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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

 

Photo: Flickr, Flbonacci Blue, Creative Commons Licence, some modifications

The Planned Parenthood Scandal: Beyond the Morality Police

Planned Parenthood was put on the defensive last week when a heavily edited video surfaced of a Planned Parenthood executive discussing the organizations procedures for organ and tissue donations.

The scandal provides a perfect moral dilemma for our culture to discuss the morality of Planned Parenthood. The older I get, the more I realize that morality is tricky business.

That’s because in these types of culture wars everyone couches their arguments in the name of moral goodness. Each side claims the mantle of goodness, while they demonize their opponents.

For example, the Center for Medical Progress, the group that recorded and edited the video, claims that the recording proves Planned Parenthood is lying about violating federal law by selling fetal organs for profit and using unethical practices of altering standard abortion procedures.

Planned Parenthood defended themselves against those accusations and in return made their own accusation against the Center. Planned Parenthood claims that the people at the Center for Medical Progress are the real liars. They describe the Center as “A well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services”. Planned Parenthood goes on to state that the Center, “has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.”

Personally, as I dive deeper into this scandal, I’m having a hard time finding the truth amidst the complexity of this issue. And that’s because both sides have good goals of protecting victims.

It may seem paradoxical to many, but as a progressive Christian, I hate abortions. I realize that they are at times necessary for the safety of pregnant women, but I wish they never happened. Unborn children should be cared for with love and respect, not be killed as victims. I also wish that those who fight so desperately for the government to care for unborn children by making abortions illegal would fight with the same fervor for the government to care for children who are already born. And so, since I don’t like abortions, I sympathize with the Center for Medical Progress because they want to end abortions.

But I also hate Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that organ and tissue donation could cure through “lifesaving scientific research.” If we can discover ways to cure life-threatening diseases that victimize people, surely we should do that. And so I sympathize with Planned Parenthood’s practice of tissue and organ donation because it’s directed toward the noble goal of curing debilitating and fatal diseases.

Each side is directed toward a good goal. It’s complicated because those noble goals come with an ethical cost. Indeed, the unborn should be cared for, but the born should be cared for, too.

Our cultural pattern of becoming scandalized by the other side isn’t helping. Whichever side we are on, becoming the morality police is only making the scandal worse as we scapegoat and talk past each other. This pattern gets us stuck in a scandal of unhealthy righteous indignation over and against our opponents.

The alternative to getting stuck in a scandal isn’t to avoid scandals, but rather to go through them. As we go through them, we might just discover ourselves becoming un-scandalized as we see that the other is actually motivated by a good goal. In acknowledging the other’s good goal, we begin to see them as human and not the evil demons our minds have made them out to be.

When we acknowledge that our opponents are trying to protect the vulnerable, we begin to see them and ourselves in a more truthful light. That’s because in these difficult moral issues we must make a choice between two, and often more than two, imperfect options. Whichever choice we make, we find ourselves in the tragic moral dilemma of neglecting the needs of some in order to protect the needs of others. This situation doesn’t make us bad people, but it does tarnish any claim to pure goodness. Good people, it turns out, admit that they can’t help everyone and that moral choices often involve a less than perfect outcome.

We might also begin to question our own claim to moral authority by discovering the ways that we have demonized the other side to create in ourselves a sense of “goodness” in opposition to the evil we project upon our opponents.

In the midst of the Planned Parenthood scandal, the easy answer is to claim the mantle of moral authority by demonizing the other side.  That answer isn’t helpful. What I am discovering is that as long as we continue to demonize one another, no one can claim the moral authority of being good. We sacrifice that claim the moment we start pointing the finger of accusation.

I’m also discovering that when we stop accusing one another, we can begin to create new space between us. That space, as opposed to being filled with scandalous hostile accusations, can be filled with creativity and cooperation.

What will that creativity and cooperation look like? I’m convinced we will never find the answer until we acknowledge the good goal of our opponents and that our own methods of winning these cultural battles are often tainted with impure motivations and tactics. Sometimes demonizing others allows us to feel better about the morally questionable decisions we have to make. Admitting that our position actually does cause harm to others is very unpleasant, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to work together to find solutions that are better than what we have now – solutions that we cannot imagine on our own.

Photo: Flickr, Flbonacci Blue, Creative Commons Licence, some modifications.

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Finding Reconciliation in the Greatest Rivalry in College Basketball

"Carolina-Duke basketball 2006 1" by Bluedog423 at en.wikipedia. - Taken by Bluedog423.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carolina-Duke_basketball_2006_1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carolina-Duke_basketball_2006_1.jpg

“Carolina-Duke basketball 2006 1″ by Bluedog423 at en.wikipedia. – Taken by Bluedog423.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“You may not know what this means because you don’t live in North Carolina” my friend began. “But, for us, if just for a moment, hell froze over.”

He was talking about the greatest rivalry in college basketball:

Duke versus North Carolina.

They played last night at Duke University. It was the 239th game of their rivalry. The teams are similar in their successful histories. Even their different shades of the same color of blue point to their similarities. And those similarities only increase the intensity of their rivalry. Every minute of this particular game was worthy of the rivalry’s competitive reputation. The score went back and forth, and even into the drama of overtime. In the end, Duke defeated North Carolina 92-90.

I’ve written about sports before – usually in a critical way. As a young parent, I’ve seen how sports indoctrinates our children into a mentality that pits people against each other. Sure, sports might be playful, but it creates sides. Sports may teach children about teamwork, but it also teaches them how to unite over and against others.

But we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We are meant to be reconciled with God, humanity, and creation. Unfortunately, the way we often reconcile is by violently uniting in hostile opposition against a common enemy.

And throughout our lives we continue to find unity in hostile opposition to other people. Democrats versus Republicans; Liberals versus Conservatives; Christians versus Muslims; the 99% versus the 1%; Fundamentalists versus Progressives; the United States versus ISIS. Tragically, the list goes on and on.

Which leads me back to hell freezing over last night at Duke University. The competitive rivalry took a back stage to something far more important. Before the game, we witnessed a moment of nonviolent reconciliation.

Duke and North Carolina players and coaches huddled together at center court in a moment of silence to honor the life of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who recently passed away. Men and teenagers marked by different shades of blue came together, arm in arm, to offer respect to a man who was so much more than a great basketball coach.

Jim Wallis wrote a moving article about Smith over at Sojourners. He states that Smith took controversial moral stands to end the “us versus them” mentality. Smith fought to end racial segregation, he spoke out against the nuclear arms race, he worked towards gay rights, and he opposed the death penalty. Smith was dedicated to these social issues of reconciliation because of his faith. Wallis quotes Smith’s autobiography, A Coach’s Life,

God loves all humans the same…I could be wrong, but it is enough for me to know we are all loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are…I believe the Christian faith is motivated by gratitude, which we can repay with ethical actions to others.

True reconciliation is not about hostile opposition of “us against them.” Rather, true reconciliation about a love that unites us with them. It is based on the fact that “God loves all humans the same…we are all loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are.”

The hostile rivalries that we create in opposition to one another are not God’s plan. God’s plan is for us to find reconciliation through a love that accepts one another just as we are.

So, if just for a moment, hell froze over in North Carolina last night. But that moment of silence soon gave way to the crowd’s roar of rivalry. But maybe, just maybe, that moment of silent reconciliation will plant seeds of compassion and God’s nonviolent love will take root in our hearts.

Big Hero 6: How to Love like a Superhero

“I love Baymax! He is the nicest superhero ever!” – My son, age 7

“Of all the threats presently looming over us, the most dreadful one…the only one that really matters, is ourselves.” – René Girard,
The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 3.

Hiro and Baymax (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Hiro and Baymax (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s latest superhero animation film. It’s a profound story that explores the human condition. It’s a story about love, rivalry, betrayal, violence, loss, death, and healing.

As a parent of three young children, this is the movie that I’ve been looking for. Baymax is not only the nicest superhero ever, as my son exclaimed after watching the movie. Baymax is also a Christ-like superhero – a model that teaches us how to deal with the dreadful threat of our own violence through acts of love.

The Story – SPOILER ALERT!

Big Hero 6 takes place in a futuristic metropolis called San Fransokyo. The movie follows Hiro Hamada, a boy genius obsessed with creating robots to hustle people out of money in illegal, back alley robot fights. Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi, is a student at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, or “Nerd School,” as Hiro calls it. Tadashi tricks Hiro into coming with him to the Institute, where Hiro is introduced to Tadashi’s “nerd school friends” and their inventions. Tadashi’s invention is the most important for the story – a six foot inflatable nurse robot called Baymax who is activated from sleep mode when he hears someone cry out in pain. Tadashi programmed Baymax with a microchip to be a “personal healthcare companion.” Baymax’s mission is to assess and meet “everyone’s healthcare needs.” He falls back into sleep mode when the patient says, “I’m satisfied with my care.”

Hiro is inspired by Tadashi and his friends and he now wants to join the Institute. Notice that Tadashi and his friends create a new pattern of desire in Hiro. Hiro’s desires have been reprogrammed through the process of mimetic desire. While observing the joy his friends have for being together and working on more productive science experiments, a desire builds within him to join them. After some encouragement, Hiro enters the Institute’s technology competition. If he wins the competition, he is guaranteed an opportunity to become a student at the Institute.

But we know that desire often leads to rivalry and violence. When two people desire an object that they can’t or won’t share, rivalry and violence ensues. That’s what happens when Hiro impresses the Institute with his creation of thousands of micro-bots that are controlled by a person wearing a neuro-transmitter headband.

The head professor of the Institute, Robert Callaghan, instantly invites Hiro to become a student. After Callaghan’s invitation, a high profile business technology guru named Alistair Krei offers to purchase Hiro’s microbots. The two desire the same object, and they refuse to share it, which leads them into a rivalry of escalating insults and destructive violence. After the competition, their rivalry produces a fire at the Institute. When Tadashi learns that Professor Callaghan is still in the building, he runs into the Institute save his mentor. Tragically, the building blows up and Tadashi dies in the explosion.

Hiro, Baymax, and Friends (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Hiro, Baymax, and Friends (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

After Tadashi’s death, Hiro works through the grief of losing his brother and becomes distant from his new friends. When he drops his robot on his toe and yells in pain, Baymax awakens from sleep mode to care for Hiro’s healthcare needs. Baymax astutley notices that Hiro needs emotional care more than physical care.

As Hiro and Baymax work through his grief, Hiro realizes that the fire wasn’t an accident. He and his friends reunite in an effort capture a masked villain, who stole Hiro’s microbots and uses his mask as a neurotransmitter to control the microbots for his destructive purposes. Hiro decides that to capture the villain, he needs to upgrade Baymax with carbon fiber armor, rocket boosters for flying, a hand rocket punch, and a new computer chip that incorporates karate moves.

As Hiro “upgrades” Baymax to make him into a violent superhero, Baymax protests his new abilities because he knows that he was created to heal people, not hurt them. Baymax says, “I fail to see how karate makes me a better healthcare companion.”

After Hiro and his friends learn the true identity of the villain, Hiro not only wants to capture the man in the mask, he demands that Baymax kill him. But Baymax responds by saying, “My programing prevents me from injuring another human being.” Hiro, motivated by revenge, removes the healthcare chip from Baymax, leaving him with just the violent karate chip. Reprogrammed for violence, Baymax now shares Hiro’s obsession with killing the villain, but Hiro’s friends tell him that they “didn’t sign up for this.” They stop Baymax, reinsert his healthcare chip, and the villain escapes.

Back at home, Baymax asks a resentful Hiro, “Will terminating [the masked man] improve your emotional state?” Hiro responds in an understandably confused way, “Yes! No. I don’t know.” “Would Tadashi want this,” Baymax replies. “He programmed me to heal.”

Reprogrammed to Heal

Healing. It’s what all heroes and villains need. We learn that the villainous man in the mask was just like Hiro. Both of them sought revenge after losing family members. Hiro lost his brother, and the villain lost his daughter Abigail in a teleportation experiment. Abigail and her test pod were lost in the alternate dimension of the teleport. The man in the mask sought revenge on the day that the man responsible for losing his daughter opened a new facility in the heart of San Fansokyo. Using the microbots, the villain placed the last remaining portal over the building. The portal vacuumed everything in its path into its alternate dimension. It destroyed the building, sucking its broken pieces through the portal, and threatened to suck the man responsible for losing Abigail, too.

The Man in the Mask (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

The Man in the Mask (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Hiro and his friends arrive just in time to stop the villain. Hiro says to the villain, “Is this what Abigail would want? Will this bring her back? Or make you feel better? Trust me, it won’t. I know.” At this point we discover that Hiro has been reprogrammed by Baymax and his friends from a desire for revenge to a desire to heal. Before this, Hiro and the villain were essentially the same. They were motivated by the same desire for revenge. The desire for violence makes heroes and villains essentially the same. The only difference between Hiro and the man in the mask is that Hiro had friends who led him away from violence and toward mercy. In that mercy for others, even for a villain, Hiro found his own healing.

But it was too late for the villain. He remained consumed by his resentment and anger. After a long struggle against the villain and his microbots, Hiro and his friends capture him and remove his mask. As the microbots fall to the ground, Baymax notices a faint human signal from within the portal.

Hiro and superhero Baymax realize the signal is from Abigail. They know that in a few minutes the portal would close, so they hurry in to save her. Baymax flies through the other dimension with his rocket launcher, avoiding the cement debris from the building. They soon find the test pod with Abigail inside. With Baymax propelling the pod forward, Hiro guides them around the debris as they fly toward the portal. In a moment of distraction, Hiro misses a large cement block floating their way. Just before it hits hero and that test pod, Baymax maneuvers himself in front to take the hit. His armor and rocket boosters break into pieces and fall away.

Baymax to the Rescue (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Baymax to the Rescue (Copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Baymax says the only solution is to use his rocket punch to thrust Hiro and Abigail safely through the portal. Hiro protests because he knows the rocket punch would thrust Baymax deeper into the dimesion and he doesn’t want to lose another friend. But Baymax reassures him, saying, “I’ll always be with you.” Tearfully, Hiro says, “I’m satisfied with my care” and Baymax launches his rocket fist, propelling the Hiro and the test pod through the portal, and thrusting Baymax, in a nearly cross-like shape, deeper into the alternate dimension.

I’ve seen Big Hero 6 twice with my children. At this point in the movie, my children’s eyes are glued to the screen and I’m literally in tears. From seeing Hiro suffer through loss and grief to witnessing the loyalty of his friends to seeing Hiro’s heart reprogrammed from a desire for vengeance to a desire for healing to seeing the self-sacrificial love of Baymax – this movie broke my heart and put it back together.

Baymax, Jesus, and the Gospel

As Baymax fell deeper into the portal, I couldn’t help but understand him as a Christ figure. Baymax was programmed by his creator to heal people and, if necessary, sacrifice himself for them. Baymax is not only the nicest superhero, as my son averred, he is greatest superhero I’ve seen because he acts with nonviolent love. As Jesus explained, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

In a world that is threatened with destruction by our own rivalry and violence, Big Hero 6 is a Gospel story of hope with the Good News that like Hiro we can be reprogrammed, too. Baymax is a Christ figure because he shows that the only alternative to a desire that leads to violence that threatens our existence is a desire to offer ourselves to one another in the spirit of love and healing. Our patterns of desire can be reprogrammed by our Creator, the God who walks with us through the heartbreaking experiences of loss and grief, only to allow our broken hearts to heal and grow bigger with compassion and love.

Ferguson and the “Us vs. Them” Illusion

Ferguson Commission

Members of the Ferguson Commission. Image from www.stltoday.com

As the grand jury’s decision on whether nor not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson loomed, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told a TV reporter “he’s preparing for peace and war.”

What the governor did, in the tense uncertainty preceding the decision, was pre-declare a state of emergency and activate the Missouri National Guard to help contain the possibility of violent, anti-police protests. He also appointed 16 people, including several of the protesters, to a newly created “Ferguson Commission” to recommend solutions to the racial problems plaguing that community, which the killing of Michael Brown last August made unavoidably apparent.

Meanwhile, gun sales at local shops are through the roof and the local Klan is stirring, distributing fliers warning protesters that they’ve awakened a sleeping giant.

America, America . . .

Before we proceed further, let’s stir in a little Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

That level of thinking — the political, governmental and media consensus of who we are — is blind and deaf to history and locked into us-vs.-them thinking. Security, whether domestic or international, is a game played against presumed and, often enough, imagined enemies. Thus, prior to the governor’s decision to call out the Guard, the FBI had issued an intelligence bulletin warning local officials that “the announcement of the grand jury’s decision … will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure,” according to the Washington Post.

If nothing else, this sort of consciousness remains utterly unaware of its own contribution to the trouble. As law enforcement ups its level of militarized authoritarianism, it agitates the elements predisposed to regard it as the enemy and seek its humiliation and defeat. This is a small segment of the protesters, but no matter. Preparing for war requires, first of all, an oversimplification of the social context in which the preparers operate. Once this is accomplished, the warnings become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In other words, what matters is that there’s an “enemy” out there. The preparation essentially creates the enemy, especially when the power imbalance is enormous, e.g.: federal, state and local government, plus maybe half the general population, vs. distraught, impoverished community residents.

What doesn’t matter is that the protesters want profound, nonviolent change, not an excuse to trash local convenience stores. For instance, the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which formed in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and has coordinated protest efforts since then, recently issued 19 “rules of engagement” in anticipation of the grand jury verdict. Rule no. 1: “The first priority shall be preservation of human life.”

Other rules include: “Every attempt should be made to communicate with protesters to reach ‘common sense’ agreements based on these protocols, both ahead of time and at the scene of protests.”

And: “Police rank and file will be instructed to provide every latitude to allow for free assembly and expression, treating protesters as citizens and not ‘enemy combatants.’”

At the very least, what we do not need, in the wake of the terrible wrong of an 18-year-old’s killing, is a dismissive oversimplification of the community’s reaction to it. On the other side of the issue, we need infinitely more than an indictment and, ultimately, conviction and punishment of the police officer who did it. That is to say, what matters here is not the fixing of personal blame (or lack thereof), but the acknowledgment of systemic and historic wrong of monumental proportions and — at long, long last — a momentum of social healing that doesn’t end prematurely.

The United States of America is a nation founded on slavery and the conquest and slaughter of the indigenous peoples in its way. It’s also a democracy, sort of — originally for white, male property owners — which, over two-plus centuries, has expanded its recognition of who qualifies as a human being and who, thus, can be a full participant in the political process. The country’s sense of exceptionalism exceeds, by a wide margin, the good it has brought into the world.

Oh well. That’s no excuse to quit trying. The possibility of who we can become — a healed, connected people, an invaluable force for global salvation — is worth our endless effort to realize. And maybe the Ferguson Commission has more than a perfunctory contribution to make to such an achievement.

What I know is that we cannot define our social brokenness in terms of good guys and bad guys, which is always so tempting. Alexis Madrigal, writing last August in The Atlantic about UCLA’s Center of Policing Equity, which has investigated police behavior and racial disparity in dozens of police departments in the U.S., made an interesting observation to that end:

“When staffers from the Center of Policing Equity go into a police department, they talk with community advocates, police officers, and the people of the city—all of whom provide important information about law enforcement behaviors. What they find is communities who have for generations felt like they’re not being policed but occupied. And yet, at the same time, they find the ‘vast majority’ of police officers and executives trying to do the right thing.”

The “level of thinking” that has caused immeasurable harm within and beyond our national borders — that killed Michael Brown — begins with a conviction that the enemy is out there, waiting to get us. If we had the courage to look beyond this fear, what we would see, perhaps, is not an enemy but someone almost indistinguishable from ourselves.

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

© 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Parenting Confessions: God, Rivalry, and College Football

Beavers jersey and Ninja Turtles on the first day of school. Doesn't get any better.

Beavers jersey and Ninja Turtles on the first day of school. Doesn’t get any better.

My family recently moved to Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is probably best known for the University of Oregon Ducks football team. Having moved from Chicago, I know that the Ducks are loved throughout the country for their high powered offense and flamboyant football jerseys. Here in Eugene people are obsessed with the Quack Attack. Nearly every car has a University of Oregon bumper sticker, almost everyone wears a green UofO jacket, and the entire city fell into a state of mourning when the Ducks lost to the Arizona Wildcats and plummeted in the national rankings. There can be no doubt that the people of Eugene love their University of Oregon Ducks.

But as for me and my household, we will love the Oregon State Beavers. (That’s a direct quote from the book of Ericksen 12:15.)

I’m a native Oregonian and I’ve always loved the Beavers. My grandpa went to Oregon State, my mother went to Oregon State, and my brother went to Oregon State. I learned to love the Beavers from my family. I must confess that when it comes to college football rivalries, I’m teaching my children well. For his first day of school this year, my oldest son drew a line in the sand with his Duck loving classmates as he proudly wore his Beavers football jersey.

The rivalry between the Ducks and the Beavers is insane. In fact, it’s so intense that the annual game that pits the teams against each other is called the CIVIL WAR!

Apparently the most effective way to describe the rivalry between the Beavers and the Ducks is to refer to the most fatal battle ever on American soil.

But my son is right. To be a Beavers fan means that you must draw a line in the sand. Not only must you root for the Beavers, you must root against the Ducks! Of course, there are those lukewarm Beaver fans who want to straddle the line. They root for the Ducks as a sign of loyalty to Oregon, hoping that one team from the state will compete for a National Championship.

Let me say this as smugly as possible with my nose high in the air – They are not true fans of the Beavers! They make me sick. To be an Oregonian means you must pick your loyalties! You must stand either with the Beavers or with the Ducks. Either you’re with us or you’re against us! Either you’re all things Good, Beautiful, and True, thus you root for the Beavers; or you’re a conspirator with the Forces of Evil and you root for the Ducks. Please choose wisely. After all, this is the Civil War!

The Mimetics of Parenting

Okay. So, I’m being cheeky. But I’d like to talk about a danger here. When it comes to parenting, mimetic theory has taught me that we humans learn everything through a process of imitation. As social creatures, we are naturally open to the influence of others in our environment. Soon an imitative pattern of behavior develops. Children learn a pattern of behavior through their parents that is often formed in rivalry. One of the first things children learn from adults is to identify themselves over and against who they are not.

As a child, I learned from the adults in my life that to be an Ericksen is to be a Beavers fan. I also learned that to be an Ericksen meant I had to hate the Ducks.

Civil War language aside, sports rivalries may seem like mere playful fun. I mean, what’s the big deal? While childhood sports rivalries appear to be fairly harmless, they lay the foundation for a lifetime of rivalries. Children may begin to identify themselves in terms of sports rivalries, but this pattern of rivalry can’t be controlled. It spreads like a contagious disease to other areas of our lives. We soon learn to identify ourselves as “in” by identifying who is “out”; who is “good” by who is “bad.”

As we grow, we begin to discover other aspects of our identity that are formed in rivalry over and against others. For example, we learn to identify ourselves as good Democrats because they are evil Republicans; as good progressives because they are regressive fundamentalists; as responsible rich people because they are irresponsible poor people; as good Christians because they are evil Muslims; as smart NPR listening liberals because they are dumb Fox News listening conservatives.

Understanding this pattern of rivalry that children learn through imitating their parents helps me understand a biblical passage that I’ve always found troubling. It’s that verse near the beginning of the Ten Commandments where God is said to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I’m discovering that the “iniquity” of my parenting is setting my children up for a world of rivalry with other. Now, God isn’t actively punishing my children for my poor parenting skills. We do a good enough job of punishing one another in our rivalries.

God isn’t punishing us. Rather, God is trying to free us from our enslavement to rivalry. God is inviting us to re-pattern our lives away from rivalry and toward love. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” claims Leviticus. From within his religious tradition, Jesus expanded on that love ethic so that it included even our enemies, “You have heard 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.”

Beavers and Ducks: Can we share the pond?

Can we be freed from these rivalries? Or are we enslaved to them? Jesus told his followers that they must die to themselves in order that they might truly live. They must die to an identity that is formed in rivalry with others so that they might truly love their neighbors, who include even those they call their enemies…even those who are called *gasp* the Ducks!

Of course, this is bigger than Beavers and Ducks. It’s about rivalry in every aspect of our lives. But here’s the point: Transforming our pattern of rivalry into a pattern of love requires intention and spiritual discipline. It requires a daily, even hourly, refusal to divide the world into “us” versus “them.” It requires parents who will model for their children a desire for love, not a desire for rivalry. It requires a larger community of dedicated people that will gently hold one another accountable. It requires forgiveness. It requires prayer.

And in the game of spiritual football, it requires the nimble spirit of a quarterback to pass with the promise that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation with us.”

Is there hope that Beavers and Ducks can find reconciliation and share the same pond? To quote Jesus completely out of context, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

With God all things are possible, including the possibility that we might die to a self that is formed in rivalry so that we might live the life of love that God calls us into. A new identity that is no longer defined as “us” against “them.” Rather, with this new identity we discover a new pattern of living where Beavers and Ducks, Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Evangelicals, Christians and Muslims all drop our violent addiction to rivalry so that we can pursue love and reconciliation.

Robin Williams on the Ultimate Christian Gift

Art Streiber/CBS via Getty Images

Art Streiber/CBS via Getty Images

I hesitated to write about the tragic death of Robin Williams. I know very little about clinical depression, so I fear saying something stupid or ignorant about it – and please forgive me if I do. The better part of wisdom is to stop blogging and learn from the experts about depression. And I’d like to begin with a disclaimer: I’m interpreting what Robin Williams said about God. But please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that if you are depressed, just turn to God. I’m not against turning to God, but when it comes to something as serious as depression, please turn to professional help.

As I watched the news reports over the last few days, I’ve come across many interviews with Robin Williams. I was surprised to discover that far from being just a great comedian, Williams had some profound things to teach us about human nature and the Christian faith.

For example, in a 2006 interview with Diane Sawyer, Williams talked about “the ultimate Christian gift”:

I would call it the ultimate Christian gift. It’s that idea of you are back and you realize that the things that matter are others way beyond yourself. Self goes away. Ego, bye bye. You realize that there are a lot of amazing people out there to be grateful for and a loving God. And other than that, good luck. That’s what life is about.

According to Williams, the ultimate Christian gift is loving relationships based on the love of God. Indeed, as First John states, “God is love.” Through the doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity makes the bold, beautiful, and awe-inspiring claim that God exists in relationships of unconditional love. God created us in God’s image, a reminder that God calls us to imitate divine love by relating to one another with unconditional love. According to Williams, the things that matter most are beyond ourselves, beyond our ego, because the things that matter are relationships that reflect the love of God that always reaches out to the others. As First John continues, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and loves God.”

And yet, Williams ended his statement with a warning. After expressing his gratitude for the love of God and his relationship with “a lot of amazing people,” he said, “And other than that, good luck.”

Williams wished us luck because he knew that we have a tendency to seek love and approval from those who are “other than that” – from other people and cultural values whose love is conditional and who don’t have our best interest in mind.

That’s why it’s incredibly difficult for us to believe the ultimate Christian gift of love. The truth is that our relationships with one another are rarely based on God’s unconditional love. They are often based on conditional love that seeks to earn approval from others.

The problem with having to earn approval is that we never know if we are worthy enough to keep it, so we will always be striving for it. Theologian James Alison puts it like this in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “We know how easy it is for us to depend entirely on [others] for approval, for identity, a sense of who we are and what we are worth. And we also know how easily we can lose ourselves, sell ourselves out, in order to win, or keep, approval from people.”

Williams wished us luck when we fall into the ego-centric trap of earning approval and love from others because it can suck our souls dry. I want to be clear that this is not the same as clinical depression, but the desire for constant approval from others can lead to a real sense of despair because we never know if we are worthy enough to be loved. Approval is always defined by our last great achievement and failure is always knocking on the door. As opposed to creating relationships that reflect God’s love, we can easily fall into a pattern of competing with others for approval. Soon, we become jealous of their success and we begin to hope that others fail so that we can appear more successful.

When we fall into that soul-sucking pattern of relating to one another, we want to escape.

Williams talked about his desire to escape in a 1989 interview with Barbara Walters. She stated that, “When we hear about people using drugs, most of the time they use them to get a high.” Williams responded that, “For me, it was basically a great way of escaping. It was a great way to cut off from people.”

The ultimate Christian gift is about relationships of unconditional love. That’s what life is about. And so when we fall into relationships of conditional love based on earning approval from others, we want to escape because, deep down, we know that we were made for so much more.

We were made for receiving and sharing the unconditional love of God. In another interview with ABC, an older Williams gives advice to his younger self about the things that matter,

Don’t be running so fast. How much have you loved? How much have you loved doing what you do? Or loved being with the people? If you can answer that question pretty positively, then you’re doing okay. It’s a good life.

“How much have you loved?” We all want to be in relationships of receiving and sharing unconditional love and approval. In fact, as creatures made in the loving image of God, our very identity depends upon it. When we deny that fact, we are likely to fall into a pattern of earning conditional love and approval from others. Eventually, we will find ourselves in despair and seeking to escape because we know that a love based on conditions isn’t really love at all. On the other hand, when we receive the ultimate Christian gift of God’s unconditional love and approval, our ego-centric need for approval from others begins to disappear and we find ourselves freely sharing God’s love with others. Indeed, as Williams stated, a life that is based on receiving and sharing that love is what life is all about.

Robin Williams left us with a reminder about the ultimate Christian gift. The things that matter most are relationships that reflect God’s unconditional love. May we receive that gift and share it with the world.

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

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

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

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

Let’s all pray in a moment of thanks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your political enemies? Find ways to bless them.

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

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

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

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

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

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry and Choosing Grace

Image from foxnews.com

Image from foxnews.com

Though Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has been argued and decided by the highest court in the land, the battle rages on. Politicians, columnists, editorial staffs and bloggers are furiously duking it out along clearly drawn battle lines. On one side, we have the Champions of Religious Freedom. Squaring off against them are the Defenders of Women’s Rights. The Champions are celebrating a victory for free expression of religion, the Defenders are sounding alarm bells about losses of protections for civil rights.  On the storm tossed surface it can seem as if this is a clear case of irreconcilable differences. But it is worth wondering if the differences are as vast as they seem. Rather than focus on differences, I’d like to search for the possibility of reconciliation.

False Differences

Mimetic theory is my favorite tool for analyzing conflict. It lays bare the dynamic by which we come into conflict and nurture differences in order to feel secure in our identities. As a rivalry escalates, such as this one between the Champions and the Defenders, each side insists on its utter and irreconcilable difference from the other. But on close examination, what emerges is an odd symmetry, what René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, calls mimetic doubling.

What passes notice beneath all the sound and fury is that each side is acting as a model for their rival to imitate. You see, even though the rhetoric proclaims differences, passion and certainty is what each side has in common. The more one side displays its passion through protests, law suits, political platforms, action plans and so forth, the more the other side’s attention is drawn to the issue. Each side is learning from the other that this issue is the critical issue of our time which can brook no compromise. As a rivalry escalates in intensity, such as arriving at the Supreme Court for adjudication, the rivals come to resemble each other more and more. They have imitated (mimetic is the Greek word for imitation) one another’s passion for such a long time that they have become mirror images of one another (that’s the doubling).

Of course, the rivals don’t want us, or themselves for that matter, to see the similarities. But they are very much alike in their insistence on their moral superiority over each other. Each side accuses the other of being irrationally attached to a position based on flawed reasoning. Neither side is willing to consider that their rival is in possession of even a grain of truth or a modicum of rationality. I can predict right now that comments on this article will take issue with my insistence on the importance of this similarity. Readers will dive in to convince me that their side is the right one, that they are really and truly in possession of the truth and occupy the moral high ground. That the difference between them and their rival is undeniable and vitally important to all that is good and just.

But despite this predicable response, I must insist that it is this identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections – all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. Unless we begin from a position that says we refuse to talk with you or compromise. Which, unfortunately, is the position that both the Champions and the Defenders occupy, together.

The Scapegoating Conundrum  

One reason that the rivals refuse to recognize what they have in common is that there is a real difference between them, a difference which is much easier to see than their similarities. Each side has a different scapegoat – each other! Champions of Religious Freedom have no problem recognizing that they are being scapegoated by the Defenders of Women’s Rights. They know that the accusations against them of being narrow minded, misogynistic, irrational and the lot are completely false. And the Defenders of Women’s Rights see the same thing, only in reverse. Defenders know that they are not religious persecutors or unmoved by the moral issues of abortion. Scapegoating the other side is another similarity disguised as a difference.

But it’s a difference with a benefit. Each side gets a boost in their sense of themselves as morally superior over the other exactly because they know that the other side is scapegoating them. Having a shared scapegoat cements their sense of solidarity and of being united for a noble cause. As Girard explains, “What people call the partisan spirit is nothing but choosing the same scapegoat as everybody else.” (Evolution and Conversion, 83)

However, the scapegoating conundrum is that we can always see someone else’s scapegoat, but never our own. That’s because our own scapegoats appear guilty to us even though we can clearly see the innocence of other people’s scapegoats. Once the innocence of a scapegoat is revealed, they no longer can function as our scapegoats. So if the Champions and Defenders could begin to see that their accusations against each other are false ones, then dialogue and reconciliation would become possible.

Choosing Grace

Girard calls the tendency of rivalries to escalate to the point of mimetic doubling the escalation to extremes. It is the point at which the differences between the two sides appear to be extreme but which paradoxically is also the point at which very little separates them. Girard’s insight is that rivals are mistaken to believe that the path to justice goes through their rival. It is a function of the scapegoating phenomenon and its benefits that each side believes that justice requires the defeat of the other. That belief only leads to escalation and the perpetuation of conflict – or peace by the annihilation of one side or the other. The escalation to extremes leads to partisan strife in the political arena and provides the justification for violence in pursuit of our ends.

The fact that each side in this contest between the Champions and the Defenders share a concern for justice and the protection of victims is more important than their disagreement about who the victims are. If the rivals were to actually walk their talk about the concern for justice, then they would be acutely and humbly sensitive to learning about the ways in which they might be guilty of injustice without knowing it. As we grow more and more alike in our passionate intensity for what is good and right, we unwittingly open up the possibility for reconciliation. Girard explains that reconciliation is actually “the reverse of the escalation to extremes. It is a real possibility, but no one wants to see it. The Kingdom is already here but human violence will increasingly mask it. This is the paradox of our world.” (Battling to the End, 46)

I’d like to invite you to signal your willingness to inhabit the Kingdom by resisting the urge to defend your position with a partisan comment on this article. Instead I encourage us all to confess our complicity in scapegoating our rivals, in resisting reconciliation in favor of partisanship, and in nursing our hatred and anger against one another. As inspiration for this Kingdom exercise I’d like to leave you with these words from Brian McLaren in his new book on spiritual formation, We Make the Road By Walking. They come in the context of Brian’s look at the rivalry-infected families of Genesis, including Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.

As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflict. We all experience wrongs, hurts, and injustices through the actions of others – and we inflict wrongs, hurts, and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, and equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the faces of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces, too, reflect the face of God. We come alive as God’s image bearers indeed. (35)