Posts

sharing god

The Truth about God and Interfaith Relationships

Can we share God?

Because for many of us, God is something that we refuse to share. In fact, human history shows that we will fight over God. God, after all, is truth. And we all like to think that we hold the Truth. But what happens when others claim that they hold the Truth about God? We get caught in a rivalry, even killing over who possesses the Truth.

But believing that we hold the truth about God is to turn God into an idol. That’s because we don’t hold the truth about God. None of us hold the truth about God. Rather, God holds the truth about us. And, according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Long Island, NY, the truth is that God holds us in the spirit of love, justice, and service.

Members of these three major world religions come together at Brookville Church to share sacred space. Brookville’s slogan is “Where our doors are always open.” Indeed, the church’s doors are open to Jews and Muslims. But they do much more than simply use the church building as a place of worship. At Brookville Church, Jews, Christians, and Muslims intentionally build friendships with one another. They learn from one another, they serve their community with one another, and they care for one another.

It’s a radical experiment, especially when we consider that leading presidential candidates are proposing to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and they are proposing to force police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Those candidates are the most vocal about their faith in God, but they worship an idol. They worship a god that erects political systems of fear, exclusion, and death.

But the true God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam doesn’t lead to fear, exclusion, and death. The true God leads to relationships like those formed at Brookville Church. The true God subverts the politics of fear, exclusion, and death. The true God transforms our relationships from rivalry into love.

In doing so, they show that they don’t hold the truth, but that the truth holds them.

Image: Flickr, Destination God, Hatim Kaghat, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

beware of god

Atheism and Religious Violence: Should Religion Be Expelled or Redeemed?

Many atheists argue that religion is a massive problem in our world. Since religion is the cause of major conflicts and violence, we would be much better off if we expelled religion from our midst.

As a Christian, it may surprise you that I think there’s a lot of merit to this atheist critique of religion. And René Girard helps us understand why.

Religion and violence have always been connected. “Violence and the sacred are inseparable,” wrote Girard in his book Violence and the Sacred. They are inseparable because religion solved the most urgent problem the facing primitive societies – their own violence.

Girard’s anthropology states that before religion formed in the ancient world, the greatest danger facing our early ancestors was their own violence against each other. Conflictual violence could not be contained and a war of all against all threatened our ancestors with extinction.

For Girard, the disease was violence. Just like modern medicine, the cure was found in the disease. Violence that threatened the community was channeled onto a single victim, who was violently sacrificed. Where there was once conflict that threatened the community, there was now peace that came from violently uniting against a common enemy. Whom Girard calls the scapegoat.

But the peace was only temporary. Conflicts re-emerged, violence threatened the community, and another scapegoat was sacrificed. The sacrifice was ritualized and religion was born.

I want you to notice the human aspect of religion. You don’t need God to explain religion, in fact, theology often gets in the way of understanding archaic religion. Religion didn’t emerge from the gods. They emerged anthropologically – from human violence. Religion in the form of sacrificial rituals solved the problem of human violence that threatened the community. Without sacrificial religion, says Girard, our ancestors never would have survived.

The scapegoat stands as a substitute for the community. Girard calls this the “surrogate victim.” The sacrifice underlies all of human culture. It seeks to expel a common enemy. Girard states that sacrifice is the “mechanism that assures the community’s spontaneous and unanimous outburst of opposition to the surrogate victim” (Violence and the Sacred, 300).

This is the irony – archaic sacrificial religions seek to expel a scapegoat, someone who is blamed for the violent problems facing the community. Archaic religion seeks to expel the scapegoat. But the modern propensity to expel religion is itself a religious act. Again, Girard,

Human beings are soon moved to make religion itself into a new scapegoat, failing to realize once more that the violence is theirs. To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture—as much so today when the sacred is loathed and abhorred as in the past when it was worshipped and adored. (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 32).

We owe a great debt to archaic religions of sacrifice. They saved our ancestors from extinction, but they did so by doing a terrible thing – killing a scapegoat. The community truly believed that their scapegoat was guilty of causing all the problems that it faced. The people believed the sacrifice was good and necessary to protect the community from evil. In this way, modern atheists and secularists who want to expel religion are run by the same scapegoating principle as archaic religions. They scapegoat religion, not realizing that the real threat is not some evil other, be it a person or a religion. The real threat is our own scapegoating violence.

Indeed, to expel religion is just another violent religious act. The question is, can religion help us transform our sacrificial violence into something that will lead to lasting peace?

Girard distinguishes between archaic religions that sacrifice a scapegoat and the revealed religions of Judaism and Christianity. Instead of sacrificing scapegoats, these religions begin a process of caring for scapegoats. The story in Genesis where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac is about this move away from sacrificial violence. Instead of sacrificing humans, the ancient Hebrews moved to sacrificing animals. Sure, PETA would have a fit, but it was a radical move away from sacrificial religions.

In the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, we find the complete reversal of the sacrificial formula. Instead of someone sacrificing another, we find someone who is willing to be sacrificed by his fellow humans to show them the way of peace. The early Christians identified Jesus as the Suffering Servant. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”

The world gives peace by violently sacrificing another, but Jesus gives peace by living a life of nonviolent love. It’s a love that extends even to his enemies. Instead of sacrificing another, Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed. He became the scapegoat of the crowd. He was sacrificed by the political and religious authorities. He took religious violence upon himself so that he could redeem our religions and show us a better way of being religious.

That better way of being religious is defined in the New Testament by the epistle of James as this, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).

If Girard is right, then the world is fueled by the archaic religious impulse to sacrifice a scapegoat in the name of peace. That impulse is what unites all cultures, but it doesn’t lead to lasting peace. In fact, in a world with weapons of mass destruction, that impulse could lead to an apocalyptic destruction of our own making.

Religion that is pure is religion that keeps us unstained by the world’s involvement in scapegoating. Instead of scapegoating, God the Father reveals that pure religion leads us to acts of nonviolent love that seek to care for the scapegoats of our world.

For more on religion and sacrifice, see Patheos’s Public Square conversation – The Sacrifice: Religions and the Role of the Scapegoat.

Photo: Flickr, James Quinn, “Beware of God,” Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Stay in the Loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!

bathroom 1

Clearing the Confusion about God, Transgender, and Bathrooms

I’m going to be honest with you. I’m confused – and I know that many of my fellow cisgender male friends are confused, too. I even hesitate to use that word … cisgender … it’s so new to me. I think it means someone who identifies with the gender they were given at birth. At any rate, I identify as a male, which aligns with the gender I was assigned at birth, which makes me cisgender.

Now that I’ve cleared that up … let me clear up another part of the confusion for my cisgender friends: We are the ones confused. My transgender and fluid gender friends aren’t confused about their gender. For them, once they claim a transgender or a fluid gender identity, it’s like coming home.

So, what should we do with our confusion? First, let me tell you what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t create legislation that prohibits the transgender community from using bathrooms of the gender they identify with. We shouldn’t go along with that legislation because the logic is demonically flawed. That’s right. I said demonically flawed. As Erin Wathen points out in her brilliant article “10 Things Scarier Than a Trans Person in Your Bathroom,” the logic is that our women and children will be put in danger by transgender women using the woman’s room.

But here’s the thing. Do you know how many times a transgender person has attacked someone in a bathroom? 0. That’s right. It’s never happened. Ever.

The transgender community is being labeled as violent sexual predators. Whatever our confusion about the transgender community might be, we cannot stand by while the transgender community is falsely labeled as sexual predators. Let’s clear the air of any confusion; where the transgender community pees is not a “public safety issue.” If cisgender men want to have a real conversation about the safety of women, then as Erin says, let’s talk about rape at college campuses. “Let’s talk about the military. Let’s talk about football players and domestic violence. Let’s talk about a culture that worships masculinity, objectifies women and glorifies violence—all adding up to a pervading world of male entitlement that is, always and everywhere, a danger to your wives and daughters.”

Some might think this is male bashing. But it’s not. It’s evidence that we are dealing with scapegoating, which is a satanic mechanism that assigns blame onto an innocent victim. The Hebrew word “satan” means “accuser.” The accusation that the transgender community poses a threat is absurdly, satanically, false. The transgender community poses no threat. They are not the violent ones they are being made out to be. In fact, 2015 “set a record number of transgender murders.” I’m not confused about this point – the transgender community doesn’t pose a violent threat to anyone peeing in a bathroom.

Scapegoating protects accusers from the painful task of owning up to their own guilt. Cisgender males don’t know what to do about our violence against women, so we project guilt upon the harmless and largely defenseless transgender community, who tragically have been victimized by others, including cisgender men. They experience constant threats of violence, exclusion from their families and their religious institutions. And now we’re debating about which bathrooms to exclude them from because they are the threat?

But here’s what cisgender people should do with our confusion. Realize that our confusion is about us, not about transgender people.

One of the most shameful parts of this whole debate is that it’s mostly Christians who are leading the crusade against transgender people. As a Christian, I feel compelled to speak up. This is not what Christianity is about.

Jesus destroyed the barriers that divided people so that they could find reconciliation. Gender even played a role in this. The closest we get to our modern concept of transgender in the Bible is the eunuch. There was a religious law that relegated eunuchs to outsider status.

But other aspects of the Hebrew Bible sought to include eunuchs into the religious community. Jesus, as always, stood within the tradition that sought to include those who were marginalized by religious laws. He brought eunuchs into his community, saying, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Someone will protest, “But eunuchs and transgender are not the same thing!” That may be true, but look in the Bible and you will never find the word “transgender.” But you will find gender variant “others” who generated a confused, violent, and scapegoating response from the community. The point is this: What did Jesus do with people who were born with a gender variant? Whereas a religious law excluded them from full participation in the community, Jesus included them as full members into his band of followers, the very people through whom Jesus founded the church.

One of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, baptized an Ethiopian eunuch into the early Christian community. And Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built the church, received the message from God that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean,” saying “I truly know that God shows no partiality.”

Philip may have been confused. Heck, Peter was always confused! But he didn’t let that confusion block him from the truth that – no matter what religious laws said – he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean.

So, to my cisgender friends, we may be confused, but God isn’t. God shows no partiality. God doesn’t care where his beloved transgender children go to the bathroom. And neither should we.

Image: Flickr, Samir Luther, “All Gender Restroom Sign,” Creative Commons License, some changes made.

cross

Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance

Why was Jesus killed?

There is no more important question to ask on this Good Friday. Christians have come up with many answers throughout the last 2,000 years. Some of those answers claim that Jesus was killed by the Father to assuage His wrath or reclaim His honor in the face of human sin.

But that’s the wrong answer. Jesus wasn’t killed to appease God. Jesus was killed because he was a threat to national security.

That’s the answer that the Gospels give. The great religious and political leader of the day, the high priest Caiaphas, explained why Jesus had to die. During a debate among other leaders, Caiaphas said,

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

Caiaphas was right about one thing – Jesus was a national security threat. That’s why the political and religious elite killed him.

But let’s be clear – Jesus was not a threat to Israel’s national security because he was a violent revolutionary. No, Jesus was a threat because he challenged the whole political system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.

Caiaphas was a keen politician. Politics has always been based on the expediency of keeping people safe for national security. That’s their primary job. But in order to keep us safe, there has to be a threat, some enemy that has to be exiled or killed in order for us to be safe – lest the whole nation be destroyed!

Caiaphas wasn’t particularly evil. He was simply doing what humans have always done. He was channeling national fears and anxieties against a scapegoat. Two thousand years ago it was Jesus, but we continue the practice of political scapegoating today. Currently in the United States, we have presidential candidates who are channeling our cultural fears and anxieties against Muslims. In the wake of the Jihadist terror attacks in Brussels, leading candidates are suggesting that police need to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods,” because, you know, all Muslims are a threat to our national security…

Did you know that during the 15 years since 9/11, Jihadists have attacked the United States nine times, killing 45 people? My Muslims friends agree that those terrorist attacks are tragedies that never should have happened. But do those statistics reveal that Jihadists, let alone peaceful, law abiding Muslims citizens, are such a massive threat to our safety and security that police need to spend extra time and resources patrolling Muslim neighborhoods?

In comparison, “There are nearly 12,000 gun murders a year in the US.” American gun violence is a far bigger threat to us than Jihadists. But there’s an even bigger threat to our safety and security than guns. More than 30,000 people killed every year by car accidents.

If something killed 30,000 Americans a year, would we call it a national security threat? Of course we would! We would demand that police spend more time and resources patrolling neighborhoods, making sure people were safe from such a threat.

So, are Jihadist the great threat we are making them out to be? If so, the Obama Administration is doing a damn good job keeping us safe! But personally, I don’t think they are. After all, you have far more reason to fear the car coming down the street than any Jihadist, let alone peaceful Muslims.

Of course, it would be irrational for you to fear every car that came down the street. And it is just as irrational for you to fear your Muslim neighbor.

What do Caiaphas and our political leaders have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against a common enemy in the name of national security. But ultimately, they distract us from bigger problems. Our biggest problem is the cycle of scapegoating. Caiaphas blamed Jesus. Our politicians are blaming Muslims. And Christians should know better than to fall for the fearful suspicion directed against Muslims. Good Friday teaches us that when we live by fear, even fearing for our national security, we end up channeling our fear, anxiety, and violence against a scapegoat. In other words, we participate in the violent logic that killed Jesus.

On Good Friday, Jesus reveals that we don’t have to live by the politics of fear. In fact, he frees us from fear, even the fear of death. Faith in Jesus means that we no longer have to kill or exclude others for the sake of national security. Rather, faith means trusting in Jesus, the one who calls us to love and forgive our neighbors, including those we call our enemies.

Photo: Flick: Patrick Keller, Crucifixion INRI – St. Peter’s Cemetery, St. Charles, MO, Creative Commons Licence, some changes made

donald and francis final

The Pope and the Donald: Why Donald is Not a Christian & Neither Am I

Even the Pope is going after Donald! Pope Francis took a clear shot at him yesterday –

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.

Pope Francis is right. Christians shouldn’t be building walls that divide us from them. We should build bridges that unite us and them. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s true.

But then Donald went on the attack, as he’s wont to do. Donald defended his Christian faith and then he threw down the gauntlet,

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with all our talk, no action politicians.

In defending his Christian credentials, could Trump have come up with a more un-Christ-like response to the Pope’s comment? Being a Christian must at least include taking up Jesus’ invitation to follow him and his teachings. Jesus responded to his persecutors not by eradicating them, but with radical nonviolence and universal forgiveness.

Trump is not a Christian. He doesn’t follow the Christ who calls us to love our enemies. He prays to an idolatrous god who justifies eradicating his enemies.

But here’s the thing, it’s very easy for me to scapegoat Donald Trump. And now I have the Pope on my side! We all know Donald can’t name his favorite verse of the Bible and he calls it Two Corinthians. And yes, the wall is un-Christian and so is eradicating our enemies.

Trump’s power is shown with threats of violence. Jesus’ power is revealed through nonviolent love and forgiveness. So, Trump is not a Christian, but when push comes to shove, I don’t know if I am a Christian, either.

Sure, I attend church every Sunday. I’m a former pastor. I volunteer in my neighborhood. I write about how great Jesus is. I read the Bible. I do all the “Christian” things. But if I’m being honest, I’m more like Donald Trump than I’d like to admit.

How would I respond if ISIS – or anyone else – attacked me or my family? Would I stay committed to being a Christian? Would I follow Jesus in the way of nonviolent love?

I’m not absolutely sure, but I think I’d build a wall between us. I think I’d want them eradicated.

Which leads me to believe that Trump isn’t a Christian, but I might not be a Christian, either.

Photo on left: Flickr, Donald Trump Sr. at #FITN at Nashua, NH, by Michael Vadon, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Photo on right: Flickr, Pope Francis Apostolic Journey to Mexico, Aleteia Images, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Star Wars & Theology: Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure

On Wednesday, Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieved an historic feat at the box office. After just 20 days of its release date, The Force Awakens surpassed Avatar to become the highest grossing film in North America.

I helped the Force by seeing it three times. I love Star Wars. Even the prequels.

Coincidentally, or maybe as the Force would have it, Wednesday was also the first day of the Christian season called Epiphany, which means a “manifestation,” or “appearance.” There are important connections between Star Wars and Epiphany, beyond the coincidence of Wednesday’s events.

George Lucas stated in an interview with Bill Moyers that his vision for Star Wars was to inspire belief in God,

I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.

As a former youth pastor, I can appreciate Lucas’ emphasis on young people. Of course, part of the enduring aspect of the Star Wars saga is that it speaks to people of all ages. The great mystery is a force that is bigger than ourselves, yet includes ourselves in it. As Obi Wan Kenobi explained to Luke, the Force “is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Whenever a Jedi attempts to explain the Force, they don’t say very much. There’s great wisdom in using few words to describe the Force and Christianity could use some direction here. The Force isn’t primarily known through a theory. Rather, the Force is known by participating in a story that is bigger than ourselves. The same is true about God.

From a Christian point of view, it’s not that theories about God are bad. In their proper place, theories can lead us into the beauty of God. But theories can lead us to the dark side when *we* claim to have the right theory, which means *they* must have the wrong theory. When that happens, we lose sight of the adventure that is bigger than ourselves. The world gets smaller and smaller as we become consumed with being right, which means making sure that others know they are wrong.

Fortunately, the adventure that Epiphany calls us into is much bigger than a theory. It’s a mystery that leads us into divine life of God. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi. The Magi were Gentiles who didn’t really have a theory about God, certainly not one that Christians would call “orthodox.” But they did have a premonition that a mysterious star would lead them on an adventure to a child who was born king of the Jews.

The Magi left their homes “from the East” to Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible states that the Magi likely came from Parthia, which was Rome’s enemy. The Magi were sent on an adventure into enemy territory by a force bigger than themselves. And their adventure involved great risk, as it put them in contact with King Herod, who was well known for killing anyone he thought was a threat to his crown. Herod was consumed by fear, which as Yoda tells us, “is the path to the dark side.” Because of his inability to manage his fear in a healthy way, he killed many people, including his wife and his children.

When we are consumed with fear, like Herod, we easily forget the bigger mystery in our lives. The Magi provide a different model. They likely had much to fear on their night journey through the dangers of the desert, but they weren’t caught up in their fear. Rather, they were caught up into an adventure that was bigger than anything they could fear.

The adventure led the Magi to a child who was the Chosen One. Alternatively in Star Wars, the Chosen One was Anakin Skywalker, who was chosen to bring balance to the Force. This may be controversial to some, but that’s exactly what he did. The Force is a mixture of light and dark, a balance of good and evil. As Han Solo explains in The Force Awakens, “The Force is a magical power, holding good and evil together, the light and the dark.” Before Anakin, the Force was completely out of balance. Good and evil, light and dark, weren’t held together in balance. The Jedi, the light, dominated the Force. The darkness of Star Wars is the fact that by killing the Jedi, Anakin did bring balance back to the Force.*

But the Chosen One in the Christian story didn’t bring balance to the Force that undergirds our world. Rather, Jesus brought something much more radical than a balance between good and evil. Christianity doesn’t call the mystery of our world “the Force.” It calls that mystery Love. “God is love,” states the letter First John. The love of God is the mystery that holds the universe together. As the apostle Paul claimed, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” The Magi found a symbol of that love in a star – a light that shines in the darkness of our world that led them on an adventure to Jesus. And that love was embodied by a seemingly insignificant child, born to seemingly insignificant parents.

The great mystery of Christianity leads us on a great adventure that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our theories, bigger than our fears, and bigger than our need to be right. It leads us to the One who reveals that God is love. But Jesus taught his followers even more about God. The author of 1 John would also state that, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

The darkness belongs to us. Violence belongs to humans. Not to God and not to the Force. We can no longer project our dark violence upon God. That means we must take responsibility for our own darkness. Fortunately, Luke Skywalker and Jesus Christ are perfect examples of how to do just that. We will explore that aspect of Star Wars and theology in the next part of this series.

 

*Of course, this is an interpretation. Many argue that Anakin actually brought balance to the Force by killing Emperor Darth Sidious. If Anakin’s mission was to bring the balance of good and evil to the Force, then both interpretations may be correct. We’ll explore that in a future part of this series.

**Image: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

***For more on Epiphany, see:
Let Us Know You Are Wheaton By Your Love, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez
Peace on Earth: Maria Montessori, the Wise Men, and King Herod, by Suzanne Ross
The RavenCast Ep 10: Epiphany, Fear, and the Journey to God, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez and Adam Ericksen

****Stay in the loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!

All Set Free

Special Book Feature Saturday: All Set Free by Matthew Distefano

Introduction: From Fear to Freedom

Fear is a terrible prison. Navigating the dark corridors of confusion and anxiety, searching for clarity and understanding and relief only to run into walls of self-doubt and torturous demons haunting your consciousness with the most terrifying “what ifs,” living in fear can be paralyzing, isolating, and self-diminishing. When the cause of such fear is anxiety about the nature or existence of God, it can be overwhelming, because the consequences it threatens are eternal. For one who struggles to believe in a God who is described by many to be both the very source of love and the author of the most excruciating eternal torments, admitting such fear is in itself a source of anxiety. In apprehension of isolating yourself by expressing worries no one else seems to acknowledge, in trepidation of essentially sealing a dreaded fate by admitting aloud that you just don’t know – when the horrors of hell for disbelieving somehow seem more palpable than the God whose blend of love and torture is impossible to comprehend – wrestling with such doubt, like Jacob in the Jabbok, can feel like drowning.

Although I come from a very different background within the Christian tradition than author Matthew Distefano, he has articulately expressed the fear that once held me captive – fear of my own unbelief, fear of hell, fear of God. But much more, he has succinctly and eloquently shone a light on his journey to the perfect Love that casts out such fear. The revelation of God’s universal healing and reconciling love in Jesus is undoubtedly a gift of grace, but Matthew has also put much effort into the metanoia – the transformation through the renewal of mind — that was begun in him by Christ. His assurance that God’s love enfolds everyone has come through careful study of theology, anthropology, hermeneutics, and the historical context of Jesus’s life and ministry. I saw parallels to my own journey while reading this book, and find that it both enhances my understanding of God’s love and helps me to communicate to others the amazing process of moving from anxiety to adoration and distress to discipleship. Should you be haunted by frightening interpretations of scripture or perplexed by the violence of God, reading this book with an open heart and mind (and an open Bible!) will not only illumine Matthew’s journey from fear to freedom, but may well propel you on a journey of your own! I know it is Matthew’s hope, and mine as well, that all will one day be All Set Free.

 Is God Violent?

 Though Matthew’s faith journey is different from mine, the fears that haunted us both, along, perhaps, with the desire in spite (or partly because) of those fears to know God better, led us both to the same question: “If there is a God, is he/she violent?” (xii) It is perhaps the most important question that can be asked, for how it is answered according to each person who asks (or subconsciously assumes) will have profound implications on that person’s understanding of the world and, thus, the mark that person leaves on the world. Belief in a violent God will lead to justification of violence, even if the goal of such violence is peace through the eradication or subduing of enemies. It is clear that a great deal of humanity is caught up in such an understanding of God. Yet the significance of this question encompasses but also transcends how it is answered by people. If the answer is “No, God is not violent at all,” then there is hope beyond the vicious cycle of violence that has entrapped so many, and hope for reconciliation for all within the all-encompassing mercy of God. The implications of this exceedingly good news are mind-blowing; to think, all the pain, suffering, heartache, devastation – physical and social and economic and psychological and spiritual violence – will all one day be made well by One who will wipe every tear from every eye!

Matthew’s continuing theological journey led him to a conclusive “No” to the question of God’s violence. The fullness of God’s peace that surpasses all human understanding is a continuing revelation, but the affirmation that “God is Love and in Him there is no darkness at all,” is assured. The beauty of this news has made Matthew want to shout God’s grace from the rooftops at any cost, and he writes with passion. However, coming out of fear, coming out of a well-meaning community that interpreted the violence of scripture at face value, Matthew shows deep empathy for those who believe in, or fear, eternal consequences for incorrect belief. The God portrayed in scripture is indeed frightening without a particular hermeneutical lens. That lens is Jesus, but Jesus can only be properly understood in the context not only of his human history, but in the context of what it means to be human at all. Thus, after a brief examination of the roots of Universalism within historic Christianity, giving the skeptical reader an initial hope that such all-encompassing love may not be “too good to be true” after all, Matthew leads the reader on a journey through anthropology as well as theology. Embarking on the path laid by Matthew’s scholarship, the reader travels beyond the walls of fear to the astonishing light of news that is better than many have ever dared to imagine.

Journey Through Science, Scripture, and Spirit

 Matthew convincingly argues that if we do not know ourselves, we will project unconscious presuppositions onto whatever it is that we study or engage. This is particularly problematic when we seek to understand God, for we will inevitably recreate God in our own image, with devastating consequences! Thus it is necessary to approach scripture – the record of humanity’s relationship with God – from an anthropological perspective as well as a theological perspective. And for understanding what it means to be human, Matthew turns to René Girard.

Matthew’s treatment of Girard’s mimetic theory and its implications on human nature and the link between religion and violence at the foundation of human culture is succinct but sufficient to illumine the necessity of an anthropological lens upon scripture. Such a lens changes everything! Understanding how human beings are formed in relationship to one-another, how we are designed for imitation, gives profound insight into the inner workings of both love and violence, for both are products of human connection. Imitation of not only behavior, but of desires, can lead to connection when the object of those desires is shared, but conflict when the object of those desires is coveted exclusively for oneself.

In the section “The Girardian Trajectory,” Matthew efficiently shows how shared desires lead to conflict, how conflict escalates, and how the ensuing violence that threatens to consume and destroy the community finds an outlet in a scapegoat. Onto the scapegoat all the evil intention of the community to destroy one-another is projected, so that s/he is seen as the origin of the conflict; the original objects of shared desire are forgotten in the focused, righteous hatred against the scapegoat. Once expelled from the community, by collective murder or expulsion, the resulting catharsis brings such a euphoria that the scapegoat once considered evil is now the bringer of peace, supernatural, divine. However, because conflicts will inevitably arise again, it will be necessary to repeat such collective violence. Eventually, these patterns of violence and violent peacemaking will turn into conscious safeguards against all-out violence – rules, routines, and sacred stories to remember them by – that will form human culture. Matthew eloquently traces the initial murderous event that unifies the community through the pillars of culture – prohibition, ritual, and myth – to show how the violent resolution to conflict gave rise to religion.

Once one understands the link between violence and religion, once one sees religion as a violent safeguard against violence, the violence of scripture begins to make sense. The notion of a violent god is deeply ingrained in the origins of human civilization, and the demands for sacrifice in scripture are illuminated. Yet scripture tells another story as well, a story of humanity on its way out of the darkness of fearful subservience to a violent god, out of its entrapment in violent conflict with one another. There are signs of a God who brings peace and order not through violence, but through mercy, who resolves human conflict by rechanneling desires so that people live for the good of others rather than themselves. There are injunctions from the prophets to care for the poor and marginalized, those who had been scapegoated and ostracized by their communities in order to “keep the peace.” All of this culminates in, and is fully revealed by, the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus, our model, our liberator from the cycle of violence, our Prince of Peace, shows us what it means to be fully-human, to live into our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano can take a discerning eye to scripture, separating the anthropological revelation – the human understanding of a warrior God who brings limited peace to limited people through sacrifice and conquest – from theological revelation, the breaking-in of God’s mercy to challenge sacrifice, bring the marginalized into the sphere of public concern, and halt cycles of violence with forgiving love. With Jesus as the ultimate model, imitating the Father and enjoining us to imitate him, scripture presents the alternative – the cure – to negative mimesis as positive mimesis. Matthew traces Jesus’s hermeneutic, his interpretive lens, on scripture through the New Testament references to the Hebrew Bible to show how Jesus rejected the violence of God. Instead, Jesus modeled the concern for the poor and marginalized that the prophets spoke about – concern that was a critique of human violence mistakenly attributed to or thought to be commanded by God. Ultimately, however, Jesus confronts the depths of human violence not only through his teachings, but through his death and resurrection. After illuminating the scapegoating mechanism, Matthew deftly explains how Jesus – God incarnate – undergoes that very mechanism, enduring all of humanity’s violent projections, all of the hate and fear and shame and blame – becoming the victim of humanity’s deadly curse of violence – in order to undo humanity’s violent mechanism for achieving peace. In the resurrection, Jesus’s innocence was vindicated, and all of the prohibitions, rituals, labels and walls that humans use to keep peace by casting others out were put on trial and exposed for the unholy violence that they are. Through his analysis of scripture informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that God has nothing to do with violence, that the violence in the atonement is ours, and we are “atoned” (at-one-d) by God’s gracious mercy in spite, not because, of violence. Yet if violence has always been humanity’s means of achieving peace, and violence is now exposed for the evil that it is and rendered impotent, what now will save us from imitating one-another’s desires and becoming entrapped in conflict, rivalry, and war?

Only Love can bring peace. That is the message of Jesus. Peace built on the backs of scapegoats, peace built over the graves of victims, will always fail, but Love will restore all things, just as love restored Jesus to life. Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that this Love must embrace all, for to sacrifice any one is to leave the scapegoat mechanism in tact. A God who saves us from sacrifice must save us all, must not sacrifice any one of us. Matthew makes it abundantly clear a God who answers violence with love will not inflict violence in an everlasting torment of hell. However, he explains the references to hell in scripture as the temporal consequences of human violence. He even explains how the mercy of God may involve pain – pain as of a wound being healed, as we are disciplined, corrected, purged of the violence so deeply ingrained in our identities which are ultimately foreign to the image of God in which we were created. He takes on some of the difficult sayings of Jesus and reads them, not in the light of a violent god whom we now know is a product of deficient human understanding, but in the light of mercy that can be experienced as severe. Being embraced in God’s mercy ultimately means becoming aware of the pain one has inflicted upon others, because God brings every victim, including our own, out of the shadows. Such mercy may indeed sting, but it is grace. Matthew articulates God’s severe but undeniably beautiful grace with passion, compassion, wisdom and humility.

Conclusion

But if you are a long time reader of Raven, none of this is new to you. You may not be trapped in an existential fear of hell (though there is much here to read if you are in doubt or anxiety!) Perhaps your greatest fear right now is in finding the perfect gift for your loved one. If that is the case, I encourage you to become All Set Free of your holiday stress and buy Matthew Distefano’s book today! (P.S. If this hard-sell, which is just an attempt at humor, bugs you, please pretend I ended this review with the penultimate paragraph above! Happy Holidays!)

 

Image: Cover of All Set Free via Amazon.

christ and augustus 4

Talk To Me Tuesday – The RavenCast Episode 8 – Advent as Holy Political Protest

In this episode of the RavenCast, I discuss Advent as political protest. Advent means “coming” and during the Advent season Christians await the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But Advent was originally a festival of the Roman Empire that celebrated the coming of Caesar Augustus as the divine savior of the world, who brought peace through violent conquest. When Christians use the term Advent, we subvert the violent ways of Caesar Augustus by proclaiming that Jesus, and his way of nonviolent love, is the true savior of the world.

MP3

Video

Show Notes

  • Advent means “coming.” It’s the season that occurs during the four weeks before Christmas that anticipates the coming of Christ.
  • But, in the first century, Advent was a festival that celebrated the coming of Caesar Augustus (For more on the Roman Empire and Advent, see Ethelbert Stauffer’s book, Christ and the Caesars and Rob Bell’s video “The Advent of Caesar.”)
  • Christian Advent season is awaiting the One who shows us the altnernative to the ways of the Roman Empire, the ways of peace through violence.
  • The early Christians subverted the ways of Rome in the most subversive way possible: not through more violence, but through nonviolence and love.
  • The four Gospel readings during Advent are reveal the alternative to the ways of violence by showing us the ways of peace.
  • The second week of advent we read John the Baptists alternative to the violence of the world, which is to share our clothing, food, lives with others and to trust that we have enough.
  • The last week of Advent we read Mary’s Magnificat, which is a song about political revolution. It’s holy political protest
  • Advent awaits the one who saves the world not through more violence, but through love and forgiveness and nonviolence.
  • Jesus as the king of the world, sat on his throne, a cross, and pronounced judgement on the world. That judgement was forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  • That radical and universal forgiveness is the gift that God offers to all humans, “all flesh.” Are we able to receive that gift? Or will we be resentful that even our enemies are offered that gift?
  • During Advent, we prepare the way of the Lord – Jesus – and that preparation involves receiving and participating in his radical forgiveness.
  • The United States largely believes that the way to peace is the way of Caesar Augustus, the way of violence and military strength. The United States believes more in Caesar Augustus than we do in Jesus the Christ.
  • The United States is the greatest military superpower the world has ever seen. We spend more on our military than the next seven nations combined. And yet we still don’t feel safe. Why? Because violence doesn’t bring peace, safety, and security. It just brings more violence.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptist, Jean-Michel Oughourlian says in his book Psychopolitics that the way to peace is by sharing what we have. “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” (pg. 23).

Images: Cefalù Pantocrator retouched” by Andreas Wahra – Own work (own photography). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Statue-Augustus” by Till NiermannOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Stay in the loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!

Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

Stay in the loop! Like the Raven Foundation on Facebook!

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.