Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

Mimetic theory teaches us that we learn by imitation—whether you have studied the work of René Girard or not, you have probably noticed this. For example, when we teach, we not only use words to explain how to ride a bicycle, throw a ball, or do a push-up. More importantly, we model. We actually get on our bicycle, pick up a baseball, and drop to the ground and “give ‘em twenty.” Because of our mimetic nature, we also tend to embrace the belief systems of our parents and/or dominant culture.

My personal background is no different.

My parents had an Arminian theology and as such, told me that I had the “free choice” to accept Jesus Christ as my “Lord and Savior” or not. Of course, given the eternal consequences of an incorrect choice, I “freely” chose to be a Christian. However, even as a kid, in the back of my mind was this sickening feeling that others’ choice did not seem as free as mine did. Why was I so fortunate to be born into a Christian family? What if I had been born into a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu family? What would have been my eternal fate then? I would often think something similar to the following:

“Why am I afforded more detailed information about this eternal ultimatum than a Hindu or Muslim? How is this fair and how can people be held accountable for such a decision?”

Of course, all of this presupposes this “choice” actually being the correct one. Should those in the other faith traditions who believe in a similar “hell” be correct, why are they afforded more insight into the “choice” than I?

What seems even more unfair is that there are those who have been molested by those who claim to profess the love of God—whether Christian or otherwise. There are those who have put their faith in clergy, only to be violated in the most painful of ways. There are countless of individuals who have had to experience a version of Jesus that is actually anti-Christ. And this is the only Jesus they may ever meet! And yet, they are supposed to “freely choose” Jesus or face eternal condemnation?

When I meditate on these questions and those similar, I cannot help but have empathy. What if I were molested by a “follower” of Jesus? What if one of “God’s elect” raped me when I was younger? Would my eternal choice not, in some very large and distinct way, be affected by such a terrifying event?

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

Take a look at Genesis 4:9. After God asks Cain about his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain sarcastically snaps back at God and rhetorically asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, Cain did not believe himself to be the keeper of Abel, but the implied answer from God, should the Lord have answered, would have been “yes.” There is an implied oneness in this passage between Cain and Abel.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes such oneness when he writes: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9: 2 – 3)” For Paul, it makes no difference if another or himself is cut off from Christ. Both options would cause “unceasing grief” for him.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains our interconnectedness when he says what we do to the least of our kind, we do to Jesus himself. Because all things come into being through Jesus (John 1:3) and he thus, “enlightens every person” (1:9), Jesus is truly saying that what we do to our brothers and sisters—even the least of our fellow human—we are doing to the one we claim to worship.

We are all responsible for each other, because all humans came to being through him!

All people. Not some. All.

When we look at our eschatology, we need to have some empathy. Jesus sure did! That is one reason he brought peace. That is a part of why he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” He recognized that we have no idea what are doing to each other. We had no idea what we were doing to Jesus.

This ignorance runs through each and every one of us. Because of this, God shows all of us mercy (Romans 11:32). I must take the stance that I am responsible for my brothers and sisters, which, according to how I interpret things, includes everyone. Should one lost sheep perish (apollumi), to follow Christ is to desire to save even one. To follow Christ is to rejoice over finding the last lost sheep—those sinners who repent of their ways and choose the path of the non-violent Christ. I believe once every lost sheep is found, then and only then can “every tear be wiped from our faces.” (Revelation 21:4) As interconnected interdividuals, I simply cannot foresee any other way.

Image: Photo by monsternest via Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 


Black Forgiveness, the Hypocrisy of White America, and Atonement

“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

Those words of accountability and forgiveness were spoken to Dylann Roof at his bond hearing by the daughter of one of his victims.

How are we to understand such radical forgiveness?

The spirit of forgiveness and accountability was on full display during the bond hearing by the family members of the victims. Many have seen that forgiveness as shallow, even calling it a “parade of forgiveness [that] is disconcerting to say the least.”

Forgiveness isn’t disconcerting. What is disconcerting is a hypocritical response from white America.

Many white Americans interpret black forgiveness as absolution for the racist attitudes that led to the attack. We distort that forgiveness in a way that doesn’t hold us accountable for changing the racist political, economic, and educational structures that infect our country.

If white America celebrates the forgiveness that was on display in Charleston but refuses to be transformed by it, then we are hypocrites. If that forgiveness doesn’t break our hearts to make them grow bigger, if that forgiveness doesn’t become a model for white America to follow, if that forgiveness doesn’t make us work for racial justice and make us more gracious and forgiving in our lives, then we are just a bunch of hypocrites.

When we celebrate black forgiveness but refuse to be accountable to that very forgiveness then we are doing nothing more than creating an aura of deniability. By celebrating black forgiveness of those persecutors like Dylann Roof, we can safely deny that we participate in and benefit from racist structures that persecute black people. In other words, we can so twist the blessed act of forgiveness that we manipulate it to deny that we are persecutors, too.

In her Washington Post article, Stacey Patton speaks to the hypocrisy of white America. We celebrate and even demand black forgiveness in the face of violence, but we do not offer our own forgiveness to violence committed against us. She connects it to 9/11, “After 9/11 there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks … As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coats noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheading.”

Patton and Coats are absolutely right when they point to the hypocrisy of white America when it comes to forgiveness. Black people aren’t allowed to show rage, to be “an angry black man.” But white rage in the face of violence is thought to be a perfectly normal response.

What’s true about forgiveness on a personal level is true about forgiveness on a national level. We are the “angry white man” who too often responds to violence with mimetic violence of our own. The “angry black man” stereotype is a projection of our own white anger and hatred.

Atoning for White Racism

In the Christian tradition, Atonement happened on the cross when Jesus offered forgiveness to those who killed and persecuted him. The Atonement was about changing hearts, but it wasn’t God’s heart that was changed. Jesus didn’t appease a wrathful god; he appeased a wrathful humanity. But he didn’t just appease a wrathful humanity, he transformed a wrathful humanity into a more loving humanity. The Atonement doesn’t absolve us from the harm that we’ve cause. Unless we are hypocrites, it leads us to take responsibility for changing our lives so that we work for justice, healing, and love.

The consequences of that Atonement are best seen in the story of the conversion of St. Paul. Before his conversion, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian community. Like all persecutors, he was blind to his victims. He thought he was keeping his way of life safe from his enemies. But on the road to Damascus, the resurrected Jesus came to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was then blinded by scales that covered his eyes, which were symbolic as a sign to his blind persecution.

Saul would soon repent of his violent persecution and the scales that blinded him fell from his eyes. His name would change from Saul to Paul as he took on a new identity. Instead of persecuting the early Christian community, and Jesus who identifies with all victims of persecution, Paul became one of them. And he worked within that community for justice so that all people – Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free – were included into a community of love and acceptance.

White America needs to have our Saul moment – and I pray that in the wake of the terrorism in Charleston that we are having it. The scales need to fall from our eyes so that we can clearly see the harm we have caused through the racist structures that permeate the United States. Like Paul, we need to hear those words from Jesus, “Why are you persecuting me?” because when we continue to uphold racist structures in America we are persecuting black people and we continue to persecute Jesus who identifies with them.

The blessed forgiveness that was on display in Charleston is the same blessed forgiveness that was on display on the cross. If white America doesn’t allow that forgiveness to hold us accountable to the transformation of our lives and the racist structures of the United States, then we are mere hypocrites who don’t truly believe in the Gospel.

May the scales fall from the eyes of white Americans. For we are blind persecutors, forgiven, and in need of transformation.

Image Credit: Vigil for the Charleston 9 (Photo: Flickr, The All Night Images, Creative Commons license, some changes made.

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The Supreme Court: Why Christians Can and Should Support Marriage Equality

Today’s Supreme Court decision that ruled same sex-couples have the right to marry nationwide has many Christians asking a question, “Can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage?”*

I believe that not only can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage, faithful Christians should support same sex marriage.

First, the can. Many people think the Bible is a stumbling block when it comes to this issue. They feel that they can’t support same sex marriage because the Bible is against homosexuality. But what if we’ve misunderstood the Bible? That’s the case that James Alison makes in his lectures The Shape of God’s Affection. Alison points out that heterosexuality and homosexuality are modern concepts. The terms were coined around the 1860s and it’s only been during the last 60 years that we’ve come to a scientific understanding of sexual orientation in general, and homosexual orientation in particular. Pre-modern people generally assumed all people were naturally attracted to members of the opposite gender. Although the percentage is often debated, we know now that roughly 4% of human beings are naturally attracted to members of the same gender. Why does that matter? There are 7 passages in the Bible that we moderns use to discuss homosexuality. The problem is that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t talking about our modern concept of homosexual orientation. To impose our modern concept of sexuality on the Bible is to misunderstand the very important critique the Bible makes in those 7 passages. Indeed, those passages denounce sexual sins, but they are the sins of gang rape and cultic prostitution. The ancient Hebrews and the authors of the New Testament were concerned about sexual abuse and believed the sexual humiliation of another was a very bad thing, but they were not commenting on homosexuality as we understand it today.

Let’s take the verse most often referred to in the New Testament: Romans 1:26.  Previously, Paul stated that many have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” It is “For this reason,” Paul continues, that

God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The New Testament scholar Neil Elliot wrote an essay called The Apostle Paul on Sexuality. The essay supports Alison’s argument that the biblical authors weren’t talking about homosexuality, but about sexual abuse. Elliot claims that Romans 1 was principally about the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a very infamous and active sex life. Elliot quotes ancient historians and claims:

Nero’s sexual passion for his own mother was “notorious,” … but then Nero “practiced every kind of obscenity,” defiling “almost every part of his body with men and women, usually under threat of force” … His cruelty and sexual predations paled, in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy, next to his profligacy with money: when he had devoured his personal fortune he turned to “robbing temples.”

In the Romans 1 passage, then, Paul is not against our modern understanding of homosexuality, but rather against sexual abuse and excessive sexual indulgence.

Now for why Christians should support same sex marriage. The speech made by Washington State Representative Drew Hansen provides an important theological account of what God is doing on this issue. Representative Hansen is a Christian committed to the way of Christ who voted for Washington State’s same sex marriage bill when it came up a few years ago. Hansen said, “What if God is doing a new thing in the church right now on this question?  I mean, remember, as Christians we believe that it is the stone the builder rejects that becomes the capstone.”

This is a crucial point for Christians. Hansen illuminates the “truth about God” that Paul referred to in Romans. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the One who reveals who God truly is and what it means to by truly Human, is the Cornerstone that the builders rejected. As the Son of God and the Son of Man, he has become the capstone to our theology and to our anthropology. By being rejected, Jesus radically identifies with those who are rejected by other human beings. Theologian Walter Wink reflects on this principle in his essay Homosexuality and the Bible:

God sides with the powerless.  God liberates the oppressed.  God suffers with the suffering … In light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospels imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.

It is unmistakably clear because the particularly Jewish Jesus suffered in order to show us that God in Christ identifies with all who are rejected and excluded. In this way, African American theologians can say Jesus is Black. In this way, GLBT theologians can say Jesus is Gay. But here’s the next important point: Jesus freely allowed himself to suffer and be rejected by his fellow human beings so that our pattern of rejecting others would be transformed into a pattern that loves and embraces others. Refusing to allow GLBT people to participate in the joys and challenges of marriage is a way of rejecting them. The Holy Spirit guides us to include people into relationships of love and compassion, whether we are straight or LGBTQ.

When it comes to same sex marriage, the authentic Christian response is not one of exclusion and rejection, but one of love and affirmation.

And that’s why faithful Christians can and should support same-sex marriage.

*This article is reposted with revisions from a previous Raven Foundation article published in 2012.

Joe the Plumber, God, and Guns

Joe the Plumber. (Photo courtesy of

Joe the Plumber. (Photo courtesy of

Samuel Wurzelbacher, also known as Joe the Plumber, re-emerged in the news last week. He made headlines in the wake of the shooting tragedy in Isla Vista, California. Joe wrote an “Open-Letter” to the families of the victims. One section of the letter has been highlighted more than any other:

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one think I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.

Those two sentences are reflective of the convoluted mixture of Joe’s attempt at empathy and admitted harshness that runs throughout his letter. I’ll resist the temptation to judge his sincerity. Much more important to the work at Raven is the clear expression of rivalry, freedom, and theology behind Joe’s open letter.

A Pattern of Rivalry

Joe’s letter is fueled by a clear pattern of rivalry with anyone wanting to make stricter gun laws, but specifically with Richard Martinez. Joe quotes Martinez, whose son was murdered in the tragedy, as saying, “They talk about gun rights. What about my son’s right to live?” Well, Joe can play the “rights card” as well as anyone else.

As a father, husband, and a man, it is my responsibility to protect my family. I will stand up for that right vehemently. Please believe me, as a father I share your grief and I will pray for you and your family, as I do whenever I hear about senseless tragedies like this.

The pattern of rivalry is predictable. In this case, the more Martinez advocates for gun legislation, the more Joe will vehemently stand up for the right to carry a gun. Any infringement on that right will appear as a threat to Joe’s very identity as a father, husband, and man. And the more Joe vehemently defends his right to bear arms, the more Richard and his sympathizers will vehemently oppose Joe’s position. At this point, both sides become stuck in a pattern of rivalry where political winners and losers are trapped in a cycle of demonizing one another.

God’s Transformation of the Pattern of Rivalry

Joe claimed that he would pray for Richard and his family. I have no reason to doubt that he is praying for them, but by offering up prayer, Joe brings God into the story. I did some research and discovered that Joe is a Christian.

I won’t judge Joe’s sincerity, but I will judge his theology because it’s the same theology that runs through much of American culture, especially the NRA. It’s a theology that says God has given us the freedom, and the responsibility, to defend ourselves. It says that the only way to respond to “bad” violence is with good and divinely sanctioned violence. The more guns the better our ability to defend ourselves. That theology, it must be stated, has nothing to do with freedom. Rather, it has everything to do with enslavement to fear. Joe and the NRA are enslaved not only to rivalry, but also to fear of their fellow human beings. It’s a fear that believes someone is out to get them and they must defend their God given right to violently protect themselves.

From a Christian point of view, there is a huge problem with that theology, namely, Jesus. For Christians to have guns and to promote access to guns in the name of Jesus is to use God’s name in vain. It is the height of idolatry.

Jesus never once defended himself with violence. Never. In fact, Jesus never defended his nation, his friends, or his family with violence. To say that being a father, a husband, even something as generic as being a “man” is to protect ourselves with violence is to accuse Jesus of being less than a man.

The True Freedom of Nonviolent Love

Yet Christian tradition claims that Jesus was the fully human one. In fact, the only one who has ever lived a fully human life. I want to speak specifically to men at the point: Jesus was literally the Man because he resisted the temptation to use violence. If, at any point, you use violence to protect yourself or your family, you cannot do it in the name of Jesus or the God of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t run by rivalry or fear. He didn’t attempt to protect himself through violence. He never used God as a means to justify divinely sanctioned violence. Rather, Jesus took the world’s violence upon himself and used God’s name to offer something radically different than violence: Forgiveness and peace to his murderers. That’s how Jesus atoned for the sins of the world.

But I can hear someone quoting Jesus from Luke 22:36, “…the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” People often use this quote to argue that Jesus told his followers to carry swords in order to defend themselves and so we should now use guns to defend ourselves. Whatever that passage means, it cannot be interpreted literally. The glaring problem with a literal interpretation of that passage is the fact that Jesus never used a sword to defend himself, and his disciples never used swords to defend themselves in the face of Roman persecution. So, in order to understand that passage literally to justify violence in the name of God, even in self-defense, a Christian has to believe that either Jesus got it wrong or his disciples misunderstood Jesus and they should have defended themselves with violence. Yet, even the book of Revelation, which is consumed with violent imagery, clearly calls Christians to a life of nonviolence. “Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; If you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”

The “endurance and faith of the saints” is an endurance and faith that patterns our desire away from violence towards nonviolent love. In other words, the God of Jesus is re-patterning our desire, re-patterning our sense of “manhood,” “womanhood,” and “childhood” away from a pattern of violent rivalry and into a pattern of nonviolent love and forgiveness.

Joe and the NRA can defend their rights to own a gun, but if they call themselves Christians, they must leave God out of it. The “freedom” and “right” to own a gun has nothing to do with Christian faith, but everything to do with fear and rivalry, the very things Jesus came to set us free from. True freedom is the freedom to love as Jesus first loved us, with nonviolence, forgiveness, and service. Nobody has said it better than the apostle Paul. No matter which side of the gun debate you are on, if you find yourself in rivalry with another, these words will likely convict you:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by one another.

Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education, Part 4

What’s Emerging? A New Story

damascusDave Csinos, the founder and president of the Faith Forward Conference taking place in Nashville May 19-22, is excited by what is emerging in Christian education curricula today. He sees more taking place than just surface changes. New forms are reflecting the revitalization of emerging Christianity and that diversity is just what Dave hopes participants at Faith Forward 2014 will experience and continue to build on together.

What strikes Dave as particularly relevant is that the diversity of Christian belief and practices that is taking place today is happening within denominations. Dave doesn’t think denominations are falling apart necessarily, just that the walls separating Christian denominations are becoming more porous. In other words, differences exist within as much as between denominations and that forces curricula writers to think outside of the big box, one size fits all, denominational model for church school curricula that dominates the market today.

In my video interview with him, Dave observed two common threads emerging amidst the diversity:

  1. Reimagining story. Rather than there being one, unifying Biblical story or interpretation that we all agree upon, we are trending in a new direction. The question being asked today is how do we help children and youth find themselves on the inside of a Biblical story that their story is helping to shape?
  2. Holistic faith. Children are more than students in our classrooms. Their lives exist outside of the one hour a week that we see them. How can we respond to children as whole beings with concerns, questions and faith journeys deserving of a holistic church experience?

A Role Reversal

I think Dave is making some keen observations here, ones that I find encouraging for the future of Christian formation. In particular, I am intrigued by what it means to “reimagine story”. I don’t think Dave is referring to a new way to go about storytelling, which is a skill set that can be used to tell any story. He is pointing to a change at the level of story itself.

Typically we think of our own story as autobiography, a narrative we tell about ourselves that is also authored by us. Saul, the zealous defender of the faith, is a good example of this type of autobiography. Saul cast himself as the good guy engaged in a righteous campaign against a dangerous heresy. It never occurred to him that he was not doing God’s work “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)

Ah, but on the road to Damascus the risen Christ interrupted his story with a question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was knocked to the ground by this question – how was it possible that rather than God’s defender, he had been God’s persecutor all along? That’s a story about himself that was rather painful to hear. But as he discovered himself to be a persecutor who was being forgiven by his victim, Saul became Paul, able to give this testimony: “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)

What happened to Saul also happened to other two disciples on another road, the road to Emmaus. As theologian James Alison explains, Cleopas and his companion were Jews and Jewish identity was emmaus-iconinterwoven with the story told in their Scriptures of being a chosen people. But when Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” he was doing more than giving them a new interpretation of scripture – he was re-interpreting their place in God’s story. Like Saul, their autobiographies underwent a dramatic revision. In fact, they realized that their own stories were richer and more powerful when re-written by someone else. Here’s an excerpt from James Alison’s curriculum, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, in which he describes what happened to those two disciples on that first Easter:

If you were a Hebrew of the time, the books of Moses and all the prophets were not only your religious history. They were your entire political and cultural history as well. It was the entire story within which Cleopas and N [the unnamed disciple] had grown up and which had given them to be who they were. And he was telling them to themselves from an entirely new angle, one that they had never heard before.

Imagine, if you like, in the case of the United States, someone beginning to tell a couple of Americans the real story of their country, from let us say the perspective of some native inhabitants of the land at the time the Pilgrim Fathers arrived. The real story behind the feast of Thanksgiving, what it looked like to have their food supply destroyed by these white folk who turned up, what was really going on with the declaration of Independence, the economics of African slavery, the Civil War, the decimation of the Native Americans, the Great Depression and so on. Well, we can all imagine this history told from different perspectives.

But here the story they are being told is not designed to make them feel bad about being who they are. It is an integral story, it’s not just a collection of disjointed bits of ‘minority perspective’, it’s a whole, and it makes sense to its listeners. Later on they describe their experience of undergoing this act of interpretation by saying “did not our hearts burn within us?” They knew that they were being told the truth, and hearing it was turning upside down who they thought they were, and how they thought they belonged. They were, as it were, being re-narrated into being.

Re-Narrated Into Being

What does it mean for us to be re-narrated into being by the presence of the risen Christ in our midst? For the same presence encountered on the Damascus and Emmaus roads is the one we encounter at the Communion table: the memory of a victim of violence telling us his version of events, interrupting our tidy, autobiographical stories. As each of us encounters the risen Christ, we discover ourselves to be more like Saul than we’d like to think, more prone to being persecutors in the name of God than we are comfortable imagining. As René Girard notes in his commentary on Paul’s conversion:

In response to Paul’s question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Jesus answers, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute.’ Christian conversion is always this question that Christ himself asks… Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 191)

If our autobiographies tend to sound too much like puffed up press releases, the story that God is slowly rewriting in our hearts is more realistic and more miraculous – yes, we are persecutors without knowing it but we are loved expansively and unconditionally without knowing it, too.

As I mentioned at the start of this series, Phyllis Tickle so prophetically observes, the Spirit of the living Christ is blowing through the church today, nudging us into new stories about what it means to be followers of the crucified and risen one. In his article Phyllis Tickle, René Girard, and the Age of the Spirit, my colleague Adam Ericksen notes that in John’s Gospel the Spirit is called the parakletos or lawyer for the defense. This Spirit opens our eyes to see that the ones we condemn may in fact be Christ among us. As René Girard observes: “We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’”

Emerging Questions for Christian Formation

In our times the Spirit is disturbing the stories we like to tell about our own innocence and the guilt of others. Like Saul, Cleopas and his companion, the Spirit is coaxing us into receiving a new story which reaches us through being forgiven by the risen victim sojourning alongside us. Beyond being skilled and entertaining storytellers, our role should involve coaxing our children and youth into receiving new stories about themselves through encounters with the Spirit of forgiveness and truth. Christian conversion is a movement from holding tightly on to our desire to write our own stories, to relaxing into receiving a generous, loving rewrite from the living God.

There is an aliveness to the movement of the Spirit, a liberating power that should infect our Christian formation programs from early childhood through adulthood. If my intuition is correct and we are open to having our stories given back to us in new and surprising ways, the utterly alive and joyful Spirit of the risen and forgiving victim will be found among us at the Faith Forward Conference next week. I hope to see you there or meet you soon somewhere on the road.

Part 1 of the series

Part 2 of the series

Part 3 of the series


The Immaculate Conception of Mary: Why it Matters Today

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The doctrine was formally defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, but the belief in Mary the mother of God being conceived without the stain of original sin is an ancient one. This doctrine is commonly confused or conflated with the belief in the virgin birth of Christ. So I invite you to pause with me for a moment or two of meditation on this doctrine today, because as confusing and fairy-tale like as it is to the ears of modern people, it has much to teach us about ourselves.

This is because the doctrine of original sin contains a deep insight into human nature. Universalis, a wonderful resource for daily devotion, explains original sin as “that twist in our nature that makes our will tend not to follow what it knows to be right” (emphasis added). That connection between our will and the act of following is something we usually fail to see. Yet, when the early Church reflected on Mary’s acceptance of God’s will for her, they understand that she had somehow escaped the effects of the sin that has afflicted humanity since the Garden: the sin of wilfully refusing to follow God. Like our ancestors Adam and Eve, when faced with a choice between following the serpent or God, we choose not to follow what we know to be right. This resistance to freely choosing to follow what we know to be right is what the Church calls the stain of original sin and none of us escapes that “twist” in our nature. But Mary did. It is what made it possible for her to assent to the angel’s message. Hear the improbable words spoken by an angel to a peasant girl in the Gospel of Luke and ask yourself how else one can explain Mary’s ability to choose to follow God’s will for her.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”… Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:35, 38)

This resistance to God’s will that infects human nature resonates throughout Creation. Like Adam and Eve, when we choose not to follow what we know to be right, we become so much less than what God intended for us to be. To fall into sin is the Church’s way of saying that we are resisting being fully created. Sin is resistance to God who calls us into a fullness of being only God can give us. And Creation itself languishes unfulfilled. As St. Paul says of the saving work of Christ, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). God’s work of completing or restoring Creation would hinge on Mary’s decision. For today’s reflection in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Universalis offered this reflection from St. Anselm on the mystery of God’s love for us:

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world.

As we meditate on the words of Luke and Anselm today, let’s ponder these questions:

What wonder of God’s love do I find revealed through Mary?

In what ways do I choose not to follow what I know to be right?

How can I more closely follow Mary’s example of saying yes to God?

The Spirituality of Kelly Clarkson: Misfits, Kenosis, and People Like Us

Kelly Clarkson’s latest single is a pop culture anthem with a catchy tune. It’s called “People Like Us” and it has a spiritual depth that struck me when I first heard the song.

Clarkson identifies with certain people in the song – “people like us.” Who are people like us? Cultural scapegoats, outcasts, marginalized, misfits, and the damned.

People like us we’ve got to stick together
Keep your head up, nothing lasts forever
Here’s to the damned, to the lost and forgotten
…We are all misfits living in a world on fire

Some may criticize Clarkson’s motivation for identifying with cultural scapegoats. After all, she’s been a pop culture diva since her appearance on American Idol more than a decade ago. Is she identifying with the marginalized because ever since Lady Gaga did it in 2011 with Born this Way it’s now the cool thing to do?

Whatever her motivations, I think it’s amazing that it has become “cool” to identify with cultural outcasts. And as opposed to criticizing her motivations, I want to affirm them. Whether or not Clarkson realizes this, as a powerful and influential person who identifies with cultural “misfits” and the “damned,” what she is doing in People Like Us is modeling an example of Christ-like love.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians helps me explain why:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself (2:5-8)

Theologians call this the doctrine of kenosis, which means self-emptying. Christ emptied himself of all desires that would exploit his position of power and privilege with God so that he could identify with the damned, the lost, forgotten, and the misfits of human culture.

This matters because, as mimetic theory teaches us, we naturally experience a sense of emptiness, that we are not enough, a “lack of being,” as René Girard puts it. We fill that emptiness by desiring what others have, or what we assume they have. We tend to think that others have the fullness that we lack, and if we just had what they have, we could experience the same fullness of life. So we grasp and compete for the popularity, privilege, and prestige that we think others have. We seek to keep some people down and knock others off the next rung in the ladder of success. We become over and against one another.

But kenosis shows us another way. Instead of climbing the ladder, Christ emptied himself of all power that is over and against others, and was animated by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is a power that is with others, but especially with cultural misfits.

Jesus caused a great scandal by identifying with those that the religious elite labeled as sinners, including traitorous Roman tax collectors and prostitutes. He became a cultural scapegoat and, even more, on the cross he was damned, not by God, but by his fellow human beings.

Clarkson states that “we are all misfits living in world on fire.” That’s an apocalyptic statement, for the world is on fire with human violence, but it doesn’t have to be. The answer to our violence is found in Christ’s nonviolent love that empties itself of all ambitions that lead to rivalry and violence over and against one another.

Still, emptiness, kenosis, is only the first step in the process. Because of our mimetic nature, we will always seek to be filled by something. Once Jesus emptied himself of a desire for power that exploit others, he was filled by the power of God’s nonviolent love, a love that made him someone like us.

So, in the words of Clarkson, Here’s to the damned, to the lost and forgotten…




For more in the Spirituality of Pop Music Series see:

The Spirituality of Pearl Jam: Love Boat Captain

The Spirituality of Phil Phillips: Home and Lent

The Spirituality of Fun.: God’s Grace in a Violent World

The Spirituality of Kelly Clarkson: Misfits, Scapegoats, and People Like Us

The Spirituality of Katy Perry: Pointing Toward Unconditional Love

The Spirituality of Fun.: God’s Grace in a Violent World

I love Fun.. I especially love the wacky period at the end of the band’s name. But my Word doc has the green squiggly line under the two periods of that first sentence. I hate that green squiggly line – it’s not fun. It’s there to tell me that I have bad grammar. Not this time, Word Doc! I shall right click and ignore you!

Fun.’s (okay, now there’s a red line! Once again I shall ignore…) Some Nights is full of philosophical and spiritual gold. It asks questions about identity, friendship, violence, and the purpose of life. But, for me, these words stand out the most:

My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she calls “love”

When I look into my nephew’s eyes…

Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from…

Some terrible nights…ah…

That stanza gets me every time. We don’t know exactly what happened to his sister, but we know she had a terrible night with someone she loved and that terrible night produced a child. Although we are left to guess what exactly happened, the words here speak to the paradox of violence and pain, amazement and wonder that is life. There is no excusing such terrible things that happen, but there is a certain disposition of trust and hope that’s invoked in those words. Despite experiencing brokenness, betrayal, and pain wrought by human violence, we can trust that amazing things will overcome the terrible evil in our world.

It reminds me of what Paul wrote in Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

My progressive friends have a hard time with the word “sin,” but I think we need to reclaim it. It’s an ugly word, but I’m convinced that we need ugly words to describe the violence we experience. The word “sin” claims that something isn’t right in God’s good world. Terrible nights shouldn’t happen. When Paul used the word “sin” in Romans 5, he was reflecting upon the terrible death of Jesus. That death was an example of the increase of human sin and violence. But Paul was convinced that sin and violence never have the last word, because where sin increased, God’s grace abounded all the more.

Trusting in God’s grace creates a disposition toward the sin that we experience. Grace doesn’t excuse sin, but it does mean trusting that the most amazing things can come from some terrible nights. God is creating new life by defeating sin, not by mimicking sin with God’s own violence and destruction, but by overcoming sin with the abundance of grace. If we trust in God’s grace, it can begin to change the way we respond to sin and violence. We are not only set free from mimicking it with our own violence, but we are set free to overcome the terrible evil in our world by participating in God’s abounding grace.

Fun. and Paul provide the assurance that sin doesn’t have the last word. Grace does.


For more in the Spirituality of Pop Music Series see:

The Spirituality of Pearl Jam: Love Boat Captain

The Spirituality of Phil Phillips: Home and Lent

The Spirituality of Fun.: God’s Grace in a Violent World

The Spirituality of Kelly Clarkson: Misfits, Scapegoats, and People Like Us

The Spirituality of Katy Perry: Pointing Toward Unconditional Love

Should Christians Be Patriotic Part 2: True Freedom

8066890_sShould Christians be patriotic?

In Part 1 of this series I discussed patriotism in terms of self-interest. Presidents often talk about pursuing American self-interest and frequently use it as justification for wars and self-serving economic policies. Of course, American presidents are not alone in pursuing national self interest. Patriotism in any nation is commonly understood to be about pursuing national interest. That pursuit should raise some important questions for Christians of any nation. After all, according to Jesus the Kingdom of God calls us to die to our self-interest so that we can be resurrected to love our neighbors – including our enemies – as we love ourselves. Many want to say that Jesus was simply talking about a personal ethic, but the Kingdom of God has strong political overtones. In this regard, the Kingdom of God is an alternative to all other kingdoms and nations of the world.

Another term that is frequently connected to patriotism and self interest is freedom. Freedom is a great ideal, but what does it mean? It usually means that individuals, or nations, have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. But we know that the United States has a compromised history when it comes to its own ideals of freedom. Tragically, the self-indulgent and corrupt notion that “freedom” involves the ability to do whatever we want to do has come at the expense of others who are viewed as a common enemy, and thus a threat to our “freedom.” This has led to many atrocities, including the destruction and enslavement of countless Native Americans and African Americans. This “freedom,” then, requires uniting against and subjugating, or even killing, those we call our enemies.

If American patriotism involves the unfettered freedom to pursue self interest at the expense of our “enemies,” then Christians should not be patriotic.

For Christians, freedom is not about individuals or nations self indulgently doing whatever they want to do. Freedom, in that sense, is based on the model of Pharaoh who used his “freedom” to do whatever he wanted, which involved enslaving the Israelites. Indeed, Egypt found a common enemy in the Israelites. As the book of Exodus tells us, Pharoah said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us.” So, Egypt, wanting to be free from the threat of a potential enemy, united against the Israelites and subjugated them with increasing oppression. In Exodus, God heard the voice of the victims enslaved in Egypt. God called Moses and the Hebrews to freedom. God set them free from slavery in Egypt, but freedom from something must always be accompanied by the freedom for something. God revealed what he freed his people for on Mount Sinai. With the giving of the 10 Commandments, God bound the Hebrews together in a covenantal community. The 10 Commandments was not  about uniting against a common enemy, but uniting to be responsible for the well being of one another.

Freedom was also important for the early followers of Jesus. With Jesus as their model, they began to see how God was setting them free from violence. Jesus knew from the Exodus story that God hears the cry of victims. If that’s the case, then Christian freedom leads us away from creating victims of violence – even in the name of freedom. Christ models a particular freedom that is not based on self indulgent power over and against a common enemy, but on the freedom and the power to love. Paul provides the greatest example of this freedom to love when he wrote to the Galatians that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5)

If patriotism means the freedom to pursue my own self interest at the expense of a common enemy, then Christians should not be patriotic. For Christians, true freedom is the freedom to love – especially to love our enemies. Paul explained that this freedom was achieved paradoxically through becoming enslaved to one another through the nonviolent and self-giving love of Christ.

So, as we celebrate freedom this 4th of July weekend, remember that freedom from something entails the freedom to be for something. For Christians, freedom does not involve doing whatever we want. Christ sets us free from the violence of uniting against a common enemy and free to love all people, including our enemies.