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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.

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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.

Farkhunda: Their Scapegoat… And Ours

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

A month ago, a brutal and horrific tragedy took place in Afghanistan. A woman by the name of Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry men. This is the story of a scapegoat, but it is also much more. Beneath the surface of this incident lies many layers of violence and humiliation. Reflexive rage against the killers, while understandable, would simply deepen the dark abyss of ignorance and refuel the caldron of hatred that can bubble over again at any time. As I mourn for Farkhunda, I have pondered many issues related to her death that I would like to share. It is my hope that as we reflect on Farkhunda’s courage and the violence heaped upon her, we will take meaningful steps toward peace and reconciliation. We all have work to do, for I believe her blood is on more than the hands of the mob; it is upon all of us.

Farkhunda’s Story

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old student of religious studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had visited the Shrine of the King of Two Swords the day before her death, bringing clothing for the poor. Upset by the superstitious practice of selling charms and amulets outside of a historic shrine, which went against her understanding of Islam, she criticized the shrine attendants and dissuaded visitors from buying. With business threatened, one attendant, Zain-ul-Din, sought to protect his livelihood by undermining Farkhunda’s credibility. He accused her of being an infidel who had burned the Holy Qur’an. Within moments, a mob descended upon Farkhunda, berating and beating her as she denied accusations and begged for mercy. Her cries fell on hundreds of deaf ears as the men continued to pummel her to death. Her bloodied body was then set on fire.

Rush to Judgment

Farkhunda’s story has all the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, complete with a false accusation and a mimetically-propelled mob. The mob was not made up of criminal thugs but regular, mostly young, men. They did not beat and kill her out of a sadistic desire to inflict harm; rather, they were propelled by a sense of righteousness as they struck her. We are most dangerous when we are convinced of our own goodness over and against someone else, especially when caught up in a crowd where self-righteousness is released like a drug into the very air we breathe. Many reading Farkhunda’s story in horror could easily be caught up in the same mob mentality; it is not endemic to Islam or Afghan culture but epidemic across humanity. Even so, such explosive violence can erupt spontaneously but not unconditionally. Tension, insecurity, and a buildup of hostility fuel a mimetic crisis for which the scapegoat is an outlet. Long-damaged by war and corruption, Kabul was a powder keg waiting to be ignited by Farkhunda’s false accusation. In some ways, her murder was more than thirty years in the making.

30 Years of War

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for over three decades. According to Political analyst Helena Malikyar,

Afghans are often praised for their resilience. In reality, they are a nation of survivalists. They are survivors of the communist regime’s brutalities in the 1980s, the mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, tortures, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and loss of loved ones. They are damaged goods.

Of course, all of this describes the state of Afghanistan before 2001 and the never-ending “War on Terror,” but the United States bears some responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan even prior to September 11th. The United States supported rebel Afghan groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, but the weapons we supplied turned against the Afghan people as civil war broke out in the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet retreat. During these years of war, not only did American weapons remain in Afghanistan, killing people on all sides, but the eyes of the American government remained upon Afghanistan as well. According to an article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Afghanistan’s geographic location is strategic to America’s interest in controlling the oil of Central Asia by way of an oil pipeline. Needing a “stabilized” nation through which to build the pipeline, the United States originally supported the Taliban takeover of the nation in spite of their brutal human rights violations, only turning against it when it was clear that the Taliban would not be asset to U.S. oil interests. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has never been in the interests of Afghan citizens but rather in the interest of profit at their expense.

Since American troops began occupying and bombing Afghanistan in 2001, many “official” casualty counts have underestimated the death tolls of Afghan civilians. According to another article by Nafeez Ahmed, the Washington DC-based Physicians For Social Responsibility have estimated that, since the 1990s, US interventions have been responsible for between 3 and 5 million preventable Afghan deaths. Night raids and drone strikes have made a vulnerable citizenry fearful, restless and insecure. In such an environment, Helena Malikyar writes that “today’s survivalist mentality … has no room for vital human virtues of compassion and tolerance.” We bear much responsibility for this environment. It is hard for compassion to take root in soil that has been blown apart by bombs and polluted by blood.

Thus, while individual soldiers may have good intentions, motivated to fight for humanitarian concerns, it is clear that American interests do not align with Afghan interests. The Afghan people have been suffering on behalf of American foreign policies, which have exacerbated corruption and civil unrest. The United States has helped to weave and is deeply entangled in the web of violence that has ensnared Afghanistan.

With the blood of so many Afghans on our hands, the mimetic crisis that fueled Farkhunda’s murder is largely on our hands as well. As my colleague Adam Ericksen said, we may not have cast the stones, but we did cast the bombs.

 The Role of Religion

 There are many who use this tragedy to denounce Islam, claiming that only an inherently violent faith could inspire such violence on its behalf. But any religion can be interpreted either peacefully or violently, and Helena Malikyar’s article makes it clear how a rigid, violent interpretation of Islam could be born in a climate of fear and insecurity. She writes that, “While [pre-war Afghanistan] was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity, tolerance and a code of honour. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, was moderate and tolerant of the “other”.” Yet a steady diet of war, deepening poverty, and exploitation can morph the shape of a communal faith from an arm of outreach to a fortress of refuge. Clinging to one’s faith as a defense against an enemy other can turn a religion that encourages tolerance and hospitality toward others into a pillar of identity that helps define oneself against others.

I believe this destructive use of religion as a defense in a time of insecurity fueled the hostile spirit of the mob when it focused its rage on Farkhunda on that terrible day. Unable to vent their frustrations against heavily-armed military occupiers or corrupt war lords, the men of the mob saw in Farkhunda a threat to Islam and all they held dear, not necessarily because of what Islam is, but because of the way Islam separates them from the enemy “other.” The role religion plays in forming our identities over and against others is insidious and often unconscious, but under certain conditions, it can be deadly.

The spirit of scapegoating violence can easily hijack any religion, for religion can easily be abused. When we claim to have possession of the “Truth,” we can easily be roused to judgment and condemnation over others. Lest we think Islam is unique in this terrible regard, we need not look far into Christian history to see the cross presiding over Crusades, pograms and lynch mobs. Any religion can be twisted against its own teachings of humility and compassion, just as the mob in their ignorance twisted Islam.

True Islam

Farkhunda, on the other hand, represented true Islam – true submission to God – when she put herself at risk to expose economic and spiritual exploitation masquerading under the guise of piety. Angered at those who would take advantage of pilgrims and worshippers, she spoke out, most likely knowing that jeopardizing a business would put her at risk (yet probably unaware of just how much of a risk she was in fact taking).

In speaking out against such exploitive and superstitious practices, Farkhunda was not only following her conscience and her understanding of God’s will. She was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who received the revelation of Islam when he searched out a place of solitude and refuge to pray on behalf of the poor. He saw the corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable and knew intuitively that the true source of life could not be the tribal gods invoked on behalf of the rich against the poor. In a world in which the strong and rich were thought to be favored against the poor and weak, the intuition that God cares the poor could only be born of exceeding compassion. This compassion prepared Muhammad’s heart for the revelation of Allah as the One, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, God of all humanity, rich and poor, weak and strong alike. And this compassion lies at the heart of true Islam.

Faith that bolsters our own identities against others is deadly. Faith that leads us beyond ourselves to the God of mercy and compassion is life-giving.

The tragic irony of Farkhunda’s death, then, is not simply that she was killed while upholding Islam by fellow Muslims who mistakingly thought they were defending the faith. It is also that in their rush to defend Islam and their identity as Muslims, they distorted the faith of Islam, submitting not to the will of the God, but to the principal of accusation, the satan.

The Shape of True Justice

Yet the challenge for those of us looking on from outside the borders of Afghanistan and Islam is not to define ourselves over and against the mob, falling prey to the same spirit of scapegoating and hostility, but to take responsibility for our own role in the violence. Just as the mob destroyed an innocent life in their defense of Islam, distorting their faith in the process, our tax dollars fund the destruction of innocent life in the names of security and freedom, perverting both beyond recognition. In both Farkhunda’s murder and the wars we fight, greed wears a mask of righteous virtue. Just as bystanders allowed the mob to run rampant, we too often stand silently by and allow injustices perpetrated by policies carried out in our name. Our violence feeds a spirit of mistrust and hostility that can erupt in tragedies like Farkhunda’s murder. Then we see barbarity in the “others” and further define ourselves against them. The cycle of violence churns on.

True justice would seek not the destruction but the repentance of the violent. Calling for executions, while understandable, would only further erode compassion where it is needed the most. Reparations should be made not only to Farkhunda’s family, but to the nation of Afghanistan torn apart by war and corruption. Our hands are all stained with blood, and the more we identify ourselves as good over and against the brutal, barbarous “others,” the bloodier they get. The members of the mob have much to learn about compassion and women’s dignity in Islam (a subject worth exploring in full but beyond the scope of this article). We, in turn, must learn that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war,” acknowledge our destruction, and rededicate our time, talent and treasure from warmaking to peacemaking. For the sake of Farkhunda, for the sake of victims of violence everywhere, for the sake of ourselves and for God’s sake, we must all turn from our self-righteousness and submit to the will of the One who is Love, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Christianity is Anti-Culture: Michael Hardin, Maundy Thursday, and the Eucharist

This reflection on Maundy Thursday is in response to Michael Hardin’s 5-part series Thoughts on the Eucharist. Michael’s series is worth reading and rereading. In light of Maundy Thursday, Michael invited me to reflect on his thoughts. In addition, Rob Grayson wrote a beautiful response to Michael’s series, titled A Revolutionary Meal.

I did it again. We were at the copy machine printing documents for an upcoming meeting. After our usual greetings, we got sucked into a conversation about a co-worker.

“Can you believe what so-and-so said!” my co-worker exclaimed.

“Oh man,” I said as I peeked down the hall to make sure said co-worker wasn’t about to walk by. “That’s not the half of it! So-and-so went on to say this-and-this!”

As you can tell, I’m getting quite skilled at gossiping. That’s because I’ve been burned before. My victims generally have good timing – they frequently walk in on me gossiping about them. I’m much “better” now. I know to look hall.

I feel guilty and a little creepy after every gossip fest. Those feelings are inevitable and I know they are coming. So, why do I gossip?

The ugly, honest truth is that it feels good in the moment. Gossiping is like a drug – it gives me an addictive rush. I find a sense of unity and comradery as I bond with another person over and against our scapegoat.

Why Christianity is Anti-Cultural

What does mundane office gossip have to do with Christianity being anti-culture? Everything.

Today is Maundy Thursday. Christians throughout the world will participate in two events that Jesus experienced on the day before his crucifixion: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and led the Eucharist.

Maundy comes from the Latin word Mandatum, which means “mandate” or commandment. It is derived from the Gospel of John 13:34. As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

As Michael explains, Jesus’ loving act of washing feet and the leading the Eucharist are “the most anti-cultural institutions in the world”.

That’s a radical statement! But what makes them anti-cultural? The anthropologist René Girard claims that there is more to my office gossip-fest than what appears to be a little office fun. It’s rooted deep in the ancient practice of scapegoating. Human culture, according to Girard, was founded on the scapegoat mechanism. Whenever hostility arises within a group, that hostility needs an outlet or the group will self-destruct under its own violence. That violent outlet came in the form of a scapegoat who became the group’s sacrificial victim. As Michael puts it, sacrifice is “the mechanism by which culture is formed and religion experienced.” As it turns out, scapegoating through gossip and other forms of violence are deeply rooted in our “cultural and religious DNA.”

That’s the practices of foot washing and the Eucharist are “the most anti-cultural institutions in the world.” They go against the violent foundations of culture. In foot washing, the One whom Christians call the Lord of our lives doesn’t violently lord his power over anyone. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was enacting his statement that, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…but not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.”

Notice that Jesus’ message wasn’t just anti-cultural. It also offers an alternative to the violence within human culture. Humble service and nonviolent love that embraces even our enemies are the hallmarks of following Jesus.

Here’s the thing, I know that Jesus calls me to a life of humble service and love, and yet I participate in a culture of scapegoating. It’s like the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Forgiveness: Christianity’s Alternative to Cultural Violence

Which is why the Eucharist is so important. The scapegoating mechanism that I used to unite with my co-worker is the same mechanism that betrayed and killed Jesus. Jesus didn’t offer himself up to an angry god; he offered himself up to an angry, gossiping, and violent humanity. Because I continue to gossip, lie, and cheat, I know the Eucharist is personal. Just like I know that I continue to scapegoat people, I know that I would have betrayed Jesus just like his disciples did.

It’s hard to say this because it’s so personal, but Jesus is my victim. Fortunately, my gossip and violence don’t have the last word. Jesus has the last word. The good news is that Jesus doesn’t respond to violence against him with more words of violence and revenge. That would be the old cultural way of responding to violence. Jesus is making a new humanity, new Adam – a new me!, by responding to violence with forgiveness. The Eucharist is about the “forgiveness of sins.” As Michael states, “when we take the cup to drink the blood of our Victim, Jesus, Son of God, True Human, Lord of the Universe, is it revenge we hear? No, it is the cup of forgiveness. In his blood we find only forgiveness.”

That radical forgiveness is anti-cultural because it moves beyond violence and revenge. It moves us into a new pattern of life where we no longer scapegoat; rather, we wash one another’s feet and move towards forgiveness.

For more, read Michael’s series, “Thoughts on the Eucharist” and Rob Grayson’s response, “A Revolutionary Meal.”

My Biggest Concern for My Gay Son is Religion: On Being Catholic and Gay

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

Owning Our Faith (owningourfaith.com)

I recently wrote about a former member of my church youth group. She was everything that a youth pastor could ask for in a student. She was kind, welcoming, smart, funny, and she took following Jesus seriously. And I’ll never forget the day that she told our youth group that she is a lesbian. Fortunately, she continues to be a faithful follower of Christ.

I’m a proud member of the United Church of Christ. We’ve had a long history that dates back to 1972 of being open and affirming of our sisters and brothers who identify as LGBTQ. As far as churches go, it was safe and relatively easy for this young woman to identify herself to our church as a lesbian.

But what about LGBTQ Catholics? What’s the experience like for many of them?

I was pleasantly surprised when Pope Francis stated, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” Well, for one thing, YOU’RE THE POPE! You could judge whomever you want. But you don’t judge. That’s because Pope Francis know it’s not his place to judge. It’s not the Catholic Church’s place to judge. It’s not even God’s place to judge. After all, Jesus, the one in whom the fullness of God rested, didn’t come to judge or condemn the world of sin. Rather, on the cross Jesus reveals how God deals with sin: by forgiving it.

Obviously, there’s much more to Catholicism than Pope Francis. I recently came across Owning our Faith. It tells the inspiring story of LGBTQ Catholics who are owning their faith and their sexuality.

At 8:20, a father talks about his gay Catholic son. He says, “My biggest concern with Matthew being gay is religion.”

That statement, just as much as Pope Francis’ statement, actually gives me hope. Why? Because Christianity, including Catholicism, isn’t really religious. In fact, Christianity is the anti-religion.

What is Religion?

As René Girard has taught us, religion in its archaic form was indeed something to be concerned about. Religion was formed from conflict. As proto-human groups began to emerge, they experienced inner rivalry that threatened to destroy the group. We now know that most of these first human communities experience self-destruction in a war of all against all. But in other groups, the war of all against all turned into a war of all against one. Girard calls this the Scapegoat Mechanism. The group united against a victim, whom Girard calls the scapegoat. From the Scapegoat Mechanism emerged religion, including myth, prohibitions, laws, and ritual. When conflicts re-emerged, the elements of archaic religion marked a future scapegoat. The community’s hostility was channeled toward the scapegoat who was sacrificed and temporary peace and safety were restored.

Catholic theologian James Alison describes the scapegoat mechanism in his book Broken Hearts and New Creations as,

…our tendency to create group unity, togetherness and survival by resolving conflict through an all-against one which brings temporary peace and unity to the group at the expense of someone, or some group, held to be evil.

Religion, in the archaic sense, created a system of laws and prohibitions that marked some people as “in” and others as “out.” Christianity challenged that impulse within archaic religions. Christianity is not religious at all. Christianity is the anti-religion.

Christianity: The Anti-Religion

Whereas the archaic religious tendency is to stand in judgment against a scapegoat, Jesus, God-with-us, actually became a scapegoat. Jesus was the ultimate revelation that God has nothing to do with laws and prohibitions that lead to scapegoating. They are purely human constructs. Rather, God has everything to do with creating a new human community. This community would not be based on religious laws and prohibitions that excluded some people as “other.” Instead, this community would be based on God’s love that embraces the “other.”

This anti-religious element within Christianity has profound implications for Catholicism. As James Alison states,

Please notice what this means: in any seriously ‘religious’ culture, the Catholic faith will, quite properly, be regarded as ‘not religious enough.’ Inevitably, as the Catholic faith permeates, various things will start to become unimportant: there will no longer be any good reason for sacred rules…

So, as a Protestant, I give thanks that the religious tendency to scapegoat is unraveling within all forms of Christianity. The Owning Our Faith  video reveals just that. The more Christians hold onto the ancient religious tendency to live by sacred rules that lead to scapegoating, including the tendency to scapegoat our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, the more we hear Jesus calling us to live an alternative way of being. That alternative is the Church. Whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox or whatever form it may take, the Church is called to form community, not by uniting against a scapegoat, but by uniting in love.

May we all own that faith.

 

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Chapel Hill, Atheism, and the Worship of Violence

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

It’s been a few days since the tragic murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were cut short. They were murdered, shot in the head, by Craig Hicks.

Hicks is an avowed atheist. Prominently displayed on his Facebook page is a meme that claims,

Of course I want religion to go away. I don’t deny you your right to believe whatever you’d like; but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.

“As long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.” The tragic irony of that meme is palpable. You may be surprised to know that, as a Christian, I greatly appreciate atheism’s critique of religious violence. Religion should be critiqued whenever it is used as a justification for violence.

But atheism can be very religious in its violence. At its core, religious violence unites adherents in the faith that violence can solve our problems. In other words, many religious people don’t actually have faith in God; they have faith in violence.

Hicks reveals something crucially important about atheism. Do not be fooled by the term “atheism.” Like many religious people, many atheists have the same idolatrous faith in a violent god that justifies their violence.

The religion of violence creates a spirit of hatred and accusations. Notice how the blame game started very quickly after the horrendous murders. Religious people used Hicks as a justification to accuse atheists of violence. Atheists then doubled down and accused religion of “divinely sanctioned violence.” These mutual accusations against one another are themselves violent and only provide further evidence that each side worships at the throne of violence.

Blaming another for violence is a convenient way of projecting our own violent tendencies upon someone else. Religious people and atheists begin to mirror one another in our accusations: “We aren’t violent. We are the good guys. We are for peace. They are the violent ones. If we could just get rid of their violent belief system, the world would be a much better place.”

There is only one way out of the trap of the violent religion that unites us against one another. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summed it up best when he said,

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The evil that cuts through their hearts is the evil that cuts through our hearts. Religious people and atheists can now unite in our condemnation of Hicks as an evil man. That’s far too easy. The fact is that Hicks is much more like us than we’d like to admit. He is a product of our cultural worship of hatred and violence.

And so, by condemning Hicks for violence, we condemn ourselves because the hatred and violence that runs through him also runs through us.

The solution to our cultural worship of violence is to stop blaming someone else for it and start taking responsibility for our own violent impulses.

The greatest problem facing the world today isn’t atheists or Christians or Muslims. Our greatest problem is the violence that infects us all. Religious violence, secular violence, economic violence, emotional violence, and spiritual violence threaten to destroy our communities. Why? Because we can’t control violence; violence controls us.

The best alternative to violence is nonviolence. The Qur’an’s nonviolent teachings should be highlighted in this conversation. For example, the Qur’an explains that “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.”

If we want to blame anything, then blame violence. But let’s not primarily condemn the violence “out there.” Let’s take personal responsibility to stop worshiping at the throne of violence. Let’s take responsibility for the violence that exists within ourselves. And let’s start taking responsibility to repel evil with what is better by loving our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

Who is God? Part 1: God is Love

lightTheology comes from two Greek words. Theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word or reason. So, theology is simply words about God.

The most fundamental questions for theology is “Who is God?”* People have answered the question in many ways, but as a Christian theologian there are two answers that I find the most compelling.

An early follower of Jesus, possibly his disciple John, wrote a letter knowns to us as 1 John. That letter contains the only two truth statements about God in the New Testament.** After reflecting upon his experience with Jesus, the author wrote, “God is love” and “This is the message we have heard from him (Jesus) and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

Those are the two most compelling answers to the question “Who is God?” But notice that the author didn’t go back to scripture to find the answer. Scripture is full of different and often competing answers. In scripture, God is sometimes love and sometimes not. Similarly in scripture, God is sometimes light, sometimes darkness, and sometimes a mixture of both.

The author didn’t start with scripture. The author started with Jesus and specifically a message he received from Jesus. It’s the bold message that transforms theology. It’s as if 1 John is telling us, “Despite any of the rumors you may have heard, God is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If anyone tells you something different, even if the Bible tells you something different, don’t believe them. In Jesus we have discovered that God is love. God loves you, God loves them, God loves the earth, and God loves the universe.”

All theology should start there.

*There’s a question behind the question, namely, “Does God exist?” I’ll get to that question in a future post.

**See Michael Hardin’s excellent book “The Jesus Driven Life.”

For more in the “Who is God?” series, see:

Who is God? Part 1: God is Love
Who is God? Part 2: The Holy Spirit and judgmental gods not worth believing in

For more brief theological reflections, like Adam’s Facebook page Adam Ericksen – Public Theologian.

Thanksgiving and a Theology of Despair

IMG_20141125_153650

Feeling despair.

Are you feeling pressure to be thankful?

We are in the midst of the Thanksgiving season. I’m reminded everywhere I go to “Be thankful!”

Well, call me the Scrooge of Thanksgiving, but I’m just not feeling thankful. The more someone tells me to “Be thankful!” the more I feel a sense of despair.

Be thankful? In the midst of Ferguson, Missouri? Jim Wallis writes over at Sojourners that, “Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America.” And what will white America do about it? Nothing new. One side will continue the status quo of racism by denying that it even exists and then they will blame the victims. I firmly stand in the other side that blames America’s deeply embedded structures of racism, economic injustice, and educational inequality. To make matters worse, America is sharply divided over the shooting in Ferguson. Each side of the division blames the other for tragic violence. Sunday’s heated debate on Meet the Press between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson is indicative of the deep racial tensions underlying not only Ferguson, but every city in the United States.

My Facebook news feed and the media are telling me how I’m supposed to feel about Ferguson. Outraged. Hurt. Anxious. Guilt. Anger. Bitter. But certainly not thankful.

A Theology of Despair

I’m feeling despair more than any other emotion. Why despair? Because each side believes they are right and the other is to blame. I feel despair because we humans have been addicted to the blame game from the very beginning. My therapist has encouraged me to have a “bird’s eye view” of current events in order to see the bigger picture.

Let me tell you, that view isn’t helpful.

When I take that view, I see the human propensity to blame and scapegoat others. Who’s to blame? White people? Black people? The police? The Politicians? We see this scapegoating dynamic happening in Ferguson, but we also see it in family systems. I have friends who dread Thanksgiving because of their broken family system that inevitably alleviates tensions by finding a scapegoat.

My therapist has also encouraged me to look for God in these situations. Where is God? We tend to think that God is all-powerful. That’s a dangerous theology that legitimates power. And you know what they say about power – it corrupts. An all-powerful god is a corrupt god that we use for our own corrupt purposes.

Thankfully, the true God isn’t a God of power, but a God of nonviolent love who meets us where we are. God doesn’t force us to be thankful in times of grief and despair. Rather, God meets us in our honest and raw emotions.

A theology of despair claims that God meets us in our grief and hopelessness. God meets us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is evil in the world, but we don’t need to fear it because God is with us in the despair. Even Jesus, whom Christians will soon proclaim as “Emanuel,” or God is with us, despaired on the cross when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Was that a thankful cry? No. But it was an honest cry of despair. And God met Jesus in that despair, for his next words were, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And I’m left feeling despair. Why do we forsake one another in an endless cycle of blame? We know how to end that cycle. We know how to offer ourselves to one another in the spirit of nonviolent love and forgiveness.

Ending the cycle of blame is the hope for our future. But will we stop that cycle and replace it with sacrificial love and forgiveness?

As I take a bird’s eye view and look into the pit of despair, I have my doubts. The ultimate prophetic warning that Christianity has to offer is that if we keep scapegoating one another, we will destroy ourselves in Apocalyptic violence to which the only alternative is nonviolent love and forgiveness.

Rene Girard put that prophetic warning best in his book Battling to the End, “Saying that chaos is near is not incompatible with hope, quite to the contrary. However, hope has to be seen in relation to an alternative that leaves only the choice between total destruction and the realization of the Kingdom” (119).

The realization of the Kingdom of God will only happen when we stop blaming one another. It will only happen when we realize that God loves all people, whether we think they deserve it or not. And it will only happen when we begin to take responsibility to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that God is not a god of power and might. I’m thankful that the one true God is a God who meets us in our despair, who empowers us to stop scapegoating, and who is loving us with reckless abandon.

What ISIL Beheadings Can Teach Us about God and The Cross

RG evilWhat’s the difference between a beheading and a crucifixion? I ask the question as a Christian because we profess that a method of execution every bit as shocking, and perhaps even more cruel, than the beheader’s axe is the vehicle of our salvation. If we do not reflect upon the difference (and the disturbing similarities) between our veneration of the cross and the state support of the beheader’s axe by the self-declared Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) then we will not find a way to respond to the provocation from ISIL that does not betray our savior.

Should US Christians Support Military Action Against ISIL?

Our horror at these executions is in stark contrast to the cool, unfeeling attitude of ISIL. We can see all too clearly what they cannot, that their victims are innocent and do not deserve to be killed, let alone in such a gruesome way. And we are keenly sensitive to the suffering of the victims’ families who are doubly victimized by the public display of their loved ones’ violent deaths. Why is ISIL blind to what we can see? Are they so inhuman, so outside the pale of normal human emotions that they are the ones who do not deserve to live? Isn’t it a good and right use of the US military to seek out destroy such terrorists, such inhuman humans? Should we, the good citizens of the good nation, become their executioners?

Many US Christians answer yes to this question, and they do so in good conscience. The death of our savior on the Cross is the very thing that has sensitized us to the plight of victims and demonstrated what the Hebrew prophets had been proclaiming with very little success: that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God who hears the cries of the innocent, the oppressed, the widows and orphans. ISIL’s rigid enforcement of their cruel brand of Sharia in Syria and Iraq has generated a wail of suffering that has surely reached God’s ears. Christians confess that the God of our ancestors is a God who desires not empty sacrifices or mindless obedience to the law, but who longs for mercy, for justice, for humility and love. When the Kings of Israel and Judah and the Priests serving in God’s Temple turned away from God’s will in these things, the entire nation suffered under God’s judgment. What better use of government authority and might, what would be more in keeping with service to our God, than to use whatever power we have to defend victims of oppression and violence?

Whose Side is God On?           

Indeed, this is a compelling argument. It holds immense appeal precisely because it feels so right. It situates us on God’s side, as good people executing God’s will, but the difficult truth is that ISIL is compelled by the same argument. Their express aim is to inaugurate an era of God’s peace and justice by restoring God’s rule on earth, what is known in Islam as the Caliphate. Their belief that their goal is so noble, so in keeping with God’s will for peace, that any means is justified to achieve their end. Including the beheading, imprisoning, and punishment of their enemies – God’s enemies – whether infidel or Muslim. Isn’t that our argument, too?

So what makes us right and them so wrong? One reason I have heard offered in mimetic theory circles is that Islam is a mythological religion perpetuating pagan beliefs rather than revealing anything true about God. Such a claim is made in the context of mimetic theory’s understanding of the role of myth in human culture, which runs counter to popular conceptions. Myth is often praised for its poetic beauty or as a window into the complex realities of the human psyche. While these observations may be true, according to mimetic theory they entirely miss the salient point. To summarize all too briefly, mimetic theory holds that myth hides the truth of human violence and instead perpetrates the mistaken belief that violence is sacred. Myths tell stories in which the enemies of the community who are causing all the trouble, mayhem, conflict, and natural disasters must be expelled or killed for peace and harmony to be restored. Because these trouble makers are both the cause of the crisis and the cure when they are expelled, the mythological mind sees them as divine beings, gods who are capable of harm as well as good. To call Islam a religion of myth is to call it a religion of violence and to accuse it of perpetuating this ambivalence about God’s nature. It’s a damning accusation made in sharp contrast to the parallel claim in mimetic theory that Christianity is the religion that exposed the lie of the mythological world by revealing that God is not fickle or ambivalent. The Christian God is a God without any violence at all; violence belongs to humans and God longs for us to leave it behind as a failed instrument of peace to embrace love and forgiveness instead.

God Grieves All Violence

I believe that this use of mimetic theory to condemn Islam is denounced by the theory itself. Mimetic theory does not condemn Islam as an archaic religion but rather condemns the practice of demonizing others for their violence while justifying our own. This sin is not exclusive to Muslims or to Christians; all of us are guilty at one time or another of believing that our own violence is necessary and good, justified by our noble ends and blessed by God. I embrace mimetic theory for its insight that no divine agency is required to understand the phenomenon of violence – violence belongs entirely to the domain of human beings. Mimetic theory critiques all explanations of God’s involvement with human affairs that deny human culpability for violence, whether Christian or Islamic.

Christian theologians using mimetic theory have shown me that God entered into the history of human violence at the Cross not to endorse violence but to discredit it once and for all. When Christians buy into theories that say that God required his son’s death for our salvation, they are falling victim to mythological thinking. They are no better than ISIL, which betrays its own religion’s insistence on mercy as God’s unique and defining characteristic. (For a deeper discussion of the nonviolent resources in Islam, see my Raven colleague Lindsey Paris-Lopez’s recent article, Thirteen Years of Interfaith Reconciliation: 9/11 Then and Now.)

When Christians seek to destroy ISIL for their use of violence, we fail to see that the Cross and the beheader’s axe reveal the same thing: God does not require the deaths of any victims, including his own Son; God grieves all such deaths. By allowing himself to be killed by agents of government and religious righteousness, God intended to send a clear message that “when you kill your enemy, no matter how convinced you are that you are doing my will, you are killing an innocent victim, one of my beloved children.” The message of the Cross is that peace will not come by way of violence. Look at our own reaction to the beheadings – have we responded with mercy and peace or have we been incited to murderous rage? The latter, of course.

By seeking to purify our world of ISIL, we are of the same mind with them as they seek to purify their world by violent means. We each define and defend our communities by whom we exclude and are willing to kill without remorse. This is “violent atonement”, a mythological way of thinking and the source of the eternal return of myth in which life repeats itself in endless, identical cycles never heading anywhere, devoid of hope. Those who hope for peace and who claim to follow the Prince of Peace must abandon our mythological belief that God approved of and required the violence at the Cross. Instead, we need to accept that the violence at the Cross was as abhorrent to God as the violence of ISIL beheadings and, an even more scandalous claim, the violence at the Cross was as abhorrent to God as the violence we commit against ISIL. Only then will we see that from the Cross, as a victim of human violence, God forgave us. Only then will we understand the radical mission that the risen and forgiving Christ entrusted to us – the ministry of reconciliation of all people. The only way out of the eternal, futile return of violence for violence is through the way of God’s “nonviolent atonement”: only inclusive, all-embracing, endlessly forgiving love returned for violence can transform individuals and the world. Christians will not be worthy of the name until we believe as strongly in the power of love as our Savior did from the Cross.

 

For a further exploration of the difference between myth and Scripture, see the study guide, Romulus & Remus Meet Cain & Abel. For use in small groups, it is available here in the Patheos Premium store. Other study guides from Teaching Nonviolent Atonement for adult and youth groups are available here. Coming soon, a live video chat exploring mimetic theory and Islam with Adam Ericksen and Lindsey Paris-Lopez. The chat information will be posted on the Raven Foundation Facebook page.