jesus resurrection

The Resurrection is No Myth, But It Is Dangerous

The resurrection is often packaged around cute little bunnies and plastic Easter eggs full of candy.

But resurrection isn’t soft and cuddly. Resurrection is dangerous. It is risky. It is not safe.

Resurrection is dangerous because it transforms how we relate to our fellow human beings, specifically to our enemies. And it transforms our understanding of the divine.

Throughout human history we have been caught up in cycles of violence – and we thought the gods were caught up in the same cycles of violence.

For example, the resurrection of Jesus is often compared to myths of resurrected gods throughout the ancient world. One such myth is about an Egyptian god named Horus and his father Osirus. Horus is portrayed as a good god that fought against the forces of evil, namely, an evil god named Set, who killed Horus’s father, a god named Osirus. Fortunately, Horus and his mother were able to resurrect Osirus. But the question remained, what should they to do about Set?

The resurrected Osirus asked Horus a question, “What is the most glorious deed a man can perform?”

Horus answered, “To take revenge upon one who has injured his father or mother.”*

And that’s what Horus did. Once he defeated Set in violent battle, Horus was acclaimed to be “lord of all the earth” and “once again established order and justice.”

There is a certain amount of truth within this myth. Throughout history, humans have thought that the only way to contain evil and violence is with our own violence. Horus wanted to destroy Set in order to establish peace, order, and justice. But the myth is honest about another motivation – no matter how good and just our violence seems to be, it always carries with it a motivation for revenge.

Ultimately, violence cannot be contained. It always escalates into cycles of increasing revenge. We see this cycle in ancient myths, but we also see it in the modern world. Just like the violence between Horus and Set, the United States believe that the way to deal with evil is to violently defeat our enemies. How does the United States respond to ISIS? We seek revenge by killing them.

In other words, Horus is our divine model.

The resurrection of Jesus tells a radically different story than the myth of Horus. Jesus was resurrected not to seek revenge against his enemies. No, the resurrection of Jesus is not a violent myth. The resurrection of Jesus is the Good News that God isn’t out for revenge. Rather, Jesus was resurrected to reveal God’s radical offer of peace and forgiveness.

After his death, the disciples were consumed with fear and locked themselves in a room. The resurrected Jesus suddenly appeared to them. While there, Jesus repeated the phrase, “Peace be with you” three times.

Why did Jesus have to repeat that phrase? Because if this was a myth like other resurrection myths, the disciples would have thought that the resurrected Jesus would seek revenge. The disciples had a lot to fear; after all, they just betrayed, denied, and abandoned Jesus to his death.

But the resurrection of Jesus was no myth. It was Gospel. It was the Good News that God doesn’t hold our sins against us, but forgives us, offers us peace, and invites us to extend that peace to others.

Most of us don’t believe in Jesus. We believe in the gods of myth. We believe in Horus. We believe in violence. Whether our next president is Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Hillary Clinton, if our enemies hit us, we will hit them back. And we will fool ourselves into believing that we will hit back so hard that our enemies will never even think about hitting us again. And the cycle of violence will continue. And Horus will be our god.

Unless we decide to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But faith in the resurrection is dangerous because the resurrection is God’s alternative to the myths of violence. When you believe the resurrection of Jesus, you can no longer fight violence with violence in the name of God. Rather, you “fight” violence with forgiveness. You don’t engage evil with more evil, but with love. Resurrection is dangerous because our enemies may respond to our offer of peace with violence. That’s the risk of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

But that risk is also our greatest hope for a more peaceful world.

*Told in World Mythology, second edition, edited by Donna Rosenberg, pages 165-168

Image: Flickr, “Resurrection 60,” by Waiting for the Word, Creative Commons License, some changes made

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Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 4 – The Politics of Terrorism and the Politics of Jesus

The Discussion:



Show Notes*

How should we respond to terrorist attacks in Paris?

Nearly 90% of people killed in American drone attacks were not targeted. American violence is terrorizing the Middle East, labeling all “unknown people it kills as ‘Enemies Killed in Action,’” but they are often civilians. (The Intercept: The Drone Papers: The Assassination Complex.)

Last Thursday, the United States killed “Jihadi John” in a drone strike, killing the man responsible for beheading Western journalists. (In the discussion, Adam mistakenly said he beheaded monks. That was a different ISIS group.) The Huffington Post wrote, “Britain said the death of the militant would strike at the heart of the Islamic State group.” Tragically, killing Jihadi John didn’t stop ISIS from striking back. The mimetic nature of violence reveals that violence is imitative and it escalates. Jesus gave the prophetic message that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We are experiencing the horrific pattern of escalating violence at work.

The logic of terrorism hopes to get a violent response in return for violence. That way terrorists can continue a narrative that they are actually the victims of Western aggression. In striking back, we give terrorists exactly what they want.

The Politics of Violence and the Politics of Jesus

Our violent political message isn’t working. Francois Hollande, President of France, said, “We are going to lead a war that will be pitiless.” He vowed to show “no mercy.” For Christians, this is in stark contrast to the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites us to living into. In the Beatitudes, Jesus claimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Just as violence is mimetic and will lead to a future of more violence, mercy is also mimetic. In other words, violence only ensures a future of violence. Mercy is our only possibility for a future of mercy and peace.

Negotiations alone won’t work. We also need reparations. So, what is a better solution to terrorism than responding with violence? Girardian Jean Michel-Oughourlian provides the answer in his book Psychopolitics,

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. (page 23)

*You may hear sounds in the background. That’s Lindsey’s toddler, which is also the reason for Lindsey’s side-glances.

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My Baccalaureate Address: A Life Worth Living: On Tragedy, Revenge, and Love

I was invited by Linfield College, my alma mater, to deliver the Baccalaureate Address to the graduating class of 2015. The text was based on Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 5:43-48. This was a great honor for me and I wanted to share the text with you –

My soon to be fellow Linfield graduates, it’s an honor to be with you tonight. It feels great to be back on this beautiful campus. I’m biased, but I deliver lectures on campuses throughout the country and I think this is the most beautiful campus in the US. The buildings, the grass, the trees, the flowers…The ground keepers do an amazing job keeping Linfield beautiful. I want to thank Chaplain David Massey and President Hellie for inviting me to talk with you tonight.

Tomorrow you will be a Linfield College graduate. And I want us to take a deep breath, step back, and acknowledge this accomplishment in your life. Your family, friends, and loved ones have come to help you celebrate. Professors, staff, and administrators who have walked with you through your Linfield experience are here to continue the journey with you.

Here’s an important stat for you – Do you realize that only 7 percent of people in the world have a college degree?

Let that sink in for a moment. 7 percent. Congratulate yourself. And give your neighbor a high five. Say to your neighbor, “You are the 7 percent.”

I recently had a conversation with a Linfield graduate’s father. This man’s daughter didn’t actually want to go to Linfield. She was enticed by some other schools. He said something that rang true with my Linfield experience. He said that when he met with the administration at those other schools, they boasted about how great their school was. They each claimed to be well respected colleges and they bragged about the famous people on their Board of Trustees.

But when he met with the administration at Linfield, they didn’t talk about how great Linfield was. Rather, they talked about how great their students were and how much Linfield cared about them. The Dean of Students gave concrete details about how Linfield cares about its students and wants them to succeed in college and in life. This man was sold by a sense that Linfield genuinely cares about its students and with some persuading, his daughter attended Linfield. And I’m glad she did because during my junior year I asked her if she’d like to go to Taco Bell and then do some shopping at Walmart with me – because that’s how I show people a good time. Surprisingly, she said yes. I knew then that she was the one. Three years later I asked her to marry me. Surprisingly, she said yes again. I’ve been married to my Linfield sweetheart for 13 years. We still love Taco Bell, but now Carrie and I do most of our shopping at Costco.

But my father-in-law’s statement that Linfield cares about its students was proved true by my experience. I first walked onto Linfield’s campus as a student 18 years ago. If you are like me, the four years I spent at Linfield went by so fast. My freshman year I moved into Campbell Hall – did anyone here live in Campbell? – yeah, give it up for Campbell Hall everyone…My sophomore year I became a Resident Advisor. Any RA’s here? If you were an RA give yourselves a round of applause. Okay, the rest of you can boo. Please know that we RAs hated writing you up. It hurt us much more than it hurt you…

God, Suffering, and Answers that Matter

I began Linfield as a history major. I enjoyed history, but at the end of my sophomore year I experienced a personal tragedy. My mother died after a 10 year battle with cancer. I began to ask questions about God, suffering, and death. If God is good, then why is there so much evil in the world? Does God even care? Why is there cancer? Why do people suffer? And what, if anything, am I supposed to do about it?

Linfield didn’t so much offer me intellectual answers to those questions about my mother’s death. It offered me something so much more important. It offered me care. It offered me love.

I remember telling my friends at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when she died. There must have been 80 of us in that small living room. People gasped as I reported her death from earlier in the day. Then there were hugs. I needed those hugs.

My junior year I switched my major to religious studies. My professors Bill Apel, Bill Millar, David Massey, and Stephen Snyder were much more than professors. They were caring guides who offered a compassionate presence. They walked with me as I struggled through the emotions of processing my mother’s death. They allowed space for me to ask my questions, but they didn’t force answers on me. They cared. And that was the most important answer that they could have given.

My professors taught me how to care for others during our classes, too. For example, I took World Religions with Bill Apel. We got to the section on Buddhism and Bill said to the class, “Here’s what Buddhism is like.” He then stood up, left our classroom, and shut the door. That, in and of itself is very Buddhist, but after a few seconds, he reentered, looked at us, and said, “Hi. How are you doing today?”

I remember thinking in that moment, “Oh, that’s cool. Buddhism is awesome. I want to become a Buddhist. I think I’ll convert…” But I was too lazy.

My professors were very important to me, and staff members were just as important in being a compassionate presence during this time. Delaine Hein, Dan Fergueson, Dan Preston, Jeff Mackay, and so many others offered caring words and a shoulder to cry on. Even the president at the time, Vivian Bull, spent extra time with me as I grieved.

As I continued struggling through my personal tragedy, a national tragedy struck our nation. At the beginning of my senior year, on 9/11/2001, a group of religious fanatics flew a plane into the World Trade Center. I remember waking up on that horrific morning in our HP apartment and walking to the living room. My three roommates were already there with their eyes glued to the television screen as the tragedy unfolded.

Once again, in the face of tragedy, I witnessed Linfield’s care for students. David Massey performed a memorial service on the Oak Grove. Many students, faculty, and professors came to mourn. During the ceremony, David asked if anyone would like to make any comments. A commuter student from Newberg stepped forward. She was visibly shaken and in tears as she told us about a family member who moved to New York to work in the towers. He was killed as the towers fell. I remember her weeping in front of us. Her pain was so real and there was nothing we could do to take her pain away. And so we tried to care for her the best way we knew how – we listened to her story and tried to offer her a compassionate presence.

A few days later there was an all campus meeting in the basement of Melrose Hall to talk about religion and reconciliation. There were Muslim students there. They expressed deep sorrow that people hijacked their religion and caused such destruction and death. The grief on their faces was palpable. They were in pain. And in the midst of their pain my Muslim classmates didn’t need any condemnation or hostility. They needed care. They needed love. They needed acceptance. They needed a compassionate presence. And that’s what we tried to give them.

Life’s Most Important Lessons

It was at Linfield where I learned my most important lessons in life. It’s where I learned how to care about myself and others. It’s where I learned how to deal with tragedy. And you have learned that, too. You have gone through personal tragedies and tragedies that have struck this community. And in the face of that tragedy, Linfield has taught you one of its most important life lessons: how to care for yourself and others by offering a compassionate presence.

Since graduating from Linfield, I’ve learned that it’s not a matter of *if* tragedy will strike again. It’s a matter of *when.* For example, during the last year, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Eugene. My first call to our Emergency Department was for a 23 year old patient who had a massive heart attack during a Ducks football game.

Unfortunately, he died. At age 23. My job in that moment, was to put into action what Linfield taught me – my job was not to come up with answers, but to be a compassionate presence and journey with his girlfriend, his family, and his friends as they grieved his death.

Listen, I don’t tell you that story to scare you. I’m telling you that story because life is fragile. Life is a precious gift.

As far as I know, we only have this one precious life. Your mission is to make this one precious life you have a life worth living. This is the wisdom I’ve learned from my elderly patients at the hospital who are nearing death. They don’t fear death. Instead, many of them fear that they haven’t lived a life worth living. By the phrase “life worth living,” none of these elderly patients mean such things as: Did I make enough money? Could I have bought a bigger house? Could I have exerted more political influences? Could I have won more arguments during my life?

No, what they mean by a “life worth living” is did they care enough for people. Did they love others enough? Have they reconciled with family and friends?

Because, you see, a life worth living isn’t based on worldly standards of success. I know many rich people who are consumed with their money. They’re unhappy people. They are isolated and lonely because they have alienated themselves from family and friends. They are bitter and angry because they live in fear of losing their worldly success.

And I know a lot of rich people who aren’t consumed with their money. They are generous people. They don’t live in fear of losing anything. Rather, they give their time, money, and talent to help make their community a better place.

A Life Worth Living

So, please hear this: The world doesn’t need any more bitter, fearful, and angry people in it. The world doesn’t need any more people who define themselves by their money, cars, houses or other material goods. Rather, the world needs more people to live a life worth living by being what Linfield has taught us to be: a compassionate presence as we care for ourselves and others.

Our Hebrew Scripture text this evening puts it like this: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We tend to rush to the second part of the verse that commands us to love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s a crucial statement, but notice the first part of the verse – “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.” That’s so important because seeking revenge and bearing a grudge is what we humans tend to do. It is our natural default position. It’s often hard to be a compassionate presence because we tend to be reactionary when we feel someone has done us wrong. When someone insults us, we want to return the insult. When someone hits us, we want to hit back. Just look at the news. We see this reaction of revenge on a personal, national, and international scale every day.

Now, I don’t know from personal experience, but I’ve heard that even married couples get into bitter cycles of revenge. At least, I’ve seen it on television. One person might say something in the morning that the other person finds insulting. Then for the rest of the day, the person who felt insulted will think of ways to get revenge, usually by bringing up old wounds. She might bring up his ex-girlfriend. Or he might bring up how she got fired from her previous job. This cycle of revenge can consume any relationship, but especially a marriage, with a spirit of bitterness and hostility, as opposed to a spirit of love and compassion.

We know from human history that this cycle of revenge easily escalates on a personal, communal, national, and international level until real damage is done resulting in horrific violence and tragedy. But it doesn’t have to escalate. Someone can be courageous enough to stop the cycle of revenge.

And the world needs you to stop the cycle. The world needs you to live out the phrase, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.” We’ve been seeking revenge and bearing grudges since the beginning of human history. The human reactionary position is to blame someone else for our problems. We scapegoat others thinking that if we get rid of them our problems will be solved. Unfortunately, when we defeat one enemy, another one emerges to take its place.

That’s the nature of revenge and the wisdom behind our scriptural passage. Revenge never solves our problems; it only creates more problems and tragedies in the world. A life of revenge and grudges is not a life worth living.

Which is why the second part of our passage is so important. Instead of seeking revenge and bearing a grudge, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus even extends this message by saying, “Love your enemies.” I’m convinced that the world would be a much better place if a group of people actually decided that they would stop seeking revenge and instead seek to be a compassionate presence in the world as they love others as they love themselves. Whether your next step in life is a job, graduate school, travel the world, or move back in with your parents, to love your neighbor as you love yourself is your basic life mission.

Now, I’m not trying to tell you to solve the world’s problems. God knows we have some serious and complicated problems. If we try to solve the world’s problems we can begin to feel overwhelmed and hopeless about them.

Don’t begin by trying to solve the world’s problems. A life worth living begins by managing your own problems. You can’t control how others will react to you. The only person you can control is yourself. So, when you find yourself reacting by seeking revenge or bearing a grudge, stop. Don’t project your own problems onto others. Don’t scapegoat. Don’t blame someone else. Instead, remember what Linfield and our scriptural passages have taught you. Put down your verbal bullets and bombs. There are enough bullets and bombs in the world. We don’t need any more.

What we need are people who care. The world needs the 7 percent of people with college degrees to use our brains to find creative ways to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s what the world needs from you because the world’s transformation starts with each of us managing our own impulse to revenge and learning how to respond to tragedy and violence with love and care.

So, may you take your Linfield experience with you knowing that you have a mission. May you move forward with your life, refusing to participate in the ugly cycle of revenge and scapegoating. And in the face of tragedy and violence that you will experience, may you live a life worth living as you participate in the spiritual tradition that calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.


Mandy Patinkin and the Princess Bride: Justice, Revenge, and Jewish Spirituality

If you were on Facebook or Twitter last week, you probably saw the CBS interview with Mandy Patinkin. He’s probably best known for this line from the classic movie The Princess Bride:

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The Princess Bride was released when I was 16. My friends and I would throw that line back and forth whenever we competed against one another. Monopoly. Basketball. Chess. Nintendo. Rock, paper, scissors. It didn’t matter. Like anyone with a pulse during the late 1980s, we repeated that phrase endlessly. It was our favorite line in the movie.

That and “Mawwiage…”

But that’s not Mandy’s favorite line. Twenty years after The Princes Bride became a pop culture icon, Mandy began to hear one of his lines from the movie that he’d overlooked when he spoke them two decades ago:

I have been in the revenge business so long that, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.

Those two lines are very powerful statements about revenge. Inigo’s sole mission in life was to avenge his father’s death. The problem is that he succeeded! Once he killed his father’s killer his life had no meaning. The truth about revenge is that it leaves us empty. Sure, there’s a thrill in the hunt, but revenge will either leave us killed or, as in Inigo’s case, empty and without a future.

Mandy adds this important point in the interview with CBS:

The purpose of revenge is, in my personal opinion, completely worthless and pointless. And the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, not be revengeful. And turn our darkness into light.

Indeed, revenge is worthless. In fact, it’s worse than worthless. Yet revenge is seductive because it always disguises itself as justice. Now, I admire people who are tenaciously committed to justice, but I’m also afraid of them. Their determined pursuit of justice is often contaminated by revenge. Revenge seeks to right a wrong committed against us through violent punishment, but revenge doesn’t just stop at righting a wrong – revenge always escalates.

The problem is not with justice. The problem is with our violent methods in pursuing justice. We think violence will solve the violent injustice committed against us. As James Warren points out in his masterful book on mimetic theory Compassion or Apocalypse: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, humans have always been prone to violence as a way to solve violence. “From the very beginning of the human experience, because of its power both to destroy…and to generate results…violence was seen as both the number one problem and the number one solution” (122).

Violence against an enemy has always been our number one solution because it does provide a sense of justice, but the problem is that violence is always mimetic. We non-consciously imitate the violence of our “enemy” as we mutually pursue justice with violence. Of course, our violence is “good” and justified, while our enemies is “bad” and unjust. Unfortunately, our enemy believes their violence is good and justified, while ours is bad and unjust.

Now, if the purpose of existence is to embrace our fellow human being, then not only is revenge worthless, but violence itself is pointless. Violence seeks to destroy our fellow human beings, not embrace them.

Again, the problem is not our pursuit of justice. The problem is our violent methods. When we use violence in the name of justice, it will always be perceived as revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge, which will lead to a mimetic act of revenge…all in the name of “justice.”

What’s the solution? Mandy is Jewish and has talked about his spirituality. One of the quotes from the Hebrew Bible that often gets lifted up in Christian circles is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, the Jewish Jesus quoted that passage from Leviticus, but we don’t usually hear the whole quote of Leviticus 19:18:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Revenge, of course, is a synonym for vengeance. In Judaism and Christianity, you are not permitted to take revenge “against any of your people.” Rather, you are commanded to love them. So, who belongs to “your people”? Just like the Jewish Jesus, Mandy includes everyone in that category.

No revenge. No violence. Pursue justice with nonviolent love.

Agamemnon Revisited: Peace and Violence at “The Water’s Edge”

water edgeThere is an unholy trinity at the center of Theresa Rebeck’s play, The Water’s Edge, making its Chicago premiere with the AstonRep Theatre Company this fall. Helen and her two adult children, Nate (27) and Erica (23), have been living for seventeen years in their house at the edge of the lake in which a third child, Lea, drowned at the age of five. They are bound together by an unholy compact: Helen assigns blame for Lea’s death to Richard, her husband and their father, nurturing resentment toward him for what the police ruled an accidental drowning. The price of family unity is paid in silence: Nate and Erica permit their mother her righteous anger and abide by an unspoken agreement never to mention Lea, her death or how it happened. The play begins with Richard’s return and chronicles how his mere presence disrupts the compact precipitating a predictable descent into violence.

Rebeck’s play is described as a modern take on the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, and so for most audiences the appearance of violence in her modern version is not a surprise. Greek tragedy is filled with violence, though it always takes place off stage, out of the audience’s view. Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians treat their audiences to bloodied clothes, hands dripping red, and monologues or choral accounts of gruesome battles and violent frenzies. Violence hovers over their characters like a bird of prey, an ever present threat from which no one is entirely exempt. Kings and peasants alike can become its victims and this arbitrariness causes the great and the small to tremble in fear. The Greek tragedies, though their plots and characters are taken from myth, reveal an all too real fear in the ancient world, that of runaway cycles of revenge violence. Agamemnon has just returned from the Trojan War, a senseless ten year bloodbath that consumed the armies of both the victor and the vanquished. A war launched by an aggrieved husband seeking revenge for his wife’s betrayal. The subject of revenge spiraling out of control until it destroys entire nations is the tragedian’s main theme.

In his seminal book on sacrificial violence, Violence and the Sacred, René Girard describes why violence in the ancient world can be so difficult to contain:

Why does the spirit of revenge, wherever it breaks out, constitute such an intolerable menace? Perhaps because the only satisfactory revenge for spilt blood is spilling the blood of the killer; and in the blood feud there is no clear distinction between the act for which the killer is being punished and the punishment itself. Vengeance professes to be an act of reprisal, and every reprisal calls for another reprisal. (p 14)

In his preface to his translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford, comments on this difficulty of discerning the punishment from the crime:

The trilogy of the Oresteia, of which this play is the first part, centres on the old and everlastingly unsolved problem of “The ancient blinded vengeance and the wrong that amendeth the wrong.” Every wrong is justly punished; yet as the world goes, every punishment becomes a new wrong, calling for fresh vengeance.

But why update this play? What risk is there in our modern world of runaway cycles of revenge? This is a problem of the ancient world, not ours. In our world, punishment is meted out by judicial authorities who have such a monopoly on violence that their “violence”, that is their fines and prison sentences and death penalties, do not risk reprisals. Judicial violence brings the risk of reprisals to an end. And yet Rebeck offers us Helen, the contemporary Clytemnestra, the aggrieved wife, whose anger is barely contained and whose hatred shimmers like a reflecting pool beneath her mother’s love. The modern temptation, living as we are on this side of the invention of individual psychology, is to say that Helen has not found a healthy way to process the loss of her child or to express her grief and so she buries it inside where it festers until it and she explode in madness. So bewitched by Freud are we, that we face the same temptation in analyzing Clytemnestra’s killing of her husband Agamemnon to avenge their daughter’s death. Iphigenia was sacrificed to the gods by Agamemnon at the beginning of the Trojan War and Clytemnestra cannot forgive him. But the ancient explanation of madness or violence is not a psychological one, and I think that Rebeck’s update is meant to call that psychological explanation into doubt.

Much time and energy is spent in The Water’s Edge on the issue of who is to blame for Lea’s death.  Despite much conversation and debate, the play never settles the question. We hear different perspectives – Helen’s, the police, Richard’s, Nate’s – but the end of the play is not a resolution of this problem. That is because the central problem of the play is not “Who is responsible for Lea’s death?” That’s the problem of a modern crime drama, not a Greek tragedy. It’s why crime dramas have tidy endings and tragedies end in paroxysms of blood. The tragic problem is the one Rebeck is concerned with: “Will we be able to find someone we can all blame for this death so that it does not lead to another?” In her play, as in the ancient Greek tragedies, the different perspectives we are presented with are actually different attempts at picking a scapegoat. In crime dramas we call them “suspects” and we follow the police detectives as they try to build a case to see who committed the crime. The detectives are concerned with actual guilt, but in the ancient world actual guilt was secondary. Of primary importance was unanimity – who can we all agree on to take the rap. Finding a scapegoat to blame, innocence or guilt aside, someone on whom everyone can agree is guilty, will end the risk of escalating violence as surely as a judgment passed down in a court of law. If the scapegoating fails then wrong follows wrong, every punishment becomes a new wrong which must be avenged and so death follows death.

The nuclear family of Helen, Nate and Erica was held together by using Richard as their scapegoat. It worked so well for so long for two reasons: Richard agreed to play the part of scapegoat (“She needs my guilt,” Richard says of Helen, “and I gave it to her.”) and silence was the glue that held the alliance together. This is the ancient formula for a successful remedy to revenge violence: a scapegoat is chosen and silence follows. What often escapes our notice is the ubiquitous role the scapegoat continues to play in human groups even today. At the individual level, many of us do what Helen does – we play the role of victim and sanctify our innocence over against the guilt of another, a guilt that can be real or imagined. We nurse resentment towards this person who seems to care only for him or herself and whose only desire is our suffering. In family groups the scapegoat role is more easily recognized. How often is there a black sheep in a family, becoming the center for an unholy unity formed through gossip and blame? In political scandals, a rather wily defense is to claim to be a scapegoat, a victim others are accusing in order to avoid being caught in some guilty act themselves. Political parties and nations form unity and solidarity by effectively designating scapegoats, outside enemies whom we can all unite against, effectively solidifying a spirit of national pride. Scapegoating deflects blame, solidifies our sense of ourselves as good people, and eases a community’s internal strife by focusing on an outside threat. It works as well today as it did thousands of years ago. And though the risk of revenge violence has been greatly reduced due to our judicial system, scapegoating continues to create false and unstable identities, victimize innocent people, and generate international conflicts in order to keep the peace at home. Civil wars and armed rebellions are modern signs that scapegoating by that nation’s politicians has failed.

The Water’s Edge is a cautionary tale. It opens with the scapegoat refusing to play his part. Richard arrives with a romantic vision of the lake’s beauty and a persistent rejection of culpability in his daughter’s death. His insistence that the drowning was no one’s fault contrasts sharply with Helen’s shrill command to her son to never refer to Lea’s death as an accident. As Helen’s narrative of Richard’s guilt suffers assault after assault, the seventeen year reign of peace in the house at the water’s edge collapses.

The play ends with murder and a plan in place for the next one. Nate concludes the play with a pronouncement worthy of Aeschylus, “That’s the way it is, in nature. There isn’t any justice. There’s just the thing that comes next.” Audiences leave the theater wondering where it will end.

Glenn Greenwald and the British Government: A Tale of Truth and Revenge

Glenn Greenwald (Credit: AP/Kin Cheung)

Glenn Greenwald (Credit: AP/Kin Cheung)

When Glen Greenwald published the secrets exposed by Edward Snowden about the NSA, he was motivated to tell us the truth about that agency’s questionable security tactics. But now Greenwald is motivated by revenge. He wants to retaliate against British Government for detaining his partner for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Greenwald claims it was an abuse of power and an act of intimidation. According to the Huffington Post, Greenwald thinks the British Government, “wanted to intimidate our journalism, to show that they have power and will not remain passive but will attack us more intensely if we continue publishing their secrets.”

Greenwald’s response is interesting from the viewpoint of mimetic theory. The use of power to intimidate is meant to influence someone to stop doing what they are doing – in this case to stop publishing government secrets.

And yet it had the opposite effect on Greenwald. The abuse of power has only made Greenwald more determined in his reporting, “I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many more documents. I am going to publish things on England too. I have many documents on England’s spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they did.”

I’m sure Greenwald is right that this was an abuse of power and an act of intimidation. Interestingly, mimetic theory helps us understand the psychology behind why the British Government’s power tactics didn’t work. Mimetic theory claims that humans are imitative creatures. According to René Girard, we have “an irresistible impulse to desire what Others desire, in other words, to imitate the desires of others” (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 12).

It’s easy to see this in the advertising business. If you advertise a product with an attractive model who looks happy, people will want the product.

But Greenwald’s response shows us a deeper truth to mimetic theory. Far more powerful than the mimetic impulse toward objects is the mimetic impulse toward the non-physical – toward things like power and prestige. So, instead of Greenwald imitating the British Government’s desire for him to stop publishing secrets, Greenwald is imitating the British Government’s grasp for power by mimicking the exact same method to gain power against the other: intimidation.

Please note that I am not defending Governmental power tactics against journalist. What I want to point out is the very mimetic, and thus very human, nature of this series of events. The American Government and its ally the British Government felt attacked by Greenwald and so they wanted to retaliate. Greenwald now feels attacked by those governments and so he wants to retaliate. Once Greenwald retaliates, those Governments will retaliate. And the imitative cycle of retaliation will continue to escalate.

To be human is to know this mimetic cycle of revenge. Siblings, husbands and wives, politicians, church members, business partners, the list goes on – no one leaves this earth without experiencing this violent cycle that can quickly escalate out of control. Obviously, in this case the escalation of the cycle of revenge is a real danger to Greenwald and the Government, but it’s even more dangerous to the truth. When it comes to revenge, the first thing sacrificed is always the truth. Can we trust governments or journalist to tell the truth when they are motivated by revenge? I don’t think so.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. As James Williams points out in The Girard Reader, we can be freed from this cycle. I don’t know exactly what freedom from the cycle specifically looks like for Greenwald and the British Government, but according to Williams, “liberation [comes] through the release experienced in love and forgiveness” (290).

Maybe when it comes to Greenwald and the British Government, love and forgiveness is too much to ask for, but maybe not. When it comes to our mimetic nature, we don’t always have to imitate power tactics and intimidation. Many would think it’s a sign of weakness, but the truth is that it’s a sign of great strength whenever someone transform a relationship of intimidation and abuse of power not with more intimidation and abuses of power, but with love and forgiveness.

The Forgiving Corpse: A Parable

Lookingglass Theatre ensemble Member Philip R. Smith, Beth Lacke and Eddie Martinez
Photo by Liz Lauren

How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.

Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!

When we first meet him, Stewart is not very Christ-like. He is a petty criminal who has just bargained his way out of prison by fingering another guy for murder. His betrays his brother Trent who has given him a job by stealing from Trent’s construction site, wrecking his truck and claiming to be sleeping with Trent’s wife. That last one was just to mess with Trent’s mind, but conning is such a part of Stewart’s life that he can’t help stealing from and lying to the only person who is on his side. In a rage at being betrayed, Trent chases him with a screwdriver which somehow ends up embedded in the top of Stewart’s skull. It is never clear whether it was an accident or a deliberate act, but it makes Stewart a walking dead guy and Trent guilty of manslaughter if not murder.

Two things make Stewart into an allegory for Christ. First, like the resurrected Christ he does not fit neatly into the usual categories of “alive” and “dead”. As James Alison says in Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice:

The Risen Lord is not the Lord recovered from a nasty bout of ‘death’. The Risen Lord is this dead man, who lived his thirty-three years and was killed: he is the whole life and death of this dead man being held in life in such a way that death doesn’t close him down. This is a very difficult thing for us to grasp, because ordinarily being alive and being dead are two equal and opposite realities: you can only be one of them at any given time. We can’t easily understand the sort of ‘being alive’ that is able to assume within it, take inside itself, ‘a being dead’ without being in rivalry with that.

Alison makes a good point, one that Stewart gives us access to, with a nice touch of humor. Not being in rivalry with death would probably make us all a bit more prone to laughing at ourselves and our situations, which would be a good thing. In other words, not being in rivalry with death would enable us to be fully alive because we would not also at the same time be expending psychic energy to deny or fend off the reality of our death. What sort of life would that make possible? Here’s how Stewart explains his new reality to his brother:

I got all this, this energy, Trent. Major buzz, man. Everything brighter. Daytime gimme a headache, but night, Christ, it’s like the lights are alive, man. Like I been given a gift. Chance to get it right.

What does Stewart want to get right? Here is the second parallel to Christ: he wants to forgive his brother for killing him. Before the screwdriver, Stewart was anything but forgiving. He used and abused others without any remorse. But just before he succumbs to the wound, he tells the detective pursuing him:

Stewart: I don’t wanna press charges, okay?

Podaris: That’s not typically the dead guy’s call, Stew.

Stewart: That dead got no rights?

Podaris: Not this side of paradise

Stewart: I been f–in’ up my whole life, Podaris. Lemme put one thing right before I – Trent’s     got a family. Kids.

Normally when dead men talk it’s to complain and accuse from beyond the grave. Ghosts come back to haunt their killers and seek revenge (the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a classic example), not to offer forgiveness. But Stewart, the not-quite-alive-not-yet-dead talking corpse, isn’t out for revenge. He offers forgiveness instead. Being already dead seems to have released Stewart from being in rivalry with death and so opened up the possibility for a fullness of life he had not experienced before. When we talk about Christ having conquered death, I think this is what we mean – that being alive is freed from being defined over-against death and so life becomes so much more. For Stewart, other over-against ways of being something collapse, too, so he no longer needs his brother to be wrong to know himself as right, to be a murderer to know he is innocent, to be a perpetrator so Stewart can cling to a victim identity. All of it melts away and this gift, as he calls it, is what enables Stewart to forgive his brother.

That’s as good an imitation of Christ as you can get. If Stewart can forgive a wound unto death, we must ask ourselves if we can forgive lessor wounds, the mundane hurts and betrayals at the hands of brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends and co-workers that we suffer each day rather than harbor resentment, hatred, and plans to get even. Freed from rivalry with death and with each other, it is what the imitation of Christ would look like if it leapt off the pages of the Bible and off the stage of the Lookingglass Theater into our lives. As Stewart might say, what a gift!

The Ethics of Revenge: Bin Laden, Navy SEALs and Shakespeare

“No Easy Day”, a firsthand account of the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is not even out yet and it’s already a bestseller on and The author who tried to publish under a pseudonym has been identified by Fox News, his book is under investigation by the Pentagon for possible national security violations, and jihadists are calling for his assassination. He can’t be surprised to find himself in all this hot water, so I wonder what motivated him to write the book. And I wonder what story he decided to tell about the raid. Because there are two ways to tell the story of a violent act, one that ennobles and justifies it and one that calls the goodness and necessity of the violence into question. When it comes to our own violence, we cling to the first and avoid the second so as not to find ourselves in a no man’s land of moral ambiguity, uncertainty and self-doubt.

One way to tell the noble version of violence was very popular in Shakespeare’s day. It’s called the revenge tragedy. Certain elements often appeared, elements that we find in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet: a corrupt court, a usurper, a ghost, poison, and scenes of madness. The point of the revenge play was to build up to the cathartic moment when the revenge was enacted to the delight of the audience who were never asked to question the ethics of revenge itself. We get something a bit more complicated in Hamlet: Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a reluctant avenger in order to call faith in revenge into question, though often that challenge escapes our view. Much of the literary criticism surrounding Hamlet’s hesitation to kill his father’s murderer assumes that revenge is justified and that the only problem is why this man finds it so difficult to act like a good and noble son. In other words, we are very much in thrall to the first story I mentioned, the one in which violence is noble when used by good people to right a wrong. And so, as René Girard asks ironically in Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, “Why should a well-educated young man have second thoughts when it comes to the killing of a close relative who also happens to be the king of the land and the husband of his own mother?” From within faith in the ethics of revenge, there is no good reason at all.

Yet Hamlet is consumed by second thoughts and so he questions the whole vengeance apparatus. But rather than root for him to withdraw completely from the entanglements of justified violence, interpreters of the play try to help him overcome his psychological problems, his mommy issues or madness or frustrated sexual desires so that he can kill the king. Girard comments on our confusion over Hamlet’s reluctance, “This is some enigma indeed, and the problem is not that a satisfactory answer has never been found, but that we should keep looking for one.”

That we keep looking means that we have not yet relinquished our belief in the goodness of revenge, a belief that forms the foundation for the prevailing story of the Navy SEAL raid that ended with bin Laden’s death. It may be that “No Easy Day” will not challenge our faith in revenge or that its challenge will escape our notice just as Shakespeare’s has for 400 years. But perhaps “No Easy Day” will allow us a glimpse of the uncomfortable truth that haunted Hamlet: to kill the murderer of his father is to become a murder himself. Shakespeare wanted us to see that revenge violence is madness and only the truly sane refuse to live by its ethics. To be mad or not to be is still the question.


Evil and Justice in a Broken World: The NCAA and Penn State

Good people want justice. Good people know that the world is broken and most of that brokenness is due to people committing acts of evil. When good people desire justice, they desire to set the world right from the consequences of evil.

Justice is a good thing. But it is also a complicated thing. There is truth you might not suspect in the cliché that “Justice is blind,” because our desire for justice can blind good people to unintended consequences.

For example, let’s examine the judgment yesterday by the NCAA against Penn State University. A terrible evil was committed by an assistant football coach of the university. That evil produced multiple victims, victims who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. Even more evil, though, was the giant cover up made by top Penn State officials, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno. Those officials knew about the evil, and yet allowed it to continue for years.

Good people are horrified. They see the evil of that kind of system and we want to make things right. We want justice.

And so at a press conference yesterday the good people at NCAA provided some justice. The organization announced six penalties against Penn State, all of which the University agreed to without contest.

Upon my first reading, the punishments seemed just. One punishment that I thought was particularly just was that “PSU vacates all wins from 1998-2011. The loss of 111 career wins drops Joe Panterno from atop the all time wins list to 12th.” Since Joe Paterno seems to have known about the evil acts beginning in 1998, I thought this was a just punishment against his legacy.

But then I read this tweet made by Adam Taliaferro, a football player at Penn State who sustained a career ending injury during the 2000 season: “NCAA says games didn’t exist. I got the metal plate in my neck to prove it did. I almost died playing 4 PSU. Punishment or healing?!? #WeAre [Penn State]” 

Taliaferro reminds us that justice often has unintended consequences. Our pursuit of justice, our pursuit to set the world right from evil, blinds us to the evil our justice causes. Taliaferro asks, “Why am I being punished for crimes I didn’t commit?” And then there is the reaction in the video below of current Penn State students as they heard the breaking news yesterday. “Why,” they wonder, “are we being punished?
Of course, many good people are quick to remind us that the real victims in this case are the children. And, of course, the children are real victims. But I wonder, does our pursuit of justice require good people to become blind to the victims of our justice? Does justice require us to pit victims against each other – claiming that one set of victims is more “real” than another?

If that’s what justice requires, then “good people” should acknowledge that there is an element of evil within our pursuit justice. Abraham Heschel claimed that “More frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty, and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of good.” A justice that seeks to set the world right, but creates other victims, is a justice that doesn’t really set the world right. It creates more victims that we justify by claiming that justice sometimes demands more victims.

Justice is a good thing. Setting the world right is a good goal. But the pursuit of justice is a dangerous endeavor because it is a good where evil can thrive. It is a good thing that is likely to produce more victims. The victims of justice naturally become resentful because they desire the exact same thing that good people desire: justice. Taliaferro, along with his fellow Penn State football players of the last 15 years, and current Penn state students are right to claim it is unjust that they are being punished for crimes they didn’t commit.

Justice is complicated. Frankly, I don’t envy the good people at the NCAA for making a decision about this case. For the most part, our culture believes that justice demands some form of punishment. And so that’s what they did. They punished those responsible for this horrendous act of evil. Unfortunately, that punishment had unjust consequences that affected many innocent people. And so good people must ask, Is that just? Does that set the world right? Or does it add to the injustice of the world?

Good people should not be blind to the consequences of their pursuit of justice. Good people know that true justice is universal. It’s for everyone. True justice doesn’t produce more victims. Rather, true justice would set the world right for everyone. Good people seek to protect innocent victims. And good for the NCAA for attempting to do just that. But good people don’t turn a blind eye to the suffering caused by their decision, especially the suffering caused by their decisions in the name of justice.


The Choices: State of Grace or Mortal Sin

“… everything seems to indicate that violent imitation is the rule of the day.” – Rene Girard, Battling to the End, 13.

Does imitative violence rule the day, as Girard suggests? There is good reason to take his warning seriously.  During the last two weeks we have seen examples of imitative violence in the name of justice.  First there was Troy Davis, who was executed on September 21 for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.  Then there was the successful drone attack on September 30 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.  “The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliates,” claimed President Obama.  He further stated that the radical Muslim cleric played “the lead role in planning and directing the efforts to murder innocent Americans.”

There is nothing remarkable about those deaths.  They are predictable in a world where imitative violence rules the day.  Surrounding both deaths, though, something remarkable has happened. People are protesting.  Politicians, movie stars, and the average Joe throughout the world started wearing “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts and pointed to the state of Georgia lack of evidence connecting him to the murder of MacPhail.  Despite President Obama’s assertions, many people throughout the world are left questioning the legality of the drone attack.  And, when asked whether or not the US possessed concrete proof of al-Awaki’s involvement in violent operations against the US, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no answer.

No proof.  No answers.

Violence seems to rule the day, but there is something remarkable going on.  It’s remarkable, others might say crazy, to see people identifying with a convicted murder who is about to be executed by a state.  It’s remarkable when American citizens question the legality of killing a man who incites militant violence against their fellow Americans.

What’s going on here is either satanic or it’s the Holy Spirit.

In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard asks how it is that Satan rules the world.  “It is [through] the mimetic all-against-one or single victim mechanism.”  The satanic principle unites humans together in violence against an enemy.  In the midst of violent chaos, targeted violence creates order.  Soon, chaos returns, and target violence once again creates order.  Here we see that the satanic principle of violence creates chaos and order.

But humans have begun to see the foolishness of the satanic principle.  Guilt or innocence really doesn’t matter.  Now, I know what you are thinking – I have thought it too.  What if someone found proof that Davis really was guilty?  And, there is plenty of proof that al-Alwaki was recruiting people to attack Americans.  Isn’t the world be a better place without those violent men?

I understand that argument, but I also know the argument is dangerous.  In killing another we are reinforcing the satanic principle that violence is an appropriate way to solve problems.  The message we gave is that it is proper to use violence in the name of justice.  The problem is that everyone claims to use violence in the name of justice.  That’s part of the satanic principle of violence.

So, what are we left with?  We’re left with hope.  Because the powers of Satan are coming to an end.  We see it more and more as people protest these killings.  Let’s say Davis and al-Alwaki are guilty.  Should we still identify with them?  Should we still wear “I am Troy Davis shirts” and should we still question the legality of the drone attacks?

I say yes.  I say yes because we are all born into a world ruled by the satanic mechanism.  Our world continually provides us with the absurd message that violence is the appropriate means to solve our problem with violence.  That message is Satanic and the worst thing we can do is believe in it.  But there is an alternative message of hope that we are increasingly hearing.  It is the hope of reconciliation, reconciliation even with our enemies.  We have the choice, but it’s all or nothing.  “Sooner or later either humanity will renounce violence without sacrifice or it will destroy the planet.  Humanity will either be in a state of grace or in mortal sin” (Girard, Battling, 21).

And those are our choices.  Either we live in gracious love towards all, including those we call our enemies, or we live in mortal sin that seeks to destroy our enemies, and, in the process, destroy our world.  The time is dire, but when people start wearing “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts, I have reason to hope.