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Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Part 5: Yertle the Turtle and the “Wrath of God”

Dr. Seuss’ book Yertle the Turtle is about a King who rules through violence, oppression, and scapegoating. But the more he builds his kingdom on the backs of his subjects, the more likely his kingdom will come tumbling down into the mud. [Video Below]

What does Yertle the Turtle have to do with the Gospel? In his book, Must There Be Scapegoats, Raymund Schwager discusses St. Paul’s statement about that the “Wrath of God” in Romans 1. The “Wrath of God” isn’t something inherent to God. In fact, wrath is a purely human phenomenon. But God’s “wrath” for Paul has nothing to do with violence. Rather,

According to Paul, God’s anger consists only in the deliverance of humankind to themselves, their desires, passions, and perverse thinking. No external violence plays any further role. God’s wrath is identical with the granting of full respect for the human action that turns against God and leads to complete perversion of personal relationships.

We see the “complete perversion of personal relationships” as Yertle builds him empire on oppression, but his kingdom soon falls. The biblical prophets gave the same message to the ancient kings – if continue to scapegoat the poor, weak, and marginalized, your kingdom will fall. The alternative is to care for those who are marginalized.

Jesus picked up that strand within the prophets and showed that the kingdom of God was based not on oppression and scapegoating, but on caring for the marginalized. Schwager states that this is the new order of human relationships. “Whereas the old social order was founded on the scapegoat mechanism, the new people distinguished themselves by the fact that they no longer needed to compete with one another for supremacy.” This new way of life frees us to live into God’s realm of love and compassion for all people, including our scapegoats.

“The uncovering of the underlying process of violence through the message of boundless love must lead inevitably to a fundamental change in power structures,” writes Schwager. Those in power may experience that change in power structure as the “Wrath of God.” But it isn’t wrath. Rather, it’s God’s loving justice that seeks to heal our relationships with “boundless love.”


For more in the Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Series, see:

Part 1: On Beyond Zebra and the Restoration of all Things

Part 2: The Lorax, the Prophets, and the iPad

Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

 

Donald Trump

The Donald’s “Inclusive” Racism

The central assumption of democracy — beyond the assumption of fair elections, which is disturbingly questionable — is that voters are the possessors of their own “interests,” and vote for the candidate most sympathetic to them.

But of course those interests are fair game for advertising, bombast and propaganda — and the psychology of fear.

Thus, not only are candidates capable of misrepresenting their support of people’s interests, even more insidiously, they engage baldly in manipulating them. This is a game that turns the endless presidential campaign season, especially as it is conveyed to us in the mainstream media, into little more than a mish-mash of clashing sound bites: full of sound and fury, you might say, but signifying nothing, or at least nothing much.

The two-party system, which comes to us courtesy of Big Money and is taken so seriously by the media — as seriously as any advertising campaign takes itself — is, essentially, a race to seize control over the nation’s collective reptile brain.

Let’s make America great again!

Welcome to the 2016 presidential campaign, underway well over a year ahead of time and already devolving into cartoonish absurdity, thanks to the loudmouth billionaire who leads the Republican fray.

Donald Trump, with the help of his money and his ego, is exposing the absurdity of American politics like no one else I can remember. Whoosh! Gone is the protective veil of political correctness. Let’s hear it for naked cynicism!

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As far as I can tell, Trump is the unapologetic standard bearer of late-stage, theater-of-the-absurd American exceptionalism. He directly addresses the prerequisite for national identity: an enemy. Someone to hate. Someone to fear. This is nationalism; this is Republicanism. And Trump brings his own special twist to it: a gleeful American inclusiveness.

And not a moment too soon, here in “post-racial” America. As Rick Perlstein astutely pointed out last month, Trump’s inflammatory, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant announcement of the start of his presidential campaign — presenting a gift-wrapped enemy to the racist that secretly lurks in so many American hearts — was almost precisely juxtaposed with the immensely symbolic lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. “And, immediately, Trump shot to the top of the Republican charts — with a bullet,” Perlstein wrote.

He added: “I’ve never seen anything that lays bare the core lineaments of conservatism so neatly: There is our tribe, which is good, true, and pure; and there are those other tribes, who are existential threats to you and me (Reagan’s favorite phrase), and must be suppressed in order for good to be preserved. ‘We’ all know this, even if ‘they’ don’t allow us to say this. If anything, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina opens space for this particular new longing to air this other silent truth more freely.

“This is important: Conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole.”

But there’s a special brilliance to the reconfigured racism Trump is offering to the American people.

Consider this paragraph from Trump’s campaign website. When you click on “positions,” only one topic shows up: immigration reform. And it’s not just any old immigration reform, it’s IMMIGRATION REFORM THAT WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

As the website explains: “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries). They have even published pamphlets on how to illegally immigrate to the United States. The costs for the United States have been extraordinary: U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc. . . . The effects on jobseekers have also been disastrous, and black Americans have been particularly harmed.”

There are several reptile-brain subtleties of note here. First of all, the illegal immigration flow, according to Trump, begins with the machinations of “Mexico’s leaders.” It’s not a poverty-induced bleeding of the poor across the U.S. border but a deliberate, provocative act by one nation against another: something like an invasion. The Donald is not only giving us a subgroup to hate. He’s giving us war!

Perhaps even more appallingly, Trump makes a point of saying that “black Americans have been particularly harmed” by this invasion. Thus he opens the door to Black America to join the “We Hate Mexicans” club, in effect, creating a more inclusive form of American racism — the benefits of which, of course, will be reaped by his campaign.

Perhaps what this is really about is the slow-motion collapse-into-absurdity of the American empire, as Trump makes the emotional glue of hate and fear that has held it together for two and a half centuries unbearably obvious. The question he inspires, which lurks just beyond the horizon, is what sort of political entity we can build that isn’t based on these shadow “interests.” What happens after we stop seeing ourselves as conquerors? Can we build a country that honors, and fits into, a global whole?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Copyright: Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Available through Creative Commons license.

girl praying 3

ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is Allah?

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

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

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

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

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

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


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Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

The Iran Deal and American Self-Deception

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the American political divide are debating the merits of President Obama’s deal with Iran. While Obama claims he has forestalled an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least another 10 years with unprecedented weapons inspection, Republicans state that the deal will only encourage the world’s most dangerous sponsor of terrorism.

Only time will tell us about the merits of the deal. For now, I’m interested in the response from our Republican presidential candidates.

The Republican candidates are swirling around, trying to point the finger at the greatest enemy of the United States. Is it the dreaded Mexican immigrants? (Gasp!) Or is it the terrorism that Iran threatens to unleash upon the globe? (Double gasp!)

American Terrorism

Forgive me if it looks like I’m picking on the Republicans. After all, this is American politics per usual. And maybe it’s just human politics. But Republican candidates in particular are trying to convince us that there is an extremely dangerous enemy out there that threatens our freedom. But that’s not all. They are also trying to convince us that the Democrats are enabling our enemies. And so we should vote for Republicans because they will be tough on our enemies.

This response from the Republicans is an act of American self-deception. They, and we the American people, should know better.

The United States has met our greatest enemy that leads the world in global terrorism. And it is us.

To prove my criticism of violent American foreign policy is bipartisan, I’ll point out that the Obama Administration’s indiscriminate drone strikes are terrorist crimes against humanity. While the Obama administration rightly criticizes al-Qaeda’s practice of attacking enemies during a funeral as morally heinous acts of terrorist monsters, nothing stops Obama from using drones to kill our “enemies” as they attend funerals.

I put “enemies” in quotes because they ended being regular civilians, many even children. You know, “casualties of war.” Aka, “Oops!”

And Iran is the most dangerous supporter of state terrorism in the world?

No, we are. And Republicans are trying to gain our vote by criticizing Obama’s terrorist policies and promising that they will be far better terrorists. Which, our politicians claim, will keep us safe.

A Relationship of Fear and Desire for Peace

The fact is that Iran wants to be just like the U.S. We fear Iran and Iran fears us. A relationship of fear is a recipe for disaster. But the U.S. and Iran want the same thing. Iran has a fearful political regime that just wants peace. Iran feels threatened, and it has learned from the U.S. how to respond to threats – by mimicking those violent threats with violent threats of its own.

We are enemy twins, who, even in negotiations, won’t take violence off the table.

The way that the U.S. can free ourselves from this relationship of violence is through honest self-criticism. Instead of accusing Iran of being a great threat to global security, we would do well to have the courage to admit our own terrorist acts of foreign policy.

American Honesty and Genuine Peace

It is the height of American self-deception to claim that we are completely innocent and Iran is completely guilty. Just look at our modern history with Iran. In 1953, the U.S. orchestrated a coup to topple the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Why? So that the U.S. would have “a major ownership in the strategic and highly lucrative trade of Iranian oil … with the additional bonus of a pliable client state in the heart of the Middle East.”

In 1985, the U.S. secretly shipped weapons to Iran and sent profits to Nicaraguan rebels. In 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airplane. The U.S. says it mistook the Airbus A300 for an Iranian fighter jet.

Our greatest enemy is not Iran. It’s not Russia. Nor is it China. Our greatest enemy is ourselves. We have modeled for the world how to gain temporary peace through violence, which is a pattern that will only ensure a future of apocalyptic destruction.

The only alternative is to model a different method to achieve peace. American politicians must have the courage to stop deceiving the American people about our perceived innocence. Rather, we need our politicians to be honest about American involvement in terrorism and lead us in repenting of our violence. Modeling that honesty and repentance to other nations is the only possible way that the U.S. can help foster genuine peace in the world.

Photo Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

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Ted Cruz and God’s Political Subversion

Ted Cruz at Liberty University (Photo: screen shot from YouTube.)

Ted Cruz at Liberty University (Photo: screen shot from YouTube.)

Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare a presidential run for 2016. His formal announcement came this morning at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.

Cruz’s announcement at Liberty University was an important political strategy. Cruz is the poster child of the Tea Party movement. He wants to spread his influence by appealing to evangelicals. There is no better place to garner the evangelical vote than the largest Christian university on the planet.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says that Cruz’s message at Liberty was essentially this, “I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign.”

Cruz put his religious faith at the center of his campaign by invoking God and American exceptionalism, while at the same time critiquing Democrats and Obamacare. Liberty students cheered as Cruz passionately claimed, “God bless Liberty University…God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”

Cruz is the first serious candidate to officially throw his hat in the presidential ring. Because he quickly invoked God, it’s a safe bet that future Republican and Democratic candidates will also invoke the blessings of God the Almighty.

So, let’s talk God and politics.

There is a good reason that we aren’t supposed to talk about those two topics at the dinner table. It’s because of the human tendency to claim that God is on our side of the religious and political divide. And, if God is on our side, that means that God is against our enemies. In this sense, the term “God” is merely a social projection of group identity that pits us over-and-against a wicked “other.”

A God who stands with us over-and-against our religious and political enemies is no God at all. It’s an idol; a mere function of human social projection. I would rather be an atheist than believe in that God.

Fortunately, that’s not the God of the Bible. The human understanding of God in the Bible moves from being a tribal god to becoming God of the universe. This God is infinitely bigger than our rivalries of group identity; in fact, the God of the Bible is on a completely different plane than our rivalries over-and-against one another. As such, God subverts our tendency to form group identity over-and-against a wicked other. As James Alison points out in his book Undergoing God, the great Hebrew insight, made first with the prophet Isaiah, is that of monotheism. Alison claims this is important because,

…if there is a God who is not one of the gods, who is not on the same level as anything else at all, then of course it is true to say that there can be no “as opposed to” in God. Or in other words, there is no rivalry at all between God and anything that is.

That insight begins with the prophet Isaiah and culminates in the teaching of Jesus to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus calls his followers to be like the one true God, who subverts the violent human inclination to form group identity in opposition to a scapegoat by modeling God’s love that embraces all people, including those we call our enemies.

But faith in God goes a step further. The Bible never, ever talks about national exceptionalism. Any politician or Christian who invokes American exceptionalism doesn’t do so from biblical faith. As opposed to national exceptionalism, biblical faith is based on national self-critique. Far from God being the one who shores up our exceptionalism, God is the one who comes in our midst and leads us to self-critique. Amos is the earliest prophetic voice in the Bible and other prophets follow his lead of critiquing the nation. Sure, as Alison states,

The first two chapters of Amos consist of a series of quick prophecies against the nations…But this is the build-up to the real criticism, which is of Israel. Where each of the nations gets a couple of verses of criticism, Israel gets ten, and then, from chapter 3 onward, the blast is entirely directed at the ‘we’ (Israel).

The prophets critiqued political institutions when they formed identity over-and-against a convenient other who functioned as the political a scapegoat. That scapegoat might have been a political opponent, another nation, immigrants, or the poor, weak, and marginalized within their society.

I do not want to scapegoat Ted Cruz for invoking the name of God, American exceptionalism, or for critiquing his political opponents. After all, Democrats will likely do the same. In fact, they are already uniting against Ted Cruz.

That’s because uniting over-and-against a wicked other has become the default mechanism of human identity formation. Fortunately, God has nothing to do with that kind of formation because God is not over-and-against anything at all. Rather, God is for us, all of us, finding new ways to develop social cohesion through the spirit of love, forgiveness, and self-criticism.

Terrorists Win: “The Interview,” North Korea, and the Tragic Irony of Christmas

North Korean and United States flag.

North Korean and United States flag.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to watch Kim Jong-un’s assassination on the big screen this Christmas. We will not be able to cheer as the brutal dictator’s helicopter explodes in the air “while Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ plays on the soundtrack.” We will not be able to fulfill this Christmas Day fantasy by watching “The Interview” because the terrorists have won.

The FBI now claims that Kim Jong-un’s government is behind the act of terrorism. In retaliation for the movie, a state-sponsored North Korean cyber-terrorist group called “The Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Pictures and leaked sensitive information, including internal emails, future Sony films, and sensitive employee records. “The Guardians of Peace” also threatened movie goers with a “9/11 style attack” on every cinema that shows the movie.

After the threats were made and many theaters decided to pull the film, Sony Pictures canceled the release of the “The Interview.” Sony said in a statement:

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our costumers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

Washington and Hollywood are also in an uproar:

“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them,” tweeted Rob Lowe. Jimmy Kimmel claimed that pulling the movie was, “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Steve Carell said it was a, “Sad day for creative expression.” Senator John McCain stated that “yielding to aggressive cyber-terrorism by North Korea…sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.”

And White House officials are exploring retaliation, “We have options…you freeze the account at banks and you tell the institutions ‘you’re either going to do business with the United States, or you can do business with North Korea.”

The terrorists may have won the battle, but the United States will win the war!

That’s the way the United States is telling this story. I’m sorry. I just can’t go there.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite my unwavering belief in nonviolence, there’s a part of me that wants to blow Kim Jong-un up into a million pieces. Not because I think we’re his victims. Not because we can’t watch a particular movie on Christmas Day. Not because I think he poses a serious threat to our freedoms. No, I want to blow him up because he’s a brutal dictator who terrorizes his own people in concentration camps where 10,000 people die every year. North Korea has one of the worst human rights record in the world, which includes public executions, forced prostitution, slave labor, forced abortions, religious persecution, and arbitrary detentions. If anything good comes out of this conflict, it is that we will learn more about the atrocities the North Korean regime inflicts upon its own people. They are Kim Jong-un’s true victims.

But alas, Sony and the US Government are claiming to be North Korea’s victim, and North Korea is claiming to be our victim. Each side mirrors each other in playing the fearful victim. Nations who feel like fearful victims respond to threats and violence in one predictable fashion – retaliation.

The United States is retaliating against North Korea, whose “Guardians of Peace” retaliated against us for making a movie that North Korea think is, “an undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

Kim Jong-un is clearly a fearful man who keeps power by bullying his own people, indeed, his own family, but he’s not as crazy as we might think. While Sony doesn’t speak for the US Government, “The Interview” does give expression to a dominant theme running throughout our culture – that the world would be better without this brutal dictator who terrorizes his own people, constantly threatens the US with nuclear warfare, and that the only way to get rid of him is through violence.

We in the US want to emphasize differences between us and them. We claim the mantle of morality because we have freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. So what if that freedom leads to the depiction of the death of a brutal dictator! But let’s not kid ourselves. This conflict isn’t simply about freedom of speech or expression. It’s about politics. “The Interview” asks the question: How should we deal with brutal dictators who pose a nuclear threat in a post 9/11 world?

This conflict is fundamentally about political violence. And the truth about violence is that it puts us all on the same moral level because violence has a certain moral logic. We all believe that our violence is good and defensive, while the other’s violence is an aggressive form of terrorism. North Korea and the United States are enslaved to this logic of violence. Whenever one nation perceives the other as a terror threat, it retaliates with escalating cycles of violence and threats of violence.

As Jean-Michel Oughourlian states in his brilliant book, Psychopolitcs, national rivalries follow this pattern of retaliation and violence. We believe that our enemy is “considered an evil to be eradicated, and of course, the other side’s position is the same, a mirror image.”

In this sense, we are all members of “The Guardians of Peace.” With a sense of tragic irony, we all believe that the best method to eradicate evil and to guard peace is to retaliate with violence.

The tragic irony only continues once we realize that the movie was set to be released on Christmas Day – the day when we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. We don’t need anymore “Guardians of Peace.” We need more people who will follow the path of the Prince of Peace. This path means that instead of guarding peace with violence, we lay down our weapons. It means that instead of participating in a cultural fantasy of killing our enemies, we pray for our enemies. It means instead of being offended by our enemies, we find creative ways to love them. As Oughourlian claims, it means that “Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace.”

Democracy’s Most Cherished Act

Image from www.cafepress.com

Image from www.cafepress.com

Democracy! A word, a way of life, our highest ideal: Everyone is equal; no one is marginal.

I still feel the force of this word, though the middle syllable — “mock” — grows increasingly dominant when I hear it, especially now, as election season rolls around again. The enormity of my indifference to this election is balanced by something that feels like grief. The system we live under is . . .

Words fail me. Pardon me while I quote Nietzsche.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Writing is either an act of hope or an act of cynicism, and I have always committed myself to reaching for the former in my commentary on current events, no matter how disturbing the events may be. But in this moment, I feel myself walking the edge of cynicism: The system we live under is a joke, a farce, a calculated lie. I say this as someone who believed in it deeply, who embraced our history of expanding inclusiveness.

Democracy in the United States of America used to apply only to white property owners, but in my grandparents’ lifetime, in my parents’ lifetime, in my own lifetime, we saw the moral arc of the universe bend toward justice. The right to vote expanded. More and more people mattered and became eligible to participate in the creation of our society. This was human progress, and it was good.

The agendas of various special interests were always in the picture, of course. Racism was always lurking, available for exploitation. Elections could be rigged. With the onset of electronic voting, vigilance was more crucial than ever. I embraced and celebrated the vigilance: Fair elections held society together. I still believed in democracy. I believed that, at its core, it was a positive force.

That belief has been ebbing for the last six years. My reaction to the following sentence made me realize how empty my reservoir of belief has become. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, addressing the spate of voter ID laws and other cynical Republican efforts to keep various unfriendly constituencies away from the polls, wrote:

“The real reason for the laws is to lower turnout, to hold onto power by keeping those who (are) in opposition from exercising their solemn right — to make it hard for minorities, poor folks, and students, among others, to participate in democracy’s most cherished act.”

I felt nothing but a rush of impatience. Voting — “democracy’s most cherished act” — is now a completely empty ritual, or so it seemed for a deeply dispiriting moment. I realized I had given up on it as an instrument of social change, a manifestation of the moral arc of the universe. The cynic’s graffiti felt closer to the truth: “If voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” And the picture accompanying the graffiti was Barack Obama’s.

Following eight years of George Bush and the disastrous war on terror, Obama came in on a cry for peace as deep as I’ve ever heard. His support was global. He had, it seemed, a mandate for profound change. But his performance in office — his embrace of militarism in the Middle East and expansion of drone warfare, his defense of the NSA and domestic mega-spying, among much else — has made it clear this mandate doesn’t matter and was never the point.

Mandate or no mandate, the controlling interests of the American empire command bipartisan homage. They’re not going to be voted out of power.

Coming to terms with the reality of the Obama years has altered my thinking on democracy itself, and beyond that, the concept of the nation, which has emerged from the cauldron of endless war and exists primarily, I fear, as the most efficient form of war’s perpetuation. The nation’s cornerstone is self-defense and a sense of superiority over other nations, values that are summoned continually and never fail to deliver the desired result. We’re organized to go to war, and democracy — voting — doesn’t change this, even if we keep thinking it will.

“The proletariats of each country, growing in numbers and strength, are made to wage war against each other,” Michael Parenti, discussing World War I, wrote recently at Common Dreams. “What better way to confine and misdirect them than with the swirl of mutual destruction. Meanwhile, the nations blame each other for the war.”

And World War I, the war to end all wars, begat World War II, which, William Rivers Pitt writes at Truthout, “never ended, because the manufacture of war materiel made the manufacturers rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and they began to exert influence over American politics . . .

And the Cold War took hold and “. . . O my Lord,” Pitt goes on, “how the money rolled in, because conflict for conflict’s sake became the operational ethos in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and Africa and South America and Central America and especially in the Middle East for decades . . .”

And the situation continues to escalate and Obama can’t and won’t stop it and the next president we “elect” won’t stop it either. Maybe democracy is still a viable concept. I harbor a vestige of hope that it is. But democracy’s most cherished act has got to be something more profound than pulling a lever or making an X in a box.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Why the NFL is Better for Women than the US Senate

Senator Mitch McConnell and NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell (John Shrinkle/Politico and  David Phillips/AP)

Senator Mitch McConnell and NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell (John Shrinkle/Politico and David Phillips/AP)

The NFL has come under severe scrutiny for its handling of domestic violence during the last few months. Rodger Goodell has admitted to fumbling the Ray Rice case, has admitted that the NFL has a problem with abusing women, and he has committed himself to finding a solution.

There are many reasons to be cynical about Goodell. Maybe the only reason he’s attempting to implement changes is because of public pressure, the loss of public sponsorship, and the fact that his job is on the line. But at least Goodell cares enough about something that he will implement changes to in the NFL that will hopefully lead toward better treatment of women.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the US Senate.

The Senate Republicans recently rejected a bill proposed by Senate Democrats aiming to reconcile the pay disparity between men and women. Census data shows that in the United States “women who are employed full time, year round in the United States are paid, on average, 78 cents for every dollar paid to men.” That pay disparity is affecting 15.2 million households that are headed by women and it’s affecting nearly every household supported by a working woman.

The bill is called “The Paycheck Fairness Act.” My Facebook feed was inundated with images and commentary lambasting Senate Republicans for rejecting the bill.

Really?!? I thought. Surely, there must be a good reason for Senate Republicans to reject this bill. After all, realizing that women get paid 78 cents per every dollar a man makes and doing nothing about it would be economic violence against women. They must have a good reason!

So, I went looking for their reasons. The four women in the Republican senate gave various justifications for rejecting the bill. Senator Kelly Ayotte claimed the bill would “prohibit merit-based pay.” Apparently, women across the country lack the male “qualities” that would merit them equal pay.

Senator Susan Collins argues that the 1963 Equal Pay Act is good enough. To her credit, in 1963 women were paid on average just 59 cents for every dollar a man made. That the average has gone up around 20 cents in 50 years is good, but not nearly good enough. More work needs to be done. Collins also argues that women are not paid less because of discrimination but because they are … WOMEN! She claims that the wage disparity “may be due to personal decisions that women make to leave the workforce to raise children for a number of years and then return to the workforce.” This excuse smacks of the demeaning of women by certain women who are, by law, guaranteed to make the same amount as their male colleagues – $174,000 per year.

Senator John McCain said that we have more important things to do than worry about the pay disparity between women and men. After all, “Here we have international crisis, with the defense authorization bill out there, and we refuse to take it up. We continue to take up issue that he (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) thinks may help them in November. And we’ve got the world in turmoil.”

Another justification that Republicans provided for voting down the bill is that it would hurt businesses, even though the bill included assistance to small businesses needing help to implement the new procedures. And others claimed the Democrats were just playing politics.

Notice that none of these justifications claim that the problem doesn’t exist. That’s because the problem is undeniable. Women are treated as second class citizens not just by the NFL, but by our whole culture. Women and families are suffering in turmoil because of unjust pay practices.

Unlike the NFL, the Republican Senate just doesn’t care enough to make changes.

The Republican Senate deserves its fair share of blame, but so do we. A cynical view of the NFL claims that it is making changes solely because of public pressure. And good for us for putting pressure on the NFL to stop demeaning women as second class citizens.

But where’s the public pressure on the Republican Senators? Where’s the public outcry against economic violence committed against women? Maybe the Republican Senators don’t care enough to change the fact that a woman is worth about 78 percent of what a man is worth because we don’t care enough.

Ironically, many Senate Republicans like to extoll the virtues of the Bible. If they are annoyed by Senate Democrats for “playing politics,” they should also be annoyed by the Bible. Thousands of years before our modern concern for equality, the Bible claimed that women and men are both equally created in the image of God. Both women and men are infused with ultimate worth. The same image of God resides in women and in men equally.

That message of equality between the genders was as radical when it was written 2,500 years ago as it is today. But clearly the Bible isn’t enough. The only way to stop the demeaning of women throughout American culture is to create sustained public pressure on organizations like the NFL and Senate Republicans to end all forms of systemic violence against women, including economic violence.

That will only happen if we care enough.

Jesus is at the Border: Immigration, Barriers, and God’s Economy

Courtesy of juicyecumenism.com

Courtesy of juicyecumenism.com

I am not a politician, so I’m not an expert on immigration policies.

I am not an economist, so I’m not an expert on the economic benefits or burdens of immigration.

But I am a public theologian. I try to understand how we can participate with God in setting things right, healing the world, and reconciling human beings with one another, with the world, and with God.

How is God setting things right? Jesus, in one of his most important, if also confusing, prayers, offered these words of unity to the one he called Father. In this prayer, we discover how God is setting things right:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as you and I are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them even as you have loved me.

In order to explain this prayer, Christian tradition resorted to a term that is just as confusing: the hypostatic union. A parishioner in my progressive mainline church scolded me once for using this term. He said that such words belong strictly in the seminary and in the ancient world. I’m sure many progressives would agree. After all, haven’t we progressed beyond these ancient and mythical formulas? But I think progressives need to reclaim such words. The immigration crisis is a prime example why.

The hypostatic union refers to a mystery: the difference and unity between Jesus and the Father. The difference between the divine and the human coexisted within Jesus. There was enough room in Jesus for the divine and the human to unite harmoniously in abundant love.

In the same mysterious way that Jesus and God coexisted in unity, Jesus and his fellow human beings coexist in unity. In his prayer, Jesus says that he is “in them.” There is enough room in each of us for the presence of Jesus. Jesus coexists within everyone, but Jesus constantly reminded his followers that he was particularly one with the weak, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor, the neglected, the stranger, the expelled, and the immigrant – in other words, the victims of human violence.

In fact, Jesus was an immigrant. Jesus prayed to his Father, “…that the world may know that you have sent me…”Jesus immigrated from the Father to the world. And what did we humans do to him? We told him that he wasn’t welcome. We expelled him as a victim of our own violence. By being expelled to the cross, Jesus identifies himself with all victims of violence. Jesus became an immigrant who was expelled from this world so that we might stop expelling immigrants.

Jesus is at the border of the United States and we expelling him.

So, why do we keep expelling Jesus? Because we don’t actually believe in him. We don’t believe that in Jesus God is setting the world right by showing us that there is a divine unity of love that unites “us” and “them.” We actually think Jesus was wrong when he revealed that in God’s economy there is enough love and bread and fish and water and housing and money and food and healing and forgiveness and reconciliation for everyone.

We don’t believe in Jesus and we don’t trust his way of unity. Rather, we form unity by being against an “other.” We form artificial barriers between us and them, which allow us to claim that we are good and they are bad. These barriers are artificial because they can be anything: political, economic, racial, and national identities all provide barriers that we use to unite “us” against “them.”

Christians should know better. Rather than using differences to unite us against them, differences provide an opportunity to unite us with them by sharing in God’s economy of abundant love. But instead of believing in the economy Jesus taught, we believe in an economy of scarcity. We are constantly told that there is not enough for everyone, so we need to keep all we can for ourselves. Under the spell of scarcity, we are told that “they” are a threat to “us,” which means “we” need to kick “them” out.

But we know that Jesus is one with immigrants. So when Christian politicians demand that we send Jesus, who comes to us in immigrants, back to their countries plagued by violence, they show their utter lack of faith in Jesus. That’s not Christian. That’s anti-Christian. Jesus breaks down the barriers of hostility between “us” and “them.” In Jesus, differences become opportunities for us to love them as if we were one with them because in Jesus we are one with them. Jesus was fully within his Jewish tradition when he broke down these barriers. For example, if conservative Christians really believe that the Bible is “the inerrant Word of God,” then they would abide by the words of Leviticus,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Biblical faith, like the hypostatic union, sets a trajectory that ultimately breaks down the national, racial, and economic barriers that separate “us” from “them.” It claims that there is enough room for all in God’s economy that cares for everyone, but especially for those we label “them.” Differences remain, but those differences should not to be used as justification for setting up barriers of oppression and scapegoating. Rather, those differences are opportunities to show God’s economy of love and hospitality for all people, but especially for those that Leviticus calls “the alien” among us.

The glory that the Father gave to Jesus, and that Jesus gives to us, is the glory of uniting love. It’s the glory that embraces and makes room for the “other” – in this case, the immigrant other – and makes us one.

The good news is that it’s not too late to change. We can repent. We can change our hearts and minds so that we following Jesus in breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them.” We can embrace our differences and become one with God and our fellow human beings. We can join in God’s economy of abundant love and set things right by healing the world and trusting that there is enough room, enough wealth, enough food, and enough housing for “us” and for “them.”

Jesus is at the border. He is “in them.” How will we respond to his presence among us?

Two Things the Hobby Lobby Case Tells Us about Politics and Being Christian

batman and obamaSince the Hobby Lobby case, I have learned two things about being Christian.

First, being Christian means that you are right and that the other side is not only wrong, but a detriment to American freedom. Conservatives are boasting that their victory over liberals is a “welcoming gesture not only toward religious freedom, but also freedom of conscience.” The blog Seasons of Grace asks that we join the author “in a prayer of thanks at this ruling.” Joining in prayer is all well and good, but apparently it’s not a season of grace. Rather, it’s a season of violence. Immediately after her call for prayer, the blogger posted a meme of Batman slapping Barack Obama.

Prayer and violence, apparently, go hand in hand – or hand across the face, as the case may be. And isn’t that what we want? Our Superhero God to sweep in and defeat our enemies through political rule. Ahh, thanks be to our God for the sweet taste of victory over our political enemies! But don’t let up! Conservatives know that in the culture wars, the battle is far from over. In fact, the case should have been voted 9-0! The 5-4 vote shows just how awful and incomprehensibly far American culture has fallen. And damn that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her “overwrought dissenting opinion”! So batten down the hatches! Prepare the ammunition! Conservative Christians are bringing the fight to their liberal counterparts.

Let’s all pray in a moment of thanks…

Lady libertyBut if you are a liberal, you think that you are right and that the Supreme Court’s ruling is “a travesty of justice grounded in the same brutish sexism and classism that has always informed the most egregious and shameful rulings of the highest court in our land.”  What the conservative judges on the court wrought on American society is such a travesty to freedom that even Lady Liberty holds her head in shame.

You also know that many women use contraception not for pregnancy prevention, but for help with serious health problems. You know that corporations aren’t religious, that this ruling is a sign of the corporate takeover of the world, that birth control pills are scientifically not an abortifacient, that this decision is actually bad for religious freedom, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is your hero, and that if Hobby Lobby were a religious corporation its practices would be hypocritical because its retirement plan invests in contraception and it does business with China where workplace conditions are so bad that “Seventy thousand Chinese employees die every year due to workplace conditions” and where 13 million abortions are performed each year. But there is hope! Liberal Christians only lost 4-5. So batten down the hatches! Prepare the ammunition! Liberal Christians are bringing the fight to their conservative counterparts.

Is this what Christian politics is all about? Are we stuck in an endless political rivalry with our fellow Christians? Or, rather than fantasizing about slapping the other side across the face, can we choose a more gracious way to respond?

Those questions lead me to the second thing I’ve learned about being Christian. Being Christian, whether conservative or liberal, means being called to a different kind of politics. We have an incredibly important opportunity before us. We can either be known for the way we fight these political battles, or for the way we seek to understand the other’s position. Understanding our political enemies is, after all, part of what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ meant when he called us to love our enemies.

Our determination to defeat our opponents is a distraction from Jesus’ call to love our enemies. It’s important for Christians to participate in politics, but it’s even more important to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is an entirely different kind of politics.

Churches have an important opportunity to practice this different kind of politics. Its politics, its way of life, shouldn’t get distracted by rivalries and blame, but rather it should fulfill the mission God gave to Abraham to “be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” The church’s political goals should not be to defeat our political enemies, but to find ways to bless all the families of the earth.

Your political enemies? Find ways to bless them.

Women who, for any reason, need contraception and can’t afford it? Find ways to bless them.

Women who have chosen to have abortions? Find ways to bless them.

Women who have chosen to not have abortions and struggle to provide for their children? Find ways to bless them.

The Hobby Lobby case presents us with a choice. Will we choose to be a blessing or a curse to the other side? In this case, Christians are becoming known for the way we curse one another. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to bless and to love our enemies.

One thing that Christians can objectively agree upon is that our Lord and Savior calls us to do just that.