a hug.
  • When it’s nap or bedtime, Grace enjoys being cradled like a baby. When I hold her in my arms and sing to her the way I did when she was an infant, she stares intently at my face with an expression I find hard to describe. But it’s the same look her mother wore when I held her in my arms in the hours after she was born. My newborn daughter stared intently at my face as I cooed and sang softly to her and I remember wondering at the time if she was thinking, “So that’s where that sound was coming from!”

So what’s going on here? If it’s what it appears, then Grace has distinct memories of being an infant. And these are fond memories for her. She enjoys remembering the time when she was a helpless baby who was loved and cared for by her family. Now that she has language, she seems to be sharing her memories with us.

I’m a bit blown away to think that an infant could be conscious of what is happening to her, conscious enough to form memories about it. Even stranger, was my newborn daughter remembering the sound of my voice reaching her ears in the womb? As I listen to Grace remembering, I wonder if we lose something marvelous as we move from womb to infancy to our toddler years. Perhaps as our abilities to move, speak, and act for ourselves improve with experience, we need to be able to draw on our memories of being loved and cared for in a safer, less ambiguous time.

Grace is reminding us that children are capable of as rich an inner life as any adult. She’s allowing us to glimpse that her growing independence rides on an undercurrent of nostalgia for a simpler time. Hey, it’s not all wine and roses when you’re a toddler. Figuring out how to behave properly, how not to mess up or disappoint or annoy or aggravate the jumpy cadre of unpredictable adults that surround you is a high risk game of trial and error. Grace has learned to say “Sorry” when she suspects she may have done something wrong. When I respond, “It’s okay, Grace,” maybe she believes me because she can remember a time when it was.

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The Role of Martial Arts In Raising A Peacemaker

“Kee-yah!” she yells, propelling her arm upward with strength and precision. The soft blue “noodle” (one of those foam pool toys) strikes her arm but fails to reach her head, thanks to her successful block. She is happy and confident, and my heart swells with pride.

My daughter has the friendliest disposition I think I have ever seen in another human being. She is soft-hearted like her mother and charming like her daddy, and somehow she missed either of our genes for introversion. With open arms she greets the world, and it’s beautiful. It is also frightening to send her out, so wide-eyed and innocent and vulnerable, and know that others could easily take advantage of her. My husband and I do all we can to protect her and teach her how to protect herself, and within the last month, that has included enrolling her in martial arts. Thus far, the class has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, for her and her parents. But as a pacifist, I recognize an irony to the situation. I want to teach my children the art of peacemaking, and yet here I am, happily enrolling my firstborn in martial arts?

Do martial arts have a place in raising a peaceful child? I believe they can, but only if the family approaches it intentionally. As I muse on this issue, I have to take a hard look at multiple aspects of my parenting, as well as how my husband and I parent together, and ask some challenging questions.

Her Benefit, Our Benefit

Since enrolling her in martial arts, my husband and I have seen improvement in our daughter’s confidence, focus, discipline, and resilience, and that has pleased both of us immensely. The particular facility we attend puts as much stress on character development as it does on physical training, and I especially appreciate the “village” approach to raising children embedded in their philosophy.

An integral part of the program is weekly character development charts listing jobs for children to perform at home and school. Children are acknowledged for consistently completing their work, but not reprimanded when they fall short. I know this is good for the children, but it is a tremendous benefit to parents as well, providing support and reinforcement for the character traits we strive to teach. In our own house, we have tried chore calendars and charts, but they have inevitably gone unfilled after a short period of time. I know that the martial arts charts, which come partially filled with lists of activities every child should be doing (putting items away, clearing one’s place at the table, taking pride in lessons, treating others with respect) help me develop as a parent by giving me a way to consistently monitor and support my daughter in these essential life skills.

Beyond duties, the weekly job charts and the gently-expressed high standards of the instructors are fostering a sense of responsibility and helping to develop a positive attitude not only for my daughter, but for myself as well. For her, I see positive character development and increasing maturity in her decisions. As conscientious habits become ingrained within her, she is increasingly able to take care of herself without being told. And as her focus improves, she is also more in tune to the needs of others, jumping to help anyone she sees in need. My stress has naturally waned in the wake of her waxing maturity; my frustration level is generally lower and I am somewhat more relaxed. But just as I know that my daughter has made a conscious effort to take on more responsibility, I must make a conscious effort to keep my mind calm and my tone even. My efforts to discipline consistently are an exercise for me in focus, patience, and compassion. And as these traits within me grow stronger, my relationships improve, not only with my daughter, but with everyone I know. As I immerse my daughter into a more disciplined environment that her martial arts class is helping to foster, I am internalizing that gentle discipline in the best of ways, building a mental strength that helps me take control of my ever-increasing responsibilities. Martial arts has helped reinforce the values of respect for self and others that my husband and I have always strived to teach, and even as I strive to be a model for our daughter, her enthusiasm for taking on adult responsibilities and her positive attitude have served as a model for me.


Yet, when it comes down to it, martial arts teach her how to fight, and I cannot completely reconcile this fact with pacifism. When it comes to the physical, martial aspect of martial arts, I am aware of the risk that she may learn that violence can solve problems. I must be intentional about countering that message, about steering her martial arts education in a direction that will allow her to use the confidence, focus, and perseverance without becoming aggressive or adopting a mentality of being “against an enemy.” I also want to nurture a sense of respect within her without helping to foster an unquestioning acceptance of authority. It is a matter of balance, a balance I must be careful to model and maintain.

The truth is, I do want my daughters to be able to protect themselves. I am happy to give them the opportunity to learn how to block attacks and escape from holds. And although I can’t imagine a situation in which they would need to do more than block and escape, I would want them to be able to do whatever is necessary to stop an aggressor humanely to alleviate danger for themselves and others. I don’t want to limit their toolboxes. But I also do not want to blind them to the other tools in the box.

I tell myself that, should my daughter experience violence, unless she has confidence in herself to escape or stop it, she will internalize and perpetuate it – against herself and possibly against others. That is the nature of violence, to trigger a self-perpetuating cycle. The terrifying truth is that girls are particularly (but by no means exclusively) vulnerable to violence within relationships, which can lead to violent patterns, hurting others, including children later born to them. I tell myself that by enrolling our daughter in martial arts, my husband and I are helping her develop confidence in her own body, mental focus, and the self-esteem necessary to walk away from unhealthy relationships, as well as the strength to escape from physical violence should the need ever arise. And this is true. At the same time, we must be careful that as we prepare our daughters to deal with potential violence, we do not teach them to expect violence and develop an attitude of self-protection against a world onto which they project a motive of hostility.

I am hoping that the self-confidence that my daughter learns from martial arts will give her the strength and courage to use her imagination to diffuse hostility with tools of compassion, humor, logic, or surprise. My hope is that a knowledge of her physical strength will reinforce the mental strength I know she has and keep her from reacting in fear that diminishes self-control. But I am also aware that, should she meet aggression with counter-aggression, even as I want her to be able to use physical force as a last resort if she is ever in real trouble, violence has the potential to escalate. I do not want her to be hurt, and I do not want her to hurt others. Defensive violence feeds into a cycle of violence in which offense and defense cannot be distinguished. I have studied mimetic theory long enough to know this. I know there is a risk to providing her with tools I never want her to have to use, in that simply having them at her disposal could hinder her creativity in finding nonviolent ways to deal with hostility.


So how do my husband and I minimize the risks of providing our daughters with tools that could be used for violence, and more importantly, how do we teach them to value nonviolence and peacemaking while immersing them in an environment that may in some ways contradict such a message? In searching my heart and mind, I have come up with a few ideas.

  1. The most important thing we can do to raise peacemakers is show our daughters that they are loved and provide them with a healthy environment. Martial arts help us foster this environment by reinforcing values of respect and providing support as we discipline. My growing confidence in my parenting skills is reflected in a deepening ability to show the compassion I have always felt but have sometimes fallen short of expressing. As my daughter matures, takes on responsibility and develops self-control, I am also maturing, learning the limits of my patience and controlling my actions and reactions so that I can allow those limits to be gently stretched but never broken. I am yelling less, listening more, and managing time better. Comfortable with consistently enforcing limits, I can relax and allow my daughters freedom within boundaries. I can let them set the pace, (as my colleague Suzanne advocates) allow them to be loud or silly or giggly and play along with them, knowing that I can reign them in when necessary. Giving our daughters this kind of security, freedom, and love will reinforce their sense of self-worth and model for them the peaceful and peace-building values that we want them to embody as they make their ways in the world.
  1. We can teach them that there is no such thing as a “bad guy.” One of the most important things we can do to ensure our daughters never develop an overreliance on violence is reinforce, time and again, there are no bad people, only bad actions. When my firstborn was younger, she once claimed to be a superhero with the power to “make bad guys die!” I quickly told her that it would be better to make bad guys nice instead, and ever since, she has used “the power of love” to turn imaginary villains into imaginary friends. As she grows and begins to see the world in deepening shades of gray rather than black and white, I want continually to help her to understand that all people are capable of extraordinary good and terrible harm. Even as she guards herself from the harm of which people are capable, she must remember that even someone who attacks is a person first, also capable of good. Further, I want her to recognize her own mistakes and bad choices, secure in the knowledge that she is loved and that she is much more than her mistakes. Knowing this, she can have sympathy for someone who might lash out in violence even as she does what may be necessary to protect herself. I want to teach her that violence is a destructive way of dealing with a problem, but people who express problems through violence need love and help.
  1. Finally, I want us to teach creative problem-solving skills so that our daughters recognize the tools in their toolboxes beyond fight or flight. Here I am open to any suggestions, resources or ideas readers may have. I know there are stories of conflict resolutions that have come about through friendliness, humor, logic, or the element of surprise. I would like to find these stories at age-appropriate levels and read them to my daughters. Beyond reading about nonviolent conflict resolution, I also want to model it to my daughters. It is easy enough to help them think up creative solutions to made-up problems as I play with them. But I also want to model respectful arguing to show that caring for someone is more important than proving one’s self right. That takes the kind of self-control that is ever-developing, in adults as well as children! I also know that a potentially hostile situation can be instantly diffused if provocation is met with understanding and empathy rather than offense. I am hoping that the focus and self-control my daughter is learning can be put to use to deflect insults not with physical force, but with a self-esteem and confidence that render such force unnecessary. Ultimately, I want our children never to feel the need to fight by giving them the ability to diffuse a conflict before it escalates. Should they ever be in need of physical self-defense, I am hoping they will limit the force they use to just what it takes to get away safely.

Right now, martial arts are helping me to become a more peaceful parent. I believe they can also play a role in helping my daughter to become a more peaceful child and grow into a peacemaking adult, but only if my husband and I commit to balancing her defensive skills with the environment, values, and tools that nurture her in peacemaking. We are making that commitment, but I am asking for your help, gentle readers. If you have ideas for peaceful parenting, please comment! It takes a village, afterall!



Unless We Change: Children Lead the Way to Peace

“Unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

Jesus spoke these words as a response to a question from his disciples. Which of us, they demanded to know, was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus must have been struck by the contrast between his rivalrous disciples, so-called friends bickering and vying for attention, and the children who were playing nearby. He could have said, “I am, you silly gooses! Don’t compete with me – follow me!” But he had tried words before to no avail. So he summoned the children to show that greatness in the kingdom means playing joyfully in the moment with a humility that is heedless of rank or position. Only such as these, he explained, are able to know me and follow me.

Unless you change, he said. Unless you become like children.

When my son, Don, was about three and half I enrolled him in a weekly toddler gym class that met once a week. He seemed to enjoy the bouncing and running and playing games. One week I was running late, why I can’t remember. Probably some combination of having dropped off his older sister at pre-school and then tried to squeeze laundry or some shopping errand and still get to his gym class on time. I remember racing through the house and stuffing things in his diaper bag hoping he would help me by putting on his shoes. “Where are your shoes, Donny? Can you put them on for me?” I asked him probably three or six or twenty times.

But Donny didn’t seem to be gripped by the same urgency. He stood quietly in the kitchen, a toddler eye in my adult storm until finally I nearly shouted in exasperation, “Don! Don’t you want to go to your gym class?” His answer shocked me into stillness. “Not if I have to rush,” he said. I instantly knew he was right so I dropped the diaper bag and the search for his shoes and followed him to the front porch where we sat on the glider and watched a thunder storm roll in from the west. I have rarely spent such a peaceful, joyful hour.

Unless you change, he said. Unless you become like children.

We think that it is children who bicker and demand attention, but maybe it’s us. We think that we are the ones with wisdom to pass on to our children, but maybe they are the wise ones. Perhaps it’s time to learn to follow Jesus by being led by children.

In an address in 1937, in the pregnant pause between the great wars of the twentieth century, Dr. Maria Montessori said this:

If the era in the history of human evolution that is characterized by the constant outbreak of war can be called the ‘adult period’, then the period in which we begin to build peace will be the ‘age of the child’.

Unless we change, he said. Montessori believed with Jesus that the children would lead us into a new age, a time for healing when nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Are we humble enough to be led by children into the kingdom of heaven? Today is a good day to begin to practice being led by the wisest among us. Slow down. Play. If you are lucky enough to have children in your life, try to see yourself through their eyes. You will be surprised to discover just how much you are loved, just as you are, and that the new age may have already begun, set in motion by the gaze of a child

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





A woman balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

Maria’s Choice: Dr. Montessori’s Struggle to Balance Career and Motherhood

A woman balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

A mother balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo)

Dr. Maria Montessori loved children, yet the story of her only child seems to indicate that she loved her career more. In the late 1890s, just as her success at reforming the treatment of prisoners, insanity, mental retardation and child delinquency was garnering her world-wide fame, she became pregnant by a colleague. Maria and her lover, Guiseppe Montesano, were both doctors, both radical reformers, and both dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet the reality in Italy at the turn of the 20th century was that when a woman married she was expected to leave the workforce. A married woman’s place, no matter her skills or level of education, was in the home, not the surgery or hospital, not teaching at university or advising governments on social programs. Though we cannot be certain, it seems that to protect Maria’s career the lovers took a vow not to marry and to raise their child together, but in secret. When Guiseppe betrayed Maria by marrying someone else, all that remained of their vow was the secrecy.

Dr. Montessori concealed her pregnancy and gave birth to her only child, a son, sending him to a wet nurse in the country. It was during this time of personal crisis that her career path took a dramatic turn. Maria shifted her focus from the institutionalized population of criminals and delinquents to the education of normal children. They became her passion and she dedicated her life to improving the health, education and well-being of children. What she could not provide for her own child in his formative years, she longed to guarantee for the children of mothers all over the world.

The choice between work and motherhood, Maria’s choice, is still faced by women today. I imagine that Maria felt what so many of us feel – whether at home or work, we feel guilty, divided, and teetering on the brink of failing at both motherhood and career. I’m in the midst of doing research on Dr. Montessori’s life and work with the hope of producing a novel or bio-pic that does justice to her genius. I recently came across some of Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on the differences between the work-a-day world and life spent in the company of children. Careers are spent in an atmosphere of competition and selfish self-promotion. Becoming a parent requires something quite different. She explains it this way:

The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal of renunciation, of unselfishness – virtues almost unreachable outside family life. What businessman, in a position to acquire some property he needs, will ever say to one of his competitors: “You can have it. I am leaving it for you!” But if hungry parents are short of food, they will deny themselves the last crumb of bread rather than have the child go hungry.

Dr. Montessori witnessed this self-denying love herself. Her medical career and her early work with children was among the poorest of the poor in Rome and so she saw the virtue of selflessness in action. Of course, she was all too familiar with self-serving patriarchal attitudes of women’s inferiority. The male dominated professions of medicine and education often patronized and dismissed her innovations without serious consideration. But she was undaunted and achieved much for which the children of the world owe her a debt of gratitude.

But what of her love for her own child? She seems not to have been able to achieve the ideals of “renunciation” and “unselfishness” that she so admired in others. Her story of motherhood does have a happy ending, though. When her son was about twelve, she took him into her life and under her care, though she did not publically acknowledge him as her son until near the end of her life. They had a warm, loving relationship and Mario worked tirelessly by her side, continuing after her death to work on behalf of the Montessori Method.

Maria’s choice to give up her son for the sake of her career was a difficult one for her and her son, but somehow they found forgiveness and redemption. Perhaps this is the lesson of her life. All moms know that we will make mistakes, especially in difficult situations, but Maria’s choice reminds us that the story of a mother and child isn’t over until love writes the ending.

“So we see,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “there are two kinds of life.” We have our careers and our motherhood, and a woman “is privileged to share in both. [But] the better of the two is that with children, for nearness to them brings out our best side.” Dr. Montessori knew the truth – our children make us better people. As we make the daily trek between our two worlds, let’s be mothers first, even at work. What better tribute to offer our children who love us for better or worse.

On Being a Good Dad: Mimetic Desire, Toys, and How Not to Love Your Neighbor

I consider myself to be a good dad.

And that’s where the problem began.

One of the main reasons that I consider myself to be a good dad is that I buy my children really cool toys…that I get to play with… Well, a few years ago I bought them a toy rocket with a launch pad. When I…err…I mean *they*…stomp on the pad the rocket launches 50 feet in the air! My status as a “good dad” increased last year when I bought my oldest son a set of Loom Bands. He loves making bracelets and necklaces with the little rubber bands. And, last April, when we moved to a new neighborhood halfway across the country, my status flew off the “good dad chart” when I bought him a brand new bike!

So, you see, my children have really cool toys. And that makes me a really good dad.

But then we met our neighbors.

A few days after we moved into our new house, my son took his rocket launcher outside. As he started sending it into the air, a neighbor boy came over to play. “Hey!” the boy said. “I have a rocket launcher that goes even higher!” He ran back to his house and brought his super-duper deluxe rocket launcher that he stomped 75 feet in the air!

My son was very impressed with that rocket launcher. Me? Not so much. I began to feel a sense of inferiority. The thought crossed my mind, “His dad bought him a better rocket launcher! Maybe I’m not such a good dad after all.”

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

When we went outside the next day, the neighbor boy came over again. “Hey!” he exclaimed as he looked at my son’s Loom Band bracelet. “You make Loom Bands too! I’ll show you some of the things I’ve made!” He ran home and came back with a frog, turtle, horse, and a freakin’ dragon made of Loom Bands. As my son looked in awe upon our neighbor’s Loom creations, the thought crossed my mind, “His dad not only bought him Loom Bands but also encouraged him to make a freakin’ dragon with them! I’ve only encouraged my son to make these sorry looking bracelets!”

And then it happened. I bought my son a new bicycle. He was riding it with pride when (deep breath) the neighbor boy came out of his garage driving his new Power Wheels!!! My son instantly ditched his bike and ran toward our neighbor’s new car. I stewed there in my resentment as my dad ego deflated and I thought to myself, “You gotta be kidding me! That dad has an answer for every toy I buy. What a jerk!”

I share this with you not just because of my masochistic tendency to share my failures in parenting and in general being a human. I also share it with you as an example of mimetic desire at work in my life. Mimetic theory’s basic claim is that human desire is imitative. We “desire according to the desire of another.”

In other words, we want what others have. We have an innate desire to “keep up with the Jonses.” Do you remember the 10th Commandment? To paraphrase, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff.” The 10th Commandment warns us against desiring our neighbor’s stuff because when we desire this way it leads resentment, envy, and often to violent conflict.

But even more than wanting our neighbor’s stuff, we want our neighbor’s identity. Sounds kind of creepy, right? Well, it happens to us all and you can see how it happened to me. I want to be a good dad and one of the ways that I know I’m a good dad is that my children have cool toys. But what happens when another dad buys his child cooler toys than I buy my children? I start comparing myself with him. I start thinking that I’m not enough. I become resentful. In my own head I compete with my neighbor in a rivalry for the coveted prize, “Dad of the Year.”

Comparing ourselves with others is a fundamental aspect of human mimeticism. We are always comparing ourselves with others. As a blogger, I compare my stats with other bloggers. Businesses are always comparing their bottom line with other businesses. Politicians compare themselves by how many votes they get. Nations compare themselves by their military might. And, yes, dads compare their fatherly prowess by the toys they buy their children.

It sounds silly and ridiculous, I know, but it’s also human. Now that I look back on my silly mimetic behavior that led me to compare myself with my neighbor, I can gently laugh at myself. I can remind myself as I navigate the traps of mimetic desire of what I already know deep down – being a good dad is not about buying cool toys for my children. Being a good dad is about having children who know they are unconditionally loved.

Being a good dad also means modeling not just the refusal to desire our neighbor’s stuff, but also the desire to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

And so I walked over to my new neighbor, shook his hand, and said, “That is such a cool Power Wheel. Thanks for letting my children play with it, too.”

“You’re welcome,” the dad responded. “Our previous neighbor got one for his children. So I thought I’d get one, too.”

It’s silly, isn’t it? But that is mimetic desire at work.

Parenting Confessions: God, Rivalry, and College Football

Beavers jersey and Ninja Turtles on the first day of school. Doesn't get any better.

Beavers jersey and Ninja Turtles on the first day of school. Doesn’t get any better.

My family recently moved to Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is probably best known for the University of Oregon Ducks football team. Having moved from Chicago, I know that the Ducks are loved throughout the country for their high powered offense and flamboyant football jerseys. Here in Eugene people are obsessed with the Quack Attack. Nearly every car has a University of Oregon bumper sticker, almost everyone wears a green UofO jacket, and the entire city fell into a state of mourning when the Ducks lost to the Arizona Wildcats and plummeted in the national rankings. There can be no doubt that the people of Eugene love their University of Oregon Ducks.

But as for me and my household, we will love the Oregon State Beavers. (That’s a direct quote from the book of Ericksen 12:15.)

I’m a native Oregonian and I’ve always loved the Beavers. My grandpa went to Oregon State, my mother went to Oregon State, and my brother went to Oregon State. I learned to love the Beavers from my family. I must confess that when it comes to college football rivalries, I’m teaching my children well. For his first day of school this year, my oldest son drew a line in the sand with his Duck loving classmates as he proudly wore his Beavers football jersey.

The rivalry between the Ducks and the Beavers is insane. In fact, it’s so intense that the annual game that pits the teams against each other is called the CIVIL WAR!

Apparently the most effective way to describe the rivalry between the Beavers and the Ducks is to refer to the most fatal battle ever on American soil.

But my son is right. To be a Beavers fan means that you must draw a line in the sand. Not only must you root for the Beavers, you must root against the Ducks! Of course, there are those lukewarm Beaver fans who want to straddle the line. They root for the Ducks as a sign of loyalty to Oregon, hoping that one team from the state will compete for a National Championship.

Let me say this as smugly as possible with my nose high in the air – They are not true fans of the Beavers! They make me sick. To be an Oregonian means you must pick your loyalties! You must stand either with the Beavers or with the Ducks. Either you’re with us or you’re against us! Either you’re all things Good, Beautiful, and True, thus you root for the Beavers; or you’re a conspirator with the Forces of Evil and you root for the Ducks. Please choose wisely. After all, this is the Civil War!

The Mimetics of Parenting

Okay. So, I’m being cheeky. But I’d like to talk about a danger here. When it comes to parenting, mimetic theory has taught me that we humans learn everything through a process of imitation. As social creatures, we are naturally open to the influence of others in our environment. Soon an imitative pattern of behavior develops. Children learn a pattern of behavior through their parents that is often formed in rivalry. One of the first things children learn from adults is to identify themselves over and against who they are not.

As a child, I learned from the adults in my life that to be an Ericksen is to be a Beavers fan. I also learned that to be an Ericksen meant I had to hate the Ducks.

Civil War language aside, sports rivalries may seem like mere playful fun. I mean, what’s the big deal? While childhood sports rivalries appear to be fairly harmless, they lay the foundation for a lifetime of rivalries. Children may begin to identify themselves in terms of sports rivalries, but this pattern of rivalry can’t be controlled. It spreads like a contagious disease to other areas of our lives. We soon learn to identify ourselves as “in” by identifying who is “out”; who is “good” by who is “bad.”

As we grow, we begin to discover other aspects of our identity that are formed in rivalry over and against others. For example, we learn to identify ourselves as good Democrats because they are evil Republicans; as good progressives because they are regressive fundamentalists; as responsible rich people because they are irresponsible poor people; as good Christians because they are evil Muslims; as smart NPR listening liberals because they are dumb Fox News listening conservatives.

Understanding this pattern of rivalry that children learn through imitating their parents helps me understand a biblical passage that I’ve always found troubling. It’s that verse near the beginning of the Ten Commandments where God is said to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I’m discovering that the “iniquity” of my parenting is setting my children up for a world of rivalry with other. Now, God isn’t actively punishing my children for my poor parenting skills. We do a good enough job of punishing one another in our rivalries.

God isn’t punishing us. Rather, God is trying to free us from our enslavement to rivalry. God is inviting us to re-pattern our lives away from rivalry and toward love. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” claims Leviticus. From within his religious tradition, Jesus expanded on that love ethic so that it included even our enemies, “You have heard 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.”

Beavers and Ducks: Can we share the pond?

Can we be freed from these rivalries? Or are we enslaved to them? Jesus told his followers that they must die to themselves in order that they might truly live. They must die to an identity that is formed in rivalry with others so that they might truly love their neighbors, who include even those they call their enemies…even those who are called *gasp* the Ducks!

Of course, this is bigger than Beavers and Ducks. It’s about rivalry in every aspect of our lives. But here’s the point: Transforming our pattern of rivalry into a pattern of love requires intention and spiritual discipline. It requires a daily, even hourly, refusal to divide the world into “us” versus “them.” It requires parents who will model for their children a desire for love, not a desire for rivalry. It requires a larger community of dedicated people that will gently hold one another accountable. It requires forgiveness. It requires prayer.

And in the game of spiritual football, it requires the nimble spirit of a quarterback to pass with the promise that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation with us.”

Is there hope that Beavers and Ducks can find reconciliation and share the same pond? To quote Jesus completely out of context, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

With God all things are possible, including the possibility that we might die to a self that is formed in rivalry so that we might live the life of love that God calls us into. A new identity that is no longer defined as “us” against “them.” Rather, with this new identity we discover a new pattern of living where Beavers and Ducks, Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Evangelicals, Christians and Muslims all drop our violent addiction to rivalry so that we can pursue love and reconciliation.

Book Feature Friday: Mickey Mouse, Mimetic Theory, and Saving a Villain

Reading to my boy. Notice that he gives warm hugs. We love Olaf.

Reading to my boy. Notice that he gives warm hugs. We love Olaf.

As a parent dedicated to mimetic theory, I know that the stories we tell our children pattern them in certain ways. Children have a remarkable capacity to learn not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also how to relate to others. Stories are particularly influential tools that teach children how to do just that. Of course, their learning potential can be patterned in relating to others in violent ways or in nonviolent and loving ways. And like so many parents who want to foster a strong sense of compassion in their children, especially compassion for their enemies, I struggle to find children’s books that tell compelling stories about compassion and reconciliation.

Mythical Stories and the Eternal Return

Children’s stories typically follow the same pattern as every other story. There’s a conflict. The conflict leads to the formation of good guys and bad guys. The good guys work together and, after dramatically losing to the bad guys on multiple occasions, end up winning the day. The bad guys are either killed or expelled and peace is restored.

If you read ancient myths, you will discover that the same story of violence has been told since the beginning of human culture. Human history has seen an eternal return to violence and wars where good battles evil in the hopes to restore peace. And then we mythologize our violence through heroic stories of “good versus evil” that we tell to our children. But achieving peace through violent means never leads to lasting peace. If there’s one thing we should learn about the eternal return to violence in mythical stories, it’s that violence leads to more violence.

But what if we told a different story to our children? What if we told stories about conflict that didn’t end up with killing or expelling the bad guys, but rather ended with relationships being transformed and reconciled? Maybe our children would be patterned in a way that seeks compassion for and reconciliation with our enemies.

Mickey’s Alternative

The book. It is *that* good.

The book. It is *that* good.

Yesterday, my second child brought home a book called Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Super Adventures! As I began reading it to him, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of parental angst as the story followed the same violent pattern as nearly every other story. Mickey and his friends turn into superheroes and unite to save the day from the evil villain Megamort, who wants to steal Mickey’s clubhouse by shrinking it with his shrink ray.

Oh the drama!

Of course, in the end Mickey and his team of superhero good guys win the day. But as Megamort attempts to make his escape, his plane springs a leak and zooms out of control. That’s when the ancient script of violence is flipped on its head and a new script of compassion and reconciliation emerges:

“Megamort needs our help!” shouts Mickey.

“But he’s a villain,” says Goofy.

“He still needs saving,” says Mickey.

Despite Goofy’s objection, Mickey and his friends safely bring the plane down and Megamort is transformed by their act of compassion.

“After all I did, I can’t believe you rescued me,” he says. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Megamort,” says Goofy.

“I’m really Mortimer Mouse,” Megamort reveals. “I’m your new neighbor…I thought that if I took what you had, I’d be happy.”

“The Clubhouse is all about having friends,” says Mickey.

“That’s just it,” Mortimer admits. “I don’t have any friends.”

“You do now,” says Goofy.

This children’s story is revelatory for two reasons. First, the main principle of mimetic theory claims that we “desire according to the desire of another.” In other words, we really do try to “keep up with the Jones’.” As with Mortimer Mouse, we tend to think that if just had what our neighbors have that we would then be happy. But as this story clearly shows, the mimetic aspect of desire more often leads to conflict and resentment than to happiness. That’s why the 10th Commandment warns us against coveting our neighbors stuff – it knows that our natural inclination is to desire according to the desires of another! Of course, underneath it all, it’s never really about our neighbor’s stuff. Like Mortimer, what we really desire is friendship, love, and acceptance. That’s why the Bible says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The second aspect of the story that’s revelatory is that the conflict ensuing from “desiring according to the desires of another” often leads to the eternal return of conflict and violence, but it doesn’t have to. We aren’t enslaved to violence. We do have options. For example, Goofy suggests that Megamort should suffer the deathly consequences of his evil actions when he protests rescuing him from his demise by stating, “But he’s a villain.” Fortunately, Mickey provides a refreshing alternative of compassion by saving the villain.

Mickey models an alternative desire to the desire of mythical violence. It’s a desire that transforms us from wanting to kill or exclude our enemies to wanting to bless them and to reconcile with them. It’s the same alternative that we see developing in the Judeo-Christians Story. From Abraham and Sarah, who are called by God to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth,” to Jesus who forgives his enemies who crucified him and who reconciles “the world to himself, [by] not counting their sins against them,” we see that God sends us on a mission of blessing and reconciliation with everyone, but especially with those we call our enemies.

I’m glad to tell that divine story of reconciliation to my children wherever I can find it, even when it comes from Mickey Mouse.

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Sophie Saves God

Sophie the Superhero Self Portrait

Teach your children well.” The words to this simple, beautiful song have been on a continuous loop in my head recently, perhaps due to my first-born daughter, Sophie, starting kindergarten! She’s growing up so fast! And like all parents, I sometimes wonder how well I am teaching her, how well I am preparing her for the challenges and transitions she will face in life. Most especially, I wonder and ponder and pray over how to model a life of compassion, appreciation, respect and responsibility that she can learn, imitate and emulate in her own unique ways. Often, I am haunted by the concern that I am not doing enough. But every now and then, one of those serendipitous parenting experiences comes along, providing blessed reassurance that, somehow, I must be doing something right.

Such a moment happened about a month ago, when Sophie and I had just finished reading an “Olivia” story. For those unfamiliar, Olivia is a cartoon pig who has her own book and television series. She also has a little brother named Ian. As I was putting the story away, my daughter, out of nowhere, exclaimed, “Ian got killed!” What followed was one of our many “playtalk” discussions, where we imagine up a story together, but this time it was filled with hidden nuggets of theological wisdom.

“Oh no! How did Ian get killed?” I asked.

“He fell on a fire and died!” she shouted.

At this point, I was starting to wonder if she was taking death a bit too casually. Surely she couldn’t comprehend the horror of which she spoke with so much gleeful enthusiasm.

“Do you understand what that means? It’s very serious and sad when people are killed. It means that they are hurt so much that their bodies are broken forever. We shouldn’t talk so easily about that.”

She considered what I was saying, and the child-like excitement in her eyes was replaced with concern.

“But he’s with God now,” Sophie replied.

Shoot; what do I do now?, I wondered.  Of course, I was proud of her for finding comfort in the thought of being embraced by God after life on earth, but I still didn’t want her to play with the idea of death so joyfully. But then a thought occurred to me that steered the conversation in another direction, leaving me ultimately to marvel at my daughter’s narrative logic and even more at her compassion.

“Well, you know, we don’t have to wait until after we die to be with God. God is with us right now.”

“God is with us now? Where?”

“God is in our hearts.”

“Is God only in our hearts?”


“Is God in our house?”


“I see God over there! And there’s a kitty shaving him like crazy!”

Ian before his untimely demise, from

Ian before his untimely demise. From

“There’s a cat shaving God?”



“With her sharp, sharp claws!

“Shaving God’s head? God’s beard?…”

“No, shaving God’s eyes!”

“Owww! That’s horrible!”

“I have to save God!”

“Why is that cat so mean?”

“Because she hasn’t had any cat food for, for… 3 years!”

“Oh! That would make anyone mean! But why not?”

“Because Ian was her owner and he got killed!”

Well, now we had come full circle, and I was stunned. Not only had Sophie managed to rein in that meandering narrative, but she had given that cat a motive to scratch out God’s eyes that made complete sense! It is not at all unusual to rail at God for the untimely death of a loved one, believing that God “took” so-and-so away. Did that cat think God was raining down fiery vengeance on Ian for some inscrutable sin? I don’t know if Sophie made all those connections in her mind, but it is a plausible interpretation of the story. Moreover, it’s a faulty conclusion many come to, to attribute a painful death to a vengeful God. And, with violence being mimetic, if the cat had perceived violence on the part of God, it’s only natural that she would respond in kind.

Plus, that cat was hungry.

Starving kitty lashing out. From

Starving kitty lashing out. From

Violence is not excusable, but it is understandable when people, like this cat, feel they have no other means of survival. All over the world, wars are fought to acquire and secure resources, and we ourselves spend a majority of our tax dollars on violent means of defense, though we are far less vulnerable than this poor kitty. That cat wasn’t a monster; she was a desperate creature who had reached a breaking point! She wasn’t just causing pain, she was lashing out in pain. I had rushed to judgment when I asked, “Why is that cat so mean?,” and, quite frankly, I had expected Sophie to give me a simpler answer like, “She’s just crazy!” or “Because she’s a bad, bad cat!” (Her first sentence, after all, was “Bad bad bad cat cat!”) Instead, I am quite impressed that my daughter could think of a tangible reason to make this hellcat break out her claws, beyond the sound bites we tend to hear in the media that would probably have scapegoated her as the embodiment of all evil.  My 5-year-old daughter knows how to make a multidimensional antagonist, which is more than I can say for so many of us, sometimes myself included, who refuse to look at the potential good within our enemies… or the potential evil within ourselves.

Anyway, now that Sophie had so skillfully managed to steer the narrative back to Ian’s fiery demise, I thought we were finished. In fact, I was so proud of the symmetry of her story that I almost wanted to wrap things up there, merciless as it would be to leave God in the claws of a cantankerous kitty and Ian a crispy corpse. But as I started to transcribe our conversation, she reminded me, “We need a happy ending, Mom!”

So I let her dictate an ending to me, and it went like this:

“God cried. Then Sophie came and gave the cat a dead fish and a pink dress. This made the cat feel better, so she stopped scratching God’s eyes. Then Sophie and God brought Ian back to life by singing a song. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.”

So our hero rides in, guns blazing, to blast that cat to smithereens… oops. No, she doesn’t. Instead of responding with violence, Sophie goes to the heart of the problem. She reconciles the violent one with the victim with gentleness and compassion, by answering the need, the hunger. She gives the cat a dead fish (a fresh fish would be cruel to the fish… and I doubt it’s in Sophie’s power to make that cat a vegetarian) and a pink dress. Of course. Pink dresses make females of any species feel better.

And she leaves the vengeance to God, who smites that cat… oops.  No, God doesn’t. God lets the poor, starving cat empty all of her frustrations onto Godself, becoming a victim in solidarity with other victims, including the cat herself! God becomes vulnerable, even to the point of crying. The gospel allusions just keep unpacking themselves. And after Sophie helps the cat with her immediate need, God (and Sophie) responds to that cat’s deeper need, reuniting her with her beloved Ian. The power of God’s utter vulnerability drains that cat of her violence, and we join God in the process of renewing life by serving one-another. Maybe in another theology lesson I can teach Sophie that, when it comes to resurrection, we leave the major work to God (truth be told, Sophie wanted to bring Ian back to life by herself, but I told her to include God in the process. Hey, it’s a work in progress!)

When I asked Sophie what she wanted to call her story, she immediately replied, “Sophie Saves God.” Scandalous, I thought to myself. “Perfect,” I said. It sounds blasphemous to consider ourselves as saviors of God. I know full well that the truth is the opposite. God saves us. The nonviolent God came among us in Jesus, absorbing our violence, responding with forgiveness, and showing us how to live not enslaved to our desires over and against one-another, but in accordance to God’s desire which is for us and for one-another. But we are also made in the image of God, and when we respond to violence with love, magnifying God’s love to the world, in a way we save the reputation of a God who is very often misunderstood, onto whom we subconsciously project our own worst violent instincts. Of course, this is still God working through us. And I think God is doing an incredible job working through Sophie!

She’s come a long way from playing “Sleeping Beauty the Superhero,” whose superpower is “making bad guys die!” At first she was resistant to my suggestion that she make bad guys nice instead, but now she has learned not only to do this, but how to do this… with compassion and service. I know it’s God working through me, but I want to take a bit of credit too; in some ways I really am teaching her well! And these serendipitous parenting moments are, in turn, an education for me in faith, hope and love. As the song says, “Teach your parents well.” Sophie and God are working wonders on me!


As long as our children keep gracing us with their unique theological wisdom, we will keep writing about it! This is the beginning a new series: “Out of the Mouths of Babes!” to be updated whenever our children give us something new to write about! Is there a child in your life who has said or done something to make you contemplate the wonders of God anew?  We invite you to share your stories in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Rock, Paper, Scissors … GOD! – Children and a Nonviolent Reading of the Bible

Last April, my family moved to Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is located in Linn County. This is all you need to know that important fact:

grass seed capital

Linn County is the “Grass Seed Capital of the [FREAKIN] World.”

Guess who is allergic grass seed? Yeah, that’s right. Me. My face has been a hideous mess of goopy sludge emanating from my nose and eyes.

I’ve tried everything soothe my pain. Claritin. Allegra. Zyrtec. Nothing worked. The only thing that provided any relief were frozen blueberry waffles:


So, I decided I needed allergy shots. In addition to this being the summer of the merciless grass seed, it’s also been the summer of Daddy-Day-Care at the Ericksen house. So, when I went to my first appointment, I took my three children with me.

Childhood Games and a Violent God

As we sat in the waiting room, my boys decided to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. At ages 7 and 6, they have become very skilled, so I recently decided to introduce them to the ultimate weapon – dynamite. Dynamite is made just like the rock, only you lift up your thumb to create the fuse. With the colossal “BOOM!” sound effect, dynamite utterly destroys rock, paper, and scissors.

At least, it used to be the ultimate weapon of destruction. While waiting for my shots, my oldest boy came up with an ever more destructive weapon – God.

My boys dropping hell fire and brimstone on each other.

My boys dropping hell fire and brimstone on each other.

After a few rounds of the game, he activated the omnipotent God weapon. When he did, all hell broke loose. “Rock, paper, scissors … GOD!” he yelled. Then he lifted both hands high in the air and violently threw them down with the thunderous sound of hell-fire and brimstone on top of his younger brother.

God. The Destroyer.

I know it’s just a game, but as the good mimetic theorist that I am, I’ve spent their young lives trying to teach them that God isn’t like that.  As First John teaches us, I try to teach them that, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” No darkness. No violence. Only love. We are the Destroyers. We are the ones who rain down hell-fire and brimstone upon one another. God doesn’t do that.

Biblical Violence

Of course, many people will point to passages in scripture where God does rain down hell-fire and brimstone upon people. Take, for example, the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. All you need is this one verse to justify a violent God: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

I remember learning that story, and many others like it, in Sunday school. Without any qualms or hesitation, I was taught that God nearly destroyed the whole earth though a flood and that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah through fire. The Bible is full of violence, both human and divine. This really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we moderns don’t have a good track record with violence. Whether we justify our violence in the name of God or national security or freedom or whatever, the outcome is always the same violent destruction.

sodomStill, we moderns like to critique the Bible for its violence, but the truth is that the Bible provides a huge leap forward in the human understanding of the relationship between violence and the divine. After all, if you look at other ancient myths, the gods of all religions were violent. In fact, the gods of Babylon, Rome, and Greece were not only violent, but also fickle. You never knew what would send those gods into a violent rage. Take the Babylonian flood story, for example. The Babylonian gods destroyed the world with a flood because humans were being too noisy, causing the gods to lose sleep. The biblical flood story is horrific, but it’s a huge step forward in the human understanding of the divine. In the biblical story, God’s problem wasn’t with human noise causing God to lose sleep; it was with humans creating violence, death, and destruction. And, as terrible as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was, we can say something similar about that story. God’s problem with those nations was that they refused to show hospitality to strangers and to aid the poor and needy members of their society.

The Bible’s Critique of Violence

While those are huge steps forward in the human understanding of the divine, they don’t go far enough. They still claim that God is violent. But the Bible contains a critique of its own violent version of God, and there is no more important story for Christians to claim the nonviolence of God than the story of Jesus.

Jesus, of course, was Jewish and was formed by his religious tradition. But what many modern Christians don’t understand is that within Judaism there have always been multiple interpretations of the Bible. Ancient rabbis had their schools of thought, where they provided instruction on interpreting the Bible.

Jesus, whom Christians claim to be our Rabbi or Teacher*, provided specific instruction for interpreting the Bible, and specifically for how to interpret biblical violence. On multiple occasions, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea, instructing anyone who would listen to:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

In his Adult Education Course entitled Jesus the Forgiving Victim, James Alison claims “This is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice…‘Mercy’ and ‘sacrifice’ are not here discrete religious gestures. Each one is an entire anthropology of God’s desire, and they are incompatible with each other.”

The theology behind the violent sacrificial strand within the Bible, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah story, is incompatible with the theology behind the “mercy and not sacrifice” strand within the Bible.

Jesus’ Critique of Sacred Violence

jesus teacherNot only did Jesus teach that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, he enacted God’s desire for mercy and not sacrifice. For example, Jesus implicitly critiqued the theology of sacred violence behind the Sodom and Gomorrah story when he sent his disciples ahead of him to a Samaritan village. The Samaritans rejected Jesus and his disciples. When James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, heard this, they channeled the same sacred violence in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. They said to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus, who had been teaching his disciples to love their enemies, which clearly meant they shouldn’t command fire or missiles or bombs to come down from heaven upon their enemies, rebuked his disciples and he simply led them on to the next town.

Notice that the disciples had an interpretative lens of sacrificial violence, not mercy. In rebuking his disciples, Jesus rebuked the whole idea of sacred violence; the idea that God has anything to do with violence.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Before we take our children to stories depicting sacred violence, such as the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to take them to Jesus. Jesus saves the world not through sacrificial violence, but through merciful love. The disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve God’s purposes through sacrificial violence. Unfortunately, we continue to make this mistake today, and we unwittingly indoctrinate our children into that same theological mistake. And pretty soon they start dropping the God hand in Rock, Paper, Scissors!

Yet, Jesus calls us to follow him, to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” With that teaching Jesus, and the prophet Hosea before him, critiqued sacrificial violence. With his merciful life, death, and resurrection, Jesus offered forgiveness to break the cycle of violence and he revealed the nonviolent love of God that reaches out to all people.