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beware of god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dead to Me – Shark Tank and the Miracle of Resurrection

“You are dead to me.”

Shark Tank is one of my favorite shows. Admittedly, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. The “Sharks” are described as “tough, self-made, multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons.” They invest their own money in entrepreneurs who pitch their product to the Sharks. ABC states that the Sharks give “people from all walks of life the chance to chase the American dream, and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires.”

But, they are called “Sharks” for a reason. The Sharks are ruthless in their critique of entrepreneurs. When they smell blood, they strike, bringing tears to many poor contestants.

The greatest villain on the show is Kevin O’Leary. He compares making money with war – “Here’s how I think of my money: As soldiers. I send them out to war everyday. I want them to take prisoners and come home, so there’s more of them.”

O’Leary is a great villain because I love to hate him. His violent, war-like mentality is captivating. He’s mean and nasty, but I can’t stop watching. One of the most captivating moments of the show is when O’Leary offers a deal to a contestant and the contestant refuses his deal. O’Leary, in a fit of revenge, states, “You are dead to me.”

There’s a scandalous truth about human nature in that phrase. As René Girard has taught us, from the very beginning, humans have had a “shark” like quality to us. As we face conflicts within our communities, our default mechanism is to find reconciliation by uniting against a single victim, whom Girard calls a “scapegoat.” The scapegoat is sacrificed or banished from our community. In other words, the scapegoat is dead to us.

We see this scapegoating mechanism throughout human history. One only needs to take a cursory look at American politics, business, or reality television to see that we have not evolved much beyond the ancient human practice of scapegoating. We are run by the scapegoat mechanism, for as long as someone else is scapegoated, it means we are part of the larger group who is not being scapegoated. The scapegoat takes the place of death, or, as James Alison puts it, the place of shame.

James writes in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “The place of shame into which the group puts someone, a someone of whom everyone can be ashamed, and thus who will be not them. That’s how the sacrificial model to which we are accustomed works.”

Fortunately, Jesus offers us an alternative to this Shark Tank mentality. James calls it “the complete reversal of the sacrificial model.” The crowd, acting like sharks, united against Jesus and killed him. The crowd chanted “Crucify him!” But they could have also mocked Jesus with the phrase, “You are dead to us!”

Jesus reversed the sacrificial model by creating a new way of forming community. Whereas the old way can be summed up by the sacrificial phrase “You are dead to me,” the new way of forming community can be summed up by the cross and resurrection.

The miracle of the cross and resurrection is the transformation of the way we form community. It transforms the way we relate to one another. Whereas the sacrificial formula of scapegoating leads to death, shame, and exclusion, resurrection leads to life, love, and reconciliation.

Jesus went to the place of shame and death, but he didn’t seek revenge. In fact, Jesus reversed the sacrificial formula by forgiving his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus ushers in a new way of finding reconciliation that is not based on the ancient model of scapegoating. Rather, the new way of reconciling is based on our new model, Jesus, and specifically his new command, “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

But the place of shame and death did not have the last word. The resurrection had the last word. The resurrection reaffirms the transformation at the cross. Whereas the sacrificial formula says, “You are dead to me,” the resurrection is God saying, “You are alive to me.” In the resurrection, Jesus reconciled with those who abandoned and betrayed him by offering them peace. He then invited them to share that peace throughout the world.

The resurrection reveals the utter aliveness of God in the face of our mechanisms of shame and death. We live in a world of Shark Tank. And that world can be captivating. But we also live in a world of Resurrection. Resurrection is all around us. It is far more captivating. We see the miracle of resurrection when people reconcile without the crutch of scapegoating another, but by living into the spirit of forgiveness.

Image: Kevin O’Leary on Shark Tank (Screenshot from YouTube: ABC Television Network)

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Would You Stand With Mary? Musings on the Death Penalty

Editor’s Note:  This article, submitted by guest author Andrew Robinson, first appeared on his blog Musings of a Peaceful Warrior.

The mother stands with tears streaming down her face. The sobs have stopped now. She is no longer wailing, for she knows her son’s fate is sealed. Still, however, she cannot stop the tears from flowing freely from her eyes. She no longer has any hope of holding the hand which once fit completely inside of hers. She no longer has hope of kissing the lips that once pulled sustenance from her breast. She understands that her son’s life is about to be taken. Will you stand with her?

She is convinced that her son is innocent, despite the majority opinion that he deserves to die. Will you stand with her? She has resigned herself to the fact that she will never be able to prepare her son his favorite meal again, but she cannot resign herself to the belief that her son is worthy of the penalty he is about to pay. Will you stand with her? Will you stand with Mary as her son asks that His Father forgive us? Would you have stood with her?

I am sure most of us would say that we would have stood with Mary. We would say that because we have the advantage of hindsight on our side. We know, in the twenty-first century, that Jesus was innocent. We also know that there have been many people wrongfully executed in our nation. Perhaps you read that last sentence and thought to yourself, “Many is a relative word.” I would agree with you. My question would be, how many innocent lives is too many to pay to keep our vengeance alive? One? Five? Twenty? More?

The example above that I gave came out of a meeting I had recently with Jason Redick, who is the North Texas outreach coordinator for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In my meeting with him he showed me many different perspectives on the evils of capital punishment which I had never considered before. None, however, were more powerful to me than the question, “would you have stood with Mary.”

Let us set the scene. Picture yourself as a 1st century Jewish man or woman. Perhaps you had heard stories of this man named Jesus. Let us imagine you had never met Him. You possibly would have heard some stories from some people that He has great power and has been able to heal people of various illnesses. However, your local Rabbi and priest tell no such stories. When His name is mentioned in their presence they refer to him as a troublemaker, a drunkard, a glutton, a sinner and worst of all, a blasphemer. You are not quite sure what to make of this man but whatever He is doing does not directly impact you so you do not give it much thought.

Then you are visiting the temple during Passover. This is the most holy time on your calendar. For an American, think the combination of Easter, Christmas and the 4th of July altogether. As you approach the temple to make your sacrifice you hear a commotion. Your first thought is that those filthy Romans are picking a fight with your people. “Not now!” you think to yourself, as all the emotions of your oppression and your desire to be free, as well as your desire to just worship your God on this most holy of holidays, come rushing forth. You begin jogging and eventually break into a sprint to the temple. There, in the middle of the temple is this Jesus you have heard about. You don’t know how you know it is Him, but you know. He has a whip in His hands and He is driving the sacrificial animals out. He has turned over the tables and is blocking the whole process from happening. In this moment, you realize your Rabbi was right about Him. You are shocked that a fellow Jew could do something so cruel and disrespectful. You walk away from the temple disheartened.

The next day you hear that Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night. How do you feel? Perhaps you heard that Pilate had him sentenced to death. Does He deserve it? You caught wind of the time and place of the execution. Will you attend? Many of your neighbors are going to watch this man who led such an amazing movement carry his cross up to Golgotha. Will you go with them?

Now let us imagine you are there. You see Jesus hanging on the cross. Out of the corner of your eye you notice His mother. She is one of a very small group of people weeping. How do you feel about her? Should she have spanked her son more? Should she have taught Him more respect? Do you notice the absence of a father and believe that is why Jesus acted so rashly? Do you cast judgement on her parenting? Do you feel bad for her but believe that her son should have made better decisions?

Maybe you feel great compassion for her. Is it enough to go put an arm around her? You see, this is how the scapegoating mechanism works. We get swept up in the crowd and even if we feel compassion for the victim, we are extremely unlikely to go stand with the victim, or the family of the victim.

Scapegoating is a mechanism in René Girard’s mimetic theory which allows a community to temporarily come together around a false sense of peace and security after executing the scapegoat. In America, we have overwhelmingly made the poor, as well as racial minorities, our scapegoats.

People believe that the death penalty makes them safer. It does not. There is absolutely zero correlation between death penalty states and safer states here in the U.S. Statistically the facts are overwhelmingly against the death penalty doing anything that advocates for the practice claim it does. It is far more expensive to execute someone than even to give them life in prison. Execution generally takes ten years or more so it actually delays finality for the families of victims. No one benefits from these state sponsored revenge killings…except our psyches.

If we buy into this scapegoating mechanism, if we buy into the rhetoric that every person on death row is a monster, then we can find some temporary peace when our government sacrifices yet another victim to the American god of peace of mind. The only logical reason I can see for the continued implication of the death penalty in America is that it makes us FEEL safer. There is no statistical evidence to back up those feelings, but that does not matter much. What matters is that we as a community feel safe. But here is a problem. There are many different communities within our nation. The problem with our scapegoating mechanism is that it makes the wealthy and the white feel safe, but not so much the poor or the racial minority.

Would you be willing to break from popular opinion to stand with Mary? Jesus exposed the scapegoating mechanism on the cross. Jesus put it out in plain view for us all to see. Jesus beckons us to stand with His mother. Jesus calls us to leave the mob. Jesus shows us the way out of negative mimesis and into a life of faith, love and justice.

Will you break the cycle of mimetic violence?

Will you stand with the oppressed?

Will you stand with Mary?

Author’s Note: Thank you to Jason Redick for insight on the death penalty I had not had before and to Michael Hardin for helping with the mimetic theory side of this. I am so grateful for these friends and I recommend following them on social media if you are not already. You can see more of Michael’s work at http://www.preachingpeace.org and you can learn more about the organization Jason works with at http://www.tcadp.org

Editor’s Note: Please say a prayer or save a space in your heart for Kenneth Earl Fults, scheduled to be executed in Georgia today, April 12, 2016.

12968602_10154125007529187_684506685_nAndrew Robinson  is a writer, student and activist in Dallas, Texas. He is the husband of a beautiful Irish woman named Karen and the father of two amazing little boys. He is passionate about fighting for social justice in this world as well as learning and teaching theology that will go hand in hand with the fight for social justice.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

Image: “Station of the cross, Saint Symhorian church of Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France. XIXth century. Detail of the 13th station : Mary Magdalene weeping.” by Pethrus. Available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Change is coming! Be sure to enter the random drawing to win a $50 gift card at the online store Ten Thousand Villages. For 65 years, Ten Thousand Villages has been a leader in the fair trade movement, connecting artisans in developing countries with markets in North America. Every dollar spent on their site helps a family in poverty build a sustainable future. Visit Raven on April 15 to see what’s new on our site and to find out the winner of the drawing.

 

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Blood Stains: Rituals of Recovery in “The Women of Lockerbie”

“The clothes are contaminated. They’re covered in blood.” – The Women of Lockerbie, Deborah Brevoort

“He was about to make great sacrifice when his own herald Lichas came from home bearing your gift to him, the robe of death.” – The Women of Trachis, Sophocles

“Ritualistic action… has only one axiom: the contagious nature of the violence encountered by the warrior in battle – and only one prescription: the proper performance of ritual purification. Its sole purpose is to prevent the resurgence of violence and its spread throughout the community.” – Violence and the Sacred, René Girard

 

In her play about a modern tragedy, Deborah Brevoort deliberately evokes the ancient Greek dramatists. In fact, she takes them as her model for the structure of her play, employing a chorus of women, poetry, odes and even a section called “The Agon.” Agon is the root for agony and it refers to a dramatic contest between main characters vying to outdo each other. It’s the verbal equivalent of physical combat and it can be as agonizing to witness as a bloody battlefield, and the outcome just as lethal.

When terrorists blew up a plane over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988, violence invaded like a trespasser, transgressing the peace, disrupting the rituals of daily life. People were going about the mundane things we do without thinking much about them when the plane exploded, dropping bloodied debris and severed body parts on a small town. The characters in the play tell us that washing clothes, cooking, mopping the floor, running errands – all were contaminated by shock and horror.

Loss, grief and recovery are part of this story, and though the play has provided many opportunities for the exploration of psychological issues such as these, I do not think that they are Brevoort’s chief concern. She takes us into the deeper, cultural shock that is the scandal of violence invading our mundane lives. This is the concern of Greek tragedy and her play offers us an opportunity to bring into consciousness something that was all too present in the ancient world: the contagion of violence.

In the days of Greek tragedy, the violence played out on battlefields far from home. Warriors returned with spirits stained by blood letting. Rituals designed for decontamination were performed with care because violence is contagious, liable to spread and infect an entire community. Warriors must be cleansed, their hearts purified, and this happened around sacrificial altars. Holocausts were offered to the gods, blood was properly spilled to cauterize the soul of the warrior so that no more blood would be spilled by his hand.

But rituals meant to purify the warrior sometimes went awry. The ritual fires, if they failed to cleanse the violence and madness, could instead rouse them to a fever pitch. That danger, always hovering over the sacrificial flames, is the subject of a play by Sophocles, with a title that echoes our own, The Women of Trachis. In Sophocles’ play, the warrior Heracles performs his duty, making a sacrifice of a bull to the gods that is required of all returning warriors before they can reenter daily life and cross the threshold into their homes. Unwittingly, Heracles has been given a gift stained with the blood of a creature he killed long ago, a tunic that becomes an instrument of revenge. The sacrificial fires that were meant to cleanse him of the blood of his victims activate a victim’s blood instead and consume him in an agonizing death.

Brevoort takes great care in her drama to make us aware that there are risks involved in rituals of cleansing. The central image, one that brings Heracles’ fate to mind, is that of 11,000 pieces of contaminated clothing from the airplane that were collected as part of the recovery effort. They have been waiting for seven years on the Shelves of Sorrow, hermetically sealed like the highly contagious objects they are. Now the decision must be made whether to incinerate them, as the authorities desire, or return them to the families of the victims as the women of Lockerbie desire. Contact with the blood stained garments could open wounds or cauterize them – which will it be?

With an ancient sensibility worthy of Sophocles, Brevoort draws audiences into the search for a ritual cure to the risks posed by close proximity to violence. AstonRep has brought this remarkable play to Chicago, a long overdue opportunity for audiences here to bear witness to the fate of the Women of Lockerbie.

If you are in the Chicago area, join Suzanne Ross, director Robert Tobin and cast members for a post show discussion at The Raven Theater on April 24. Tickets available here.

Image: The Women of Lockerbie

Change is coming! Be sure to enter the random drawing to win a $50 gift card at the online store Ten Thousand Villages. For 65 years, Ten Thousand Villages has been a leader in the fair trade movement, connecting artisans in developing countries with markets in North America. Every dollar spent on their site helps a family in poverty build a sustainable future. Visit Raven on April 15 to see what’s new on our site and to find out the winner of the drawing.

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Theology and Sacrifice in Batman v. Superman [Spoilers]

The critics have almost universally condemned Batman v. Superman. Personally, I think they’re right. Like many, I fell into plot holes about every 15 minutes and had a difficult time finding my way out. But for all the problems with the story line, Batman v. Superman asks some really good questions about theology, evil, and sacrifice.

There is an ancient sacrificial formula. According to René Girard, it goes back all the way to the founding of the first human cultures. Most concisely, the formula looks like this: whenever a community experiences a crisis of violence, it undoubtedly will survive by blaming a single person for its problems. Girard calls this person the scapegoat. The group finds unity by channeling its own violence against their scapegoat, who is accused of being evil, even a demon or a monster. The scapegoat is violently murdered and peace descends upon the group, but the peace is only temporary because the real problem of violence has never been solved.

When a crisis once again threatens the group, the process of sacrificial violence against an “evil” scapegoat repeats itself. As Girard states in a recently published conversation edited by Michael HardinReading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Stephen E. Berry, “Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.”*  Soon, mythological stories and a theology emerges that claims that whenever the community experiences a crisis, the gods demand a violent sacrifice so that peace will return.

Indeed, this sacrificial formula is ancient, and yet it remains the dominant formula of our modern world. Its logic claims that sacrificial violence against an evil enemy is the surest way to peace. We see this logic in our politics, economics, religions, newscasts, and in the cinema. One of the most obvious examples of it is portrayed by Superman in the latest blockbuster film, Batman v. Superman.

Superman, Jesus, and Sacrifice

Superman is referred to as “God” throughout the movie. He seems to fit common assumption of the divine role quite nicely – Superman is all-powerful and miraculously seeks to save people from harm and death.

Many have suggested that Superman is a Christ-like figure. Superman and Jesus are similar in that they both seek to save humans from evil. The similarity becomes even stronger as they both save the world from evil through an act of sacrifice. But there is also a fundamental difference between the two. Superman saves the world through the ancient formula of sacrificial violence, whereas Jesus flips the ancient sacrificial formula and saves the world through an act of sacrificial nonviolence.

Superman and Evil

Near the end of the movie, Lex Luthor unleashes “Doomsday,” a monster that is a nearly perfect representation of evil. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman unite to destroy Doomsday, but the more they attack the evil monster, the more it feeds the beast with energy. With every violent blow, Doomsday grows stronger.

And that’s why Doomsday is a good example of evil. Paradoxically, the most reliable way to ensure the growth of evil is attempting to defeat it with violence. But violence only gives evil more energy. Tragically, we are witnessing this truth about evil in our current War on Terror. We attacked Saddam Hussein as part of the War on Terror. When Saddam was overthrown, al-Qaeda moved in to fill the power void. Once we weakened al-Qaeda, ISIS became our biggest threat. There is a clear pattern emerging. U.S. violence against terrorists is only planting the seeds for more terrorists. Apparently, we’re on the verge of defeating ISIS, which only begs the question – What terrorist group will emerge next?

In the end, Doomsday isn’t a perfect example of evil. Superman soon realizes that he and the monster share Kryptonian DNA, which means they are both vulnerable to Kryptonite. Superman sacrifices himself by seizing a Kryptonite spear and impaling the weapon through Doomsday, killing the monster. Unfortunately for Superman, holding the Kryptonite weakens him just enough for Doomsday to impale him with a spike, leaving them both dead.

And, you know, since Superman destroyed Doomsday but didn’t destroy evil, there will be a sequel. And I will watch. Hopefully the next movie won’t have as many plot holes…

Jesus and Evil

Indeed, Superman and Jesus have the same goal of saving the world from evil. They also sacrifice themselves in order to defeat evil. We want a Superman-like-Christ who will keep us safe from evil, by any means necessary, including violence.

But we don’t have a Superman-like-Christ. We have a Jesus-like-Christ. Superman believes if he just has the right weapon – a spear made of kryptonite – then he can finally destroy evil. But Jesus didn’t believe that. He knew that no matter the weapon, violence only feeds the evil beast.

Jesus came face to face with evil when he went to the cross. It was his “Doomsday” moment. And like Superman, it was a sacrificial act that led to his death, but there’s an important difference. Jesus didn’t feed evil by using violence against it; rather, he starved evil by a radical act of forgiveness. From the cross he prayed that God would not avenge his persecutors. Instead, he prayed for their forgiveness, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Conclusion

It’s interesting to note that Batman v. Superman was released in theaters on March 25, which happened to be Good Friday. Many think this was just a coincidence. That may be true, but what an odd coincidence to release the story of a god who dies to save the world from evil with an act of sacrificial violence on the day that Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, who saved the world from evil by sacrificing himself in an act of nonviolent love.

Batman v. Superman tells a contemporary mythical version of the ancient sacrificial formula. The heroic god-like figure saves the world by violently killing an evil enemy. This story has been told since the beginning of human culture. Unfortunately, it’s not working. Evil continues to threaten our world. With the advent of nuclear weapons and chemical warfare, violence threatens our world like never before.

But Jesus tells a different story. In a world where violence only feeds evil, Jesus offers the only alternative of nonviolence. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Forgive those who persecute you.

This year, Good Friday put two stories before us. One was based on the ancient sacrificial formula of violence, the other was Jesus’s alternative sacrificial formula of nonviolent love. Which story will we choose?

Photo: Screenshot from YouTube.

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*Michael Hardin, ed, Reading the Bible with Rene Girard: Conversations with Stephen E. Berry (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2015), page 40. 

Change is coming! Be sure to enter the random drawing to win a $50 gift card at the online store Ten Thousand Villages. For 65 years, Ten Thousand Villages has been a leader in the fair trade movement, connecting artisans in developing countries with markets in North America. Every dollar spent on their site helps a family in poverty build a sustainable future. Visit Raven on April 15 to see what’s new on our site and to find out the winner of the drawing.

Beyoncé at the Super Bowl (Image: Screenshot from YouTube)

How Beyoncé Slayed the Super Bowl and Fox News

…we are more than conquerors …

-St. Paul, Romans 8:37

Beyoncé slays. And she is more than a conqueror.

But before I tell you how Beyoncé slayed the Super Bowl and Fox News, I’m going to tell you about the ancient sacrificial rituals and their victims. (Trust me, this fits.)

Sacrificial Rituals in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, whenever there was social chaos, social order was created through a ritual of sacrificial violence. These sacrificial rituals channeled conflicts that threatened the life of the community onto an individual who was blamed for the chaos that threatened the group.

The community survived this social crisis by uniting against a common enemy. The 20th century anthropologist René Girard called this common enemy the “scapegoat.” After the scapegoat was sacrificed, a sense of peace and reconciliation fell upon the community. But it was only temporary. When conflicts re-emerged within the community, the ritual of sacrificial violence would repeat … over and over again.

The scapegoat had something that marked him as “different.” Sometimes the sacrificial victim had a limp or was blind or was captured from another tribe. The specific mark of the sacrificial victim didn’t really matter; what mattered was that the victim play the proper role of the scapegoat.

The scapegoat’s proper role was to remain quiet as the larger community channeled their collective conflicts onto him during the ritual. It was crucial that the sacrificial victim remain silent, or that their cries were drowned out by the pounding of a drum, chants, and prayers. That’s because the last thing that the sacrificers wanted was to hear the voice of their scapegoat. If they heard their victim’s voice, it would pierce their conscience and they would risk becoming aware of their own ritual violence and the innocence of their scapegoat.

Girard tells us that this was how ancient sacrificial rituals functioned, but we see the same ritual of sacrificial violence at work in in the modern world. Sadly, we humans have not evolved much beyond our sacrificial ancestors. We continue to silence the voice of our scapegoats. Indeed, white America has been silencing the voices of black people for 400 years through rituals of physical, political, and economic violence.

How Beyoncé Slayed the Modern Sacrificial Ritual

But make no mistake, Beyoncé is no victim. She is a conqueror because her voice will not be silenced. Yet, her black skin bears the mark of the American sacrificial system of racism. Unfortunately, that system is alive and well. In fact, it’s trying to silence her voice.

On Sunday, Beyoncé took to the main stage of American pop culture, the Super Bowl, and delivered a politically charged message to the United States. Beyoncé and her back up dancers claimed black power by dressing like Black Panthers from the 1960s. She performed her new song, Formation, which tells her story of being black in America.

The white power structures were offended, so they fought back. Fox News interviewed Rudy Giuliani about the half time show. The interview is a text book case in America’s 400 year history of ritually silencing black voices. The segment shows four white people critiquing Beyoncé’s performance and the black lives matter movement. They lectured Beyoncé on her performance. One commentator said, “In the end we find out that Beyoncé dressed up in a tribute to the Black Panthers, (the dancers) went to a Malcom X formation, and the song, the lyrics, which I couldn’t make out a syllable, were basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks!”

One way that white people continue the ritual of silencing black voices is to make them into the violent enemy seeking power. It’s a ritual as old as America itself. And it’s the kind of fear mongering that Fox News was fomenting by referring to the Black Panthers and Malcom X. The assumption is that black people are the violent ones, but it is black people who suffer from violence at a disproportionate rate.

I believe in nonviolence, but frankly, it’s hard for me to listen to white people as they criticize black people for advocating violence. In the face of 400 years of physical, emotional, social, and economic violence, I think a violent response would be understandable.

But that’s not what Beyoncé is advocating, nor is it what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. Formation is Beyoncé’s call for a political revolution, but it’s not a revolution based on violence. It’s a revolution based on the power of the spoken word.

In Formation, Beyoncé says that she “slays,” but her homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the video tells me she isn’t slaying through physical violence. She is a conqueror, but in the spirit of St. Paul, she is more than a conqueror. That’s because she isn’t advocating physical violence. It’s a lie to claim that she is. Rather, she slays through something much more powerful – the spoken word.

And so I shake my head, asking myself, how dare Fox News criticize Beyoncé for “basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks” when we know that “unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire”?

Here’s the truth about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance – the power of her words have pierced the conscience of white America. She is a conqueror because her voice will not be silenced. She refuses to play the proper role that much of white America expects her to play. She slays by speaking the truth about violence against not only black people, but against all people at the margins of American culture. As the New South Negress puts it, Formation “is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins – woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disables, undocumented, immigrant…”

So, to answer my question above, how does a commentator on Fox News and his fellow co-hosts dare attempt to silence the voice of Beyoncé? They dare it because their collective conscience has been pierced. They have heard Beyoncé’s voice. And in her voice they hear the voice of all those on the margins who suffer from systemic violence against the marginalized.

One way white people manage the voice of the marginalized that pierces our conscience is to lecture them and accuse them of being the violent ones. That’s what Fox News did.

But another way is to listen to those voices. Listen to the ways that we white folks participate in systemic racism that empowers not only police brutality, but economic oppression, enabling “the typical white family [to have] about 16 times as much wealth as the typical black family – and [enables] white households headed up by a high school dropout to have, on average, twice the wealth of black and Latino households headed by a college graduate.”

Beyoncé is slaying our conscience. Like the Word of God is compared to a sword that cuts through our ancient rituals of scapegoating so that we hear the voice of the oppressed, Beyoncé is slaying through the racism that infect the United States. She pierced the white conscience and is making many of us uncomfortable. Good for her. Let’s stop trying to drown out her voice by lecturing black people. Instead, let’s listen to their voices.

Do you feel Beyoncé’s words piercing your conscience? She has pierced mine. And that’s a good thing. Pay attention to that piercing and listen to more black voices crying out for a revolution of the American system of racism.

Photo: Beyoncé at the Super Bowl (Image: Screenshot from YouTube channel On Line Trending)

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Jareth

“You Have No Power Over Me”: When David Bowie Was Satan (A Tribute Of Sorts)

Introduction

Oh you’ve turned my world, you precious thing…

These haunting words reverberated through my mind upon learning, two weeks ago, of David Bowie’s death. A great number of people feel his loss in the world of music, but I didn’t know him best as a musician. I knew him as Jareth, the compelling, charismatic Goblin King from the 80s cult classic, Labyrinth.

I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me as the loss of my favorite childhood villain began to sink in. And then I wondered if it might be possible to write a mimetic analysis of Labyrinth in honor of David Bowie. Admittedly, when the thought occurred, I had not yet pondered any sort of in-depth analysis. I was simply looking forward to my “research” (that is, watching the movie and singing and dancing along to all of the songs.)

Yet even before my research began, as I started to contemplate the story and the characters, I had to wonder if filmmaker Jim Henson was a closet Girardian himself! Labyrinth is ripe for mimetic analysis, beginning with a scapegoating sacrifice and culminating in a reorientation of desire. Between these extremes is the labyrinth itself – an arduous, winding physical and spiritual journey during which circumstances, priorities, and values are subconsciously reevaluated and new meaning is discovered.

And it has only been through the lens of mimetic theory that I have come to fully understand and appreciate the magnitude of David Bowie’s character. He is not merely a magnetic, enigmatic and striking villain; he is Satan himself! True, mimetic theory does not accede to a personal view of “the satan.” But if the principal of accusation, deceit, and twisted desire had a face, it would be Jareth’s. It feels a little odd to “honor” someone by naming him as the embodiment of all evil. David Bowie, after all, was not the devil… but he played one wickedly well.

Sacrifice and the World of the Satan

Labyrinth begins with a sacrifice. Our heroine, Sarah, is in the midst of a personal crisis, augmented, no doubt, by teenage hormones, but genuine. After the opening scene foreshadowing her epic showdown with the Goblin King, we can imply from visual clues that her mother has died. Perhaps this has kept her in a semi-fantasy state of mind. Her room is filled with stuffed animals, the books on her desk are classic children’s fantasies, and she seems to prefer to escape to a world of make-believe.

Were she merely role-playing, there may not be much cause for concern, but Sarah soon proves herself not merely childlike, but, to a degree, childish. Upon discovering that one of her stuffed animals has been used to comfort her little brother, Toby, she storms into the infant’s room screaming, “I hate you! I hate you!” Clearly, the child is innocent. But Sarah scapegoats the poor baby for far more than being caught with her toy. This child is a sign that her father, grieved though he may be from the loss of Sarah’s mother, is moving forward in his life. He has remarried, and the new baby has cemented a familial bond that Sarah resists. She resents her stepmother, resents her half-brother, and seems to wish to revert to an earlier time when she was an only child, before her mother’s death. She longs for love, perhaps unable to see the love she already possesses. Little of this is consciously acknowledged, however, and on first viewing, Sarah seems only concerned about her loss of freedom as she must babysit a child while her parents go out. Hyperbolically, Sarah fancies herself a modern Cinderella and cries out for rescue. Though she exaggerates, there is real pain behind her melodramatic façade. All the same, she clearly scapegoats her brother Toby, and in the end, sacrifices him, if accidentally, to the Goblin King by wishing him away. “I wish the goblins would come and take you away,” she says to her screaming brother. “Right now.”

An instant later, Toby is gone, and the Goblin King arrives in a flash of evil glory. When Sarah begs for her brother back, he patronizes her, then bribes her with her “dreams,” before whisking her away to his underground world where his castle beyond the Goblin City lies at the end of a vast, foreboding labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours in which to solve the labyrinth before her baby brother becomes a goblin forever.

Simultaneously condescending and tempting, manipulative, deceitful, and magnetically attractive, Jareth indeed embodies a very particular form of evil: the satanic principal. He feeds off of scapegoating sacrifice, as seen by his desire for Toby. Yet his wickedness is disguised by a false benevolence. He is Sarah’s dream and her nightmare, offering to liberate her a life she cannot tolerate by relieving her of her responsibility for her brother, yet capturing her in a lie. Because the lines between fantasy and reality are so blurred in Labyrinth, it is hard to say definitively when he began to manipulate Sarah, whether or not their worlds collided before he stole Toby. But I imagine him whispering through the pages of her storybook (the story she acts out in the beginning and must live out in the end), compelling her to believe that he loves her and wants to rescue her from the bane of her existence, whom he helps her identify as Toby. If only Toby were taken away, he urges, all her problems would be solved.

That is, of course, exactly the way scapegoating works. People come to believe that their problems will be solved if they could only get rid of someone. The satanic principal is the principal of accusation and blame, the lie that a person or a community can only experience peace, success, fortune or joy at the expense of someone else. It has manifested in all kinds of violence, from expulsion to murder to oppression to war. The human propensity to project blame onto another and deflect one’s own responsibility is so deeply embedded within our psyche that there is no need for a “personal” satan. In fact, to accuse someone of being the embodiment of Satan is to employ the satanic principal one’s self.

Yet in this fantasy, Jareth, the Goblin King, is the demand for sacrifice come to life, the embodiment of Satan. He clearly feeds off of receiving those who have been thrown away, cast out by society, as Sarah has cast out Toby. He stops at nothing to ensure that Sarah does not reach her brother. This includes attempts at physical harm as well as psychological manipulation. He strives to reorient her desires toward himself and away from her sisterly love (which, hidden under a mess of trauma, angst, and deception, surfaces like a nearly-drowned victim gasping for air as soon as the fantasy to rid herself of Toby becomes a reality). The twisting of desire away from harmonious connection with others toward self-fulfillment at another’s expense is yet another manifestation of the satanic principal, which builds identity over and against another. Jareth seeks to deceive Sarah into loving him at the expense of her brother. But real love calls instead for mercy, not sacrifice.

Love Robs the Devil of Its Power

In spite of all of his manipulation, in spite of attempts to impede Sarah with obstacles, disorient her and undo all of her progress, or trap her in a false paradise of her dreams, Jareth cannot hinder Sarah, who is propelled forward by love. It is not only the love of her brother that motivates her. Along her journey, Sarah encounters three creatures who are clearly outcasts. Hoggle is a dwarf with no friends who ostensibly works for Jareth, though only out of fear, not loyalty. Ludo is a beast – intimidating on the surface but with a heart of gold – being tortured in captivity when Sarah takes the risk of rescuing him. And Sir Didymus is a talking raccoon who lives on the shores of the Bog of Eternal Stench, clearly beyond the margins of any “decent” society. Sarah befriends them all. In a world of outcasts under the power of the devil, Sarah manages to find and give love. No wonder she “turned [Jareth’s] world.”

One must wonder if Jareth finds the befriending of outcasts as intolerable as the thought of rescuing, or unsacrificing, Toby. If Jareth’s power lies in deceiving others into believing in the need for sacrifice, dividing creatures against each other, or building a kingdom out of controlling the rejected, then it seems that this is the case. In particular, Sarah’s friendship with Hoggle infuriates Jareth. In his threatening, manipulative fashion, Jareth seeks to breed self-contempt in Hoggle to keep him from believing he could ever be valued by anyone. “You don’t think a young girl could ever like a repulsive little scab like you, do you?” he asks. One of the devil’s tricks is convincing the victim of his or her own guilt or insignificance. For a long time, such manipulation has worked to intimidate Hoggle, but Sarah’s friendship empowers him. Hoggle’s character arc is in many ways the most compelling of the entire movie, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. For now it is simply worth reflecting on how his relationship with Jareth brings to light the ways in which blame and accusation can deceive people into the lie of self-worthlessness, making it that much easier to harm others or acquiesce to harm of one’s self. Jareth makes Hoggle feel worthless and compels selfishness. Yet Sarah helps Hoggle find his sense of worth, and thus enables his selflessness.

In the end, Sarah’s friendships become a part of her. Though she must face Jareth “alone,” as interdividuals we are never alone. Sarah takes the love of her friends to her final confrontation with Jareth. In this stunning scene of magnificent mimetic proportions, we not only see Sarah stronger for having embraced the love of others, but we also see Jareth admit to being formed by Sarah’s desires as well. In a succinct monologue, Jareth details how he has lived up to the compelling and formidable villain of Sarah’s fantasies. “I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me,” he concludes. “Isn’t that generous?” His speech is a manipulative blend of truth and deception; truth, for indeed, mimetic theory illumines to us how our formation of identity over and against others creates enemies. Sarah had fantasized herself as a hero in contrast to the villain that Jareth lived into. Yet Jareth is also deceitful, for he evades responsibility for his actions by, again, accusing Sarah of being the reason for his anguish and ignoring the hell he has put her through. Yet Sarah has come through hell stronger, and rather than let herself be intimidated or angered, rather than speak in her own defense, she remains focused on her mission to rescue her brother.

If there is any doubt that Jareth is Satan, it should be laid to rest in his final scene, which is reminiscent to Christ’s temptation in the desert. In his last attempt to win Sarah over, Jareth once again offers her everything she once desired:

I ask for so little. Just let me rule you. And you can have anything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.

His request is so reasonable. Just live within the confines of the world he has created, a world of sacrifice and outcasts, and he can be generous. Keep the focus on your own desires, Jareth implies, and he can fulfill them… at the expense of everyone else.  “Do as I say and I will be your slave” is a perfect encapsulation of the satanic temptation. When we wield the power of accusation and deceit, when we run the world on sacrifice, expulsion and murder, we may acquire our desires, but we do not rule our desires. In such a world, desire rules over us. Even when the satan works for us, we are slaves to it.

Sarah can no longer be held in the thrall of the satan. The world he controls, the “love” he offers and demands, is false. She knows that now, because she has come to know and be capable of true love, self-giving love, through embracing and being embraced by outcasts (as she herself had been, not only in the Labyrinth, but in her (mis)understanding of her “real” life) and through her recognition of her brother’s innocence and vulnerability. Jareth may offer everything she once desired, but her desires have been reoriented by love. Thus she can truthfully proclaim to him: “You have no power over me!”

Conclusion

Sarah “turned Jareth’s world,” as surely as Christ turned the world under the control of the satanic principal. She brought out the love that was there all along, and discovered it within herself. Whether the labyrinth and the underground world were “real” or inside her mind (but why on earth should that mean it is not real?), Sarah found love within it that she could carry with her for the rest of her life. Even in the depths of hell, the outer margins where we cast the victims we see as monsters, there is love. Sarah demonized her little brother and cast him out, to a hellish world where he was destined to become a monster, but recognizing his innocence and discovering a courageous love within herself, she not only pulled him from the brink, but brought others out of their misery and loneliness along the way, redeeming herself in the service of others.

And what of Jareth, the Goblin King, the satan? I hope if David Bowie looks down upon this tribute from Heaven, he takes no offense at being called out as Satan. I hope he is amused and honored. After all, if you’re going to play the Big Bad, you might as well play the Biggest Bad!

Yet I also believe that even Jareth can be redeemed, by the same love that Sarah discovered and magnified. It may take an eternity, but Love redeems all. Labyrinth, the Gospel in Muppet Form, tells that quintessential truth, in a way we can all dance to.

Rest in Peace, David Bowie, you devil you.

 

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly David Bowie End Scene by Anni53

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The Bible Clearly States (What Exactly?)

The Bible can be used to justify just about anything. If you so choose, you can develop any sort of doctrine you want based on things “plainly” taught in the Bible. The one I am going to focus on in this article is the practice of sacrifice. For many Christians, a God who demands sacrifice is essential to the faith. Entire systems of theology are centered on this practice. So, let us take a look at this “plain teaching” from Scripture a little more closely.

The first mention of sacrifice is found in Genesis 4:3, which reads: “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” It is interesting to note that sacrifice is already presupposed, as there is yet (as of Genesis 4:3) to be any mention that God desires it. Regardless, because of this practice, competition for God’s favor—for the better sacrifice—leads directly to envy and death. This is how culture is created. It is how the writer of Genesis describes the founding of the first city (see Genesis 4:16 – 17).[1] The Greeks would later describe the principle that structured our civilizations as the logos. Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) said violence—“war and conflict” specifically—is “the father of all things.” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 13) Genesis 4 gives us strong hints as to how this principle is structured, with sacrifice a key ingredient in the process. The Book of Leviticus tells us just how complex sacrifice then became in the Jewish faith.

The Book of Leviticus, which is central to Judaism, begins with all the various ways in which sacrifice is to be performed. Chapter 1 is blood offerings. Chapter 2: grain. This goes on and on and is quite precise throughout. To those who look for “plain truths” in Scripture, nothing is plainer than the importance of the sacrificial system in the Jewish religion. What is interesting then, as things progress and move forward, is that you have prophets who begin to question the sacrificial apparatus. Jeremiah 7:22 – 23 states:

“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’” NRSV

If you are looking for a “plain teaching” vis-à-vis sacrifice, you are not going to get it at this point (short of adding the word “just” in v. 22; like the translators of the NIV did. Jeremiah 7:22, in the NIV, reads: “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just [emphasis mine] give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.”). For me, this question remains: Did Yahweh give Moses the commands regarding sacrifice or, as Jeremiah states, did he not?

Then, if you go to the Epistle to the Hebrews, you will again read that the Law requires blood in order for forgiveness to occur (Hebrews 9:22). Nobody should dispute that. However, if you continue on to Hebrews 10:5 – 7 (referencing the anti-sacrificial Psalm 40:6 – 8), you will discover that the sacrificial aspects of the Law were not something the Father ever desired—it was unpleasing even. (See also Amos 5:21 – 22 for God’s apparent disapproval of “festivals” and “burnt and grain offerings”) In fact, in verse 8, the writer goes so far to write: “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings (these are offered according to the law).” Even though such things are offered according to the Law, they were not desired by God. This passage seems right in line with that of Jeremiah 7:22. However, it still is not so plain, is it?

Now, the last thing I would like to leave you with is a comment on the death of Jesus. I do so because it is the presupposed belief in a God who demands sacrifice that leads most Western Christians to conclude the Father demanded his Son become “the perfect sacrifice.” Because of humanity’s sin—our fall—the Father must have his Son die in order to then offer forgiveness. This has many negative implications so I would like us to meditate on Jesus’ death and whom the sacrifice actually appeased.

On multiple occasions in the Book of Acts, it is “clearly stated” that we killed Jesus (2:23, 3:14 – 15, 4:10) but that the Father raised him from the dead (2:24, 3:15, 4:10). Andre Rabe puts it this way: “Man does the killing and God does the making alive!” (Rabe, Desire Found Me, 224)

It is ironic that it is John Calvin—a lawyer—who popularizes the Penal Substitution Atonement theory. Sure, it makes sense a lawyer would think of things in terms of the human justice system, but in light of all real-world evidence, is it not obvious humanity is 100% guilty of the murder? Is Jesus not betrayed by a human named Judas? Is he not handed over to the crowd’s desires by Pilate? Is he not flogged by men with clubs and whips? Is he not placed on the almighty Roman cross—the symbol of the power of empire? Of course he is.

If anything is clear, it is that humanity killed Jesus. What is not so clear is why. Most believe it is because his Father needed a perfect sacrifice, but the convincing reason for such a belief remains unclear. There are plenty of pro-sacrificial passages throughout, but, as René Girard says, it is not a “cut and dried thing.” (Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins, 141) There are also plenty of anti-sacrificial passages that seem to undermine the “pro” stance.

Surely, something as important as the Bible needs to be taken more seriously than simply giving it a “plain reading.” I hope Western Christianity (broadly speaking) can give up that hermeneutic, one that strips the spirit of the Scriptures of all life. The flat reading must be exchanged for the anti-vengeance, anti-sacrificial hermeneutic Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews used. I do not believe the “Bible clearly says” much, but I do believe Jesus clearly says to “follow him.” (Matthew 4:19, 16:24) We need to follow him in action and in hermeneutics—forever eliminating our sacrificial lens.

[1] This would be similar to the founding myth of Rome, where Romulus slays his brother Remus over the interpretation of an omen.

Image: Biblical mosaic scene: sacrifice of Lamb of God. Kykkos monastery, Cyprus. Copyright: Yulia Kuznetsova. Available via 123rf.com

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From Japan To Ferguson: Sacrificing Our Justifications For Violence

It has been a year since the death of Michael Brown, and seventy years since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I am in mourning. I am in rage. I am struggling to plow through with hope and faith in the God of Love who can redeem all of this suffering and senseless murder. I am struggling to live into that hope by learning and shouting the truth and acting upon it.

Michael Brown and the people of Nagasaki are connected by more than just their dates of death. They were murdered by authorities charged to serve and protect. They were sacrificed to a myth of American exceptionalism mingled with a false ideology of white supremacy. Fears were projected onto them. They were dehumanized. Their killings are justified by people who insist that they had to die for others to live.

It is our national faith in sacrifice, in the righteousness of violence, in self-justification and its mirror twin – other-demonization – that most fills me with despair, but also with determination to keep up the struggle to drown out the violence and oppression of the world with rivers of compassion and justice.

Moving forward sometimes feels like swimming through mud, a slow and arduous process, because we are steeped so deeply in a culture, a religion, of violence, overt and insidious. This past year has been a wake-up call to the systemic racial violence on our very own soil, which must be confronted concurrently with the racist, Islamophobic, greed-and-power-driven violence exported overseas. Recognizing the interconnection of these violences, their common roots and the way they feed each other, is essential to the work of rebuilding a new social order on the foundation of love and compassion.

The murders of Michael Brown and the people of Japan were hundreds, even thousands, of years in the making. A single finger pulled a trigger, a single finger pressed a button, but the blood is on an entire world order structured on a profound, but deadly misguided, belief in the salvific power of violence. René Girard teaches us how civilization was founded in murder, as people purged their rivalries over mutual desires by coming together against a scapegoat or enemy, the communal killing of whom produced the cooperation and emotional bonding necessary to form a society. Our own nation was certainly born in the blood of others, as settlers slaughtered Natives and lashes drew the blood of slaves who cultivated the land and became a backbone of the economy. Today, our military and police forces are portrayed by the predominant culture as critical to our safety and survival. Wars and police shootings are deemed necessary, even noble, by the powers that be. Those who “put their lives on the line” to serve and protect are honored and glorified by our culture. Yet the blood of the victims of our state and our military, washing over all of us, does not redeem; it convicts.

Ultimately, these murders can be traced in large part to racism and self-justification, both intimately tied to the scapegoating mechanism. Racism is a type of scapegoating that is deeply embedded in the social structure of the United States. Distinctively American racism can be traced back to the early days of settlement before independence. As Matthew Cooke tells us in this video, natural alliances between African slaves and white indentured servants threatened the elite, who restructured laws to give poor whites slightly more rights and thereby redrew alliances along racial lines. Order was thus enforced not by distributing justice, but by redirecting hostility to a new enemy – the black race – in such a way that preserved slavery, kept wealth in the hands of the few, and placated the poor whites with token privileges. The myth of white supremacy was reinforced by segregation, and it influenced theological interpretation, social science, and even the understanding of biology. Everything about white American culture was set up to portray blacks as inferior, and this myth was believed and passed along as truth. The entrenched racism integral to the foundation of the United States has not been fully uprooted to this day.

The moral pseudo-superiority inherent in racism is a hallmark of scapegoating violence. Righteous self-justification has evolved since the days of slavery and lynchings, but it is still not only a persistent human trait but also very much a part of the American cultural psyche. Overt racism was once considered by some a moral position, to the point where preachers could draw on stereotypes of hypersexualized, bestial black men to incite mobs to murder “righteously” in broad daylight. Now that racism has been exposed as immoral, denial of racial prejudice is necessary to maintain a sense of morality. But the tendency to define one’s self over and against others persists. De facto segregation, a large wealth gap favoring whites, a mass incarceration system disproportionately targeting African Americans, and more, divide the experience of life in America along racial lines, keeping prejudices alive but insidious. Moral superiority felt against those imprisoned, impoverished, or negatively portrayed in the media, often (not always) falls along racial lines.

The concept of superiority encompasses but also transcends race in American culture. “American exceptionalism” is drilled into our cultural consciousness from an early age. Our desire to see ourselves as noble and heroic is nurtured by an understanding of history that portrays the mistakes of the past as long gone, lessons learned. We are a people ever perfecting our union, with liberty and justice for all, we are told. Our self-glorifying culture resists reflection on the systems that enforce order and the order they enforce, at home and abroad. The violence of our military, with bases in over 70 countries, conducting operations both covert and open, is portrayed as a tool for establishing freedom and a “global force for good.”

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Racism and pseudo-righteousness cloak murder in the mantle of morality. Centuries of demonization of black males ultimately guided Darren Wilson’s finger on the trigger as he shot Michael Brown multiple times. His irrational fear, that a man already injured was a threat to his life, was deeply conditioned. While he should have been held accountable for his actions, his actions must also be examined in a larger context of the racism that makes the devaluation of black lives a fact of American life. Justification for Darren Wilson’s actions, however, is not just a product of unrecognized racism. It is also the product of faith in the goodness of the system of American law enforcement and American order in general. Officers who enforce order in a nation of liberty and justice for all are good guys; those they kill are bad guys. Thankfully this narrative is being challenged now, but for far too long it went largely unquestioned. The system of policing and law enforcement, while accomplishing good, is designed to uphold an order that is far more corrupt and inherently unjust than we have been conditioned to believe. This order protects the wealthy and hurts the poor and racial minorities in particular. The system can be redesigned, the noble desires to serve and protect can be exercised, but not without extracting the poisons of racism, greed, and resistance to self-reflection.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by "Necessary Evil" (plane commissioned to film the bombing. Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by “Necessary Evil” (plane commissioned to film the bombing). Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Faith in the military as a force for good also goes largely unquestioned. The myth of white supremacy is intermingled within foreign policies that seek to manipulate and exploit nations with darker-skinned people and lucrative resources. The myth of heroic violence, reinforced by conditioned belief in American exceptionalism, serves to mask racism, greed, and evil justification of brutality. The comingling of racism with unquestioned self-righteousness manifested itself egregiously in the release of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would this murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians have been justified in the minds of so many without the demonization of the Japanese, who of all the Axis powers were portrayed as the most ruthless and animal-like of enemies? Seventy years later, the lie that such an action was necessary to end the war persists despite evidence that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender before the bombs were dropped. Our reluctance to deal honestly with our historical atrocities enables those atrocities to continue. Death tolls of the war on terror are estimated in the millions. The threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over our heads while we ignore our commitment to disarm and make war all over the world under the pretense of protection, even as military experts (among others) have conceded that our wars have created new enemies, like ISIS, and ultimately make us and those we claim to protect less safe.

Our national order, our world order, is built on the sacrifice of devalued lives. At Raven, we preach mercy, not sacrifice. But in order to have mercy on the victims of our violence at home and abroad, it’s time to make some sacrifices that will alter our self-perception. We must sacrifice the myth of our unshakeable goodness. We must sacrifice our self-justifications. For white Americans particularly, we must sacrifice the denial of our racial prejudices and examine the ways laws and attitudes have continually marginalized black and brown people. The devaluation of black lives has proven deadly and rendered African Americans unsafe in their own nation. For all of us, we must sacrifice our complacency and our distraction that keeps us from seeing the devastation continually being waged in our name. We must sacrifice the myth of righteous violence and truly see the horror of families burying their dead, or fleeing with no time for burials, maimed bodies, birth defects, shattered cities, forfeited futures.

It is terrifying to renounce self-justification and let the truth of our scapegoating violence in all of its forms permeate our consciousness. It is terrifying to allow the notion that evil is not the exclusive property of the “other,” that it resides within our own hearts. But here is the Good News: we are already, infinitely and unconditionally, loved and cherished. We don’t need to define our worth against anyone else. We don’t need to redeem ourselves by finding someone “worse,” perpetuating cycles of violence. Instead, we need to look to the one who became our victim to expose our needless sacrifice of other victims. We need to live into the Love of our Heavenly Father who also loves our victims and our enemies.

What will the world look like when it is structured on all-embracing love rather than the over-and-against violence we see today? It will look like, and be, the Kingdom of God.

 

Top Image: Stock Photo by Charles Wollertz from 123rf.com.

austerity

Soulless Economics

Austerity, the tool of neoliberal capitalism, stands up to Greek democracy and stares it down. Oh well.

We’re remarkably comfortable with soulless economics.

Pope Francis, speaking this week in Paraguay, cried to the nations of Planet Earth: “I ask them not to yield to an economic model . . . which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”

But we have yielded to this economic model, in thought, word and deed:

“At issue,” USA Today informs us, “is whether Greece has taken adequate steps to cut spending and raise taxes to deserve the new three-year, $59 billion infusion of funds it has requested, and whether it can be trusted to follow through on the austerity program it has proposed as the price for new loans.”

The pope’s words haven’t penetrated the pseudo-objective certainties of financial reporting, much less the dark sanctuaries of money and power. But they must. And eventually they will, or human evolution is dead. An allegedly impersonal economic structure, which quietly benefits the infinitesimally few who have far more than they need, is no foundation for our future.

This economic system is a relic of the Industrial Age, or perhaps it’s a relic of the Agricultural Revolution. It’s imbued with deep prejudices — human beings can be bought and sold, the nurturing of human life (women’s work) has no monetary value whatsoever — and reinforces our place outside the circle of life, separated from one another and from our deepest values.

Climate change and poverty are intertwined, the pope cries out in his stunning encyclical, “Laudato Si” — “Praised Be” — which reaches well beyond traditional Catholicism in its scope and message . . . and well beyond the parsimonious morality of global capitalism. We must, he declares, “look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity” and “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.”

And we cannot bring about a change in humanity without a change in our economic system, which asks for sacrifice only from those who already have next to nothing and has no language that values generosity, except the sort that flows from the poor to the rich (but then it’s called “interest”). The present system does not acknowledge our connectedness to one another or to the planet or in any way understand that true, lasting prosperity emerges from sharing and giving, not exploitation.

“But the campaign of bullying — the attempt to terrify Greeks by cutting off bank financing and threatening general chaos, all with the almost open goal of pushing the current leftist government out of office — was a shameful moment in a Europe that claims to believe in democratic principles,” Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times. “It would have set a terrible precedent . . . even if the creditors were making sense.

“What’s more, they weren’t. The truth is that Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding.”

What God are we worshipping?

In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein writes: “It is hugely ironic and hugely significant that the one thing on the planet most closely resembling the forgoing conception of the divine is money. It is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an ‘invisible hand’ that, it is said, makes the world go ’round.”

And thus Greek ATMs have no euros to dispense. “Without more help from the European Central Bank,” the USA Today article continued, “the Greek banking system may soon run out of cash” — implying that cash has the same sort of objective existence as oil or wheat or diamonds. That’s absurd, of course. Its existence is purely symbolic: an exchange medium with a commonly agreed-upon value backed by a government or central bank.

Krugman, describing the mysterious persistence of this medium, wrote that “if the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt (the headquarters of the central bank), Greece will have no choice but to start paying wages and pensions with IOUs, which will de facto be a parallel currency — and which might soon turn into the new drachma.”

Money, in other words, is a function of social need. It is not an independent entity controlled solely by a financial priesthood, whose terms for its use — high interest rates, austerity, endless debt and poverty for some, endless freedom to exploit the human and environmental commons for others — are absolute.

Imagine a currency that serves a humane, intelligently conceived economic system, one that has at its core an awareness that all life is sacred. Imagine this reality reflected, rather than spurned, in every financial transaction that takes place, no matter how small, no matter how large.

 

 

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

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

 

Image Credit: 123rf.com Stock Photo, Copyright Barry Barnes