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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.

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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

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40 Questions For Rainbow Flag-Waving Christians, But Only 1 That Matters

A few weeks ago, Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition posted an article in response to the Supreme Court’s decision bemoaning the fact that we can no longer discriminate against people who identify as LGBTQ.

The court’s decision has people like DeYoung in a bit of a depression. He writes, “There are many reasons for our lamentations, from fear that religious liberties will be take away to worries about social ostracism and cultural marginalization.”

I sympathize with DeYoung on this point. I mean, social ostracism and cultural marginalization is a painful experience. Just ask the LGBTQ community.

DeYoung goes on to ask 40 questions to Christians who support the Supreme Court’s decision. 40 questions! Surely, with that many questions bombarding us, there must be something wrong with Christians supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians!

Allow me to simplify things and boil those 40 questions down to one. It’s the question that Jesus asked and it’s the only question that matters when it comes to the Bible.

Jesus was confronted by religious authorities who didn’t like the people he was hanging out with. According to their interpretation of scripture, Jesus was hanging out with sinners, which, in their eyes, made Jesus a sinner, too. Jesus responded to them with a reading instruction. He quoted the prophet Hosea as saying,

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

This is the key that Jesus provides for interpreting the Bible. Anyone can quote scripture, even the devil can do that. The only question that matters is whether we are going to interpret the Bible through a sacrificial hermeneutic that leads us to exclude others or a merciful hermeneutic that leads us to include others.

Theologian James Alison has emphasized Jesus’ instructions on biblical interpretation in his adult education series Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. James’ approach to the only question that matters in biblical interpretation is so important that I’m going to quote it in full.

Jesus is not saying to them “I think you should go and look up the text of Hosea.” Rather he’s saying “You all know that what God says in the Prophets is ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ But this is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it in two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice. Whenever you interpret anything morally, whenever you engage in any act of religious discrimination, as in your disapproval of the people I hang out with, are you obeying the word ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice’? It is perfectly possible to interpret the law in such a way that it demands sacrifice, creates a group of the good and casts someone out. As also it is perfectly possible to interpret the law as something always to be made flexible for the benefit of those who need reaching and bringing into richer life, leaving the good to look after themselves and going after the lost sheep. But only one of these two is acting in obedience to the word in Hosea.”

When we understand Jesus’ hermeneutical principle to interpret through God’s mercy, it means that we won’t discriminate against the LGBTQ community for any reason, but especially not for a religious reason. Why? Because Jesus teaches us to interpret the Bible through merciful love that seeks to include, not through the sacrificial mechanism that seeks to exclude.

And so we don’t need to ask or answer 40 questions. When it comes to the Bible, according to Jesus there is only one question we need to answer. Will we interpret with a merciful hermeneutic or a sacrificial hermeneutic?

 

Image Credit: Flickr, NathanMack87, Rainbow America, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

Happy Presidents Day! – On Mimetic Theory and How I Lost Political Ambition

Like many children growing up in the US, I had dreams of becoming the President. My political career got off to a pretty good start. In high school, I was Freshman Class President, Junior Class President, and then Student Body President my senior year. During college, I was involved in the Student Senate and my senior year I was the Vice President of the Student Body.

I was well on my way to becoming President of the United, don’t you think? And when I turned 35 last year, I made it Facebook official and announced my candidacy for the President of the United States.

#EricksenClinton2016

It’s a hashtag, so it’s gotta be true.

But then I read this passage about political leaders from René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred,

The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.

So, I’m rethinking my political ambitions…

Girard was specifically talking about ancient kings, who were paradoxically revered and demonized. Girard claims that all human institutions, including political institutions, emerge from the “scapegoat mechanism.” To summarize, Girard postulates that whenever conflicts began to threaten ancient peoples, they would find cohesion by uniting against a sacrificial victim. This victim was the group’s scapegoat. He or she was blamed for all the group’s conflicts and was then sacrificed. The violent sacrifice created a temporary sense of peace, but conflicts would soon re-emerge and the scapegoat mechanism was re-enacted.

The sacrificial victim was demonized as the cause of conflict, but after the sacrifice, the victim was venerated at the cause of peace. Hence the paradox of the scapegoat being revered and demonized. As Wolfgang Palaver writes in his book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory,

The sacrificial victim…is marked by double transference; it is viewed initially as absolutely evil, that is, as responsible for the plight that has descended on the given society, and retroactively as absolutely benevolent, i.e, as a harbinger of peace that has rescued the community from its plight.

Ancient kingship emerged from the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism. Palaver states that the group’s future sacrificial victim was infused with prestige as a “harbinger of peace” and that “It is not uncommon in primitive cultures that the victim chosen for ritual sacrifice is granted the highest social privileges before its impending murder.”

The highest social privilege involved political rule, but that privilege came with a cost. Our ancient ancestors weren’t stupid; they knew the sacrificial cost kingship. Palaver points out that many ancient people were unwilling to take political roles and that many kings were “forced with violence to take on the position.” Why? Because kings were blamed for any problems that plagued the community and thus were always potential, if not nearly always, sacrificial victims. “This fear of being appointed a king is not unfounded,” states Palaver, “in many cultures, kings were simply killed if they were unable to overcome crises such as droughts or bad harvests.”

Fortunately, we moderns don’t tend to kill our political rulers, which is good progress, but we are moved by the same scapegoating dynamic as our ancestors. Presidents act as cultural lightning rods for adoration during times of prosperity and hatred during times of crisis.

During those times of cultural crisis, we can find cohesion if there is one person we can blame, let’s say…a president. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew this. Thus, they made sure that the executive branch was occupied by one person. Palaver highlights Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the US and one of the most important original interpreters of the US Constitution. Hamilton believed that executive power must remain, as much as possible, with one person “so that the people can attribute the mistakes of the government to a single responsible individual.” Hamilton argued that this would make it possible, “to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or a series of measures, ought really to fall.”

So, thanks to my friends René Girard and Wolfgang Palaver, I no longer dream of being president. I do, however, have greater respect for anyone who takes on the role of future scapegoat president.

So, Hillary, you can have it.

The Shooting Death of Michael Brown: A Necessary Evil or Just Plain Murder?

dupuyI want to discuss something fundamental, disturbing and largely invisible about human society that the ongoing events in Ferguson, MO are bringing into view. As you know, a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a uniformed police officer this past August and a Grand Jury decided not to indict him for murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. They decided that Brown’s death was a regrettable but justified killing while Brown’s family and supporters insist that it was just plain murder. Of course, Michael Brown is dead no matter how you classify what happened to him and so the persistent arguing about whether or not his death was caused by criminal behavior is a sideshow to the main event: all human societies since the beginning have used “good” violence to control “bad” violence. The effort to maintain the illusion of this false difference is unraveling before our eyes and with it the very foundation of human community. If you think there’s a lot at stake in this case, you are more right than you know.

Taking Sides? Don’t Get Sucked Into a Sideshow

Good people began taking sides on Michael Brown’s death within minutes, perhaps even as the events unfolded. Was Mr. Brown crazed and aggressive, “a demon” threatening Officer Darrin Wilson’s life as Wilson described in Grand Jury testimony? Or is Wilson the aggressor, blinded by racism into seeing a threat where none existed? Look, it’s easy to make a case for either side. The release of all the Grand Jury evidence by the prosecutor is an empty gesture. Each side will find ample evidence to support their view of what happened, so let’s move to a deeper analysis. The very act of taking sides is a sideshow, if you’ll excuse the pun, to the more fundamental issue here: the way human communities dress up violence as necessary and good in order to protect ourselves against, well, against our own violence.

In a work of breathtaking clarity, philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy uses the mimetic theory of his mentor and colleague René Girard to make a startling claim about humanity’s dependence on violence to establish and maintain order. In his book The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explains that human civilization was made possible by creating a category of “good” violence and attributing it to the gods. What Dupuy and Girard call the realm of the sacred is a ritualized mechanism in which violence is used to contain or limit itself. You see, then as now, the biggest threat to the survival of human community is not some outside danger, but our own tendency to turn on each other in self-destructive violence. As we see in Ferguson, MO now, the threat of violence is everywhere exposed and it is one that arises from within. The “good” violence of the state in the form of the National Guard is attempting to re-assert itself to contain the “bad” violence of looting and rioting. No outside enemies are to be found here. Just a community at war with itself.

In the ancient world when human sacrifice was the heart and soul of civic life, the sacred realm was ruled over by priests. By cloaking human sacrifice in the sacred, sacrificial rituals galvanized communities around the altar and blinded them to what we can so clearly see: that the act of sacrificing a victim to the gods is not sacred but murder, plain and simple. Today we would call the victim a scapegoat, made to take the blame for all the ills of the community and sentenced to death. As Dupuy explains, “sacrifice contains the outbreak and spread of murder; though it is in one sense just another murder, it promises to put an end to violence.” (5)

In discussing this “disconcerting kinship of violence and the sacred,” Dupuy makes two observations:

It is easy to mistake two things here. The first error consists in not seeing that sacrifice rests upon murder – a relationship that all religious thought works to conceal. The second, and converse, error consists in simply asserting the identity of sacrifice and murder… without taking into account the difference between the two acts – a difference that lies at the very source of civilization. (101)

The difference, of course, is that the killing of a sacrificial victim is cloaked in the aura of the sacred while murder is not. It is the ability to turn plain and simple murder into a divinely sanctioned act that transforms violence itself from something evil and destructive into something good and constructive of everything we know as civilization today. What we cannot see when we are in the thrall of the sacred, is that the one we believe is irredeemably evil and deserving of our violence is in fact a scapegoat, falsely accused and underserving of our wrath. In the case of Ferguson, sides are aligning around accusations of blame against either Brown or Wilson. In so doing, they are creating a sense of purpose and community over and against their adversaries. It may be that Brown and Wilson are each deserving of both blame and mercy, though there is little room now to contemplate such a paradox. In other words, by “taking sides” we are choosing scapegoats rather than honestly engaging with the complexities of humanity’s  addiction to violence.

Appeasing Anger, Averting Violence

How does this difference between ancient sacrifice and murder become the “very source of civilization”? Well, sacrifices were thought to appease the anger of the gods and keep their violence at bay so as to protect human communities from their destructive fury. The truth, however, is that it was not the gods’ anger that needed appeasing, but the anger of community’s members toward one another. It was not the gods’ violence that threatened to destroy a community but the real risk was from human anger turning violent and destroying the community from within.

Rituals of sacrificial violence successfully projected the anger and violence outside the community, packaged it as a public good, and so managed to use the sacrificial violence to cathartic effect. A small dose of controlled, sacred violence protected the community from its own tendency to erupt into uncontrollable spasms of violence.

In our day, the new priests are the bureaucrats of our political/ legal/ judicial system. Their job is to shroud violence with a sacred aura, package it as a public good and maintain the utterly false distinction between a justified killing and murder. The announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision by the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch was an exemplary performance of this sacred duty. Our new high priests have offered many statements condemning the violent protestors as a threat to the public good while defending state (i.e. sacred) violence. I offer one particularly vexing example. In Chicago, President Obama recently denounced the riots as “criminal acts that should be prosecuted.” How glibly he condemns one kind of violence while justifying others; without any moral qualms he calls the destruction of property in Ferguson a criminal act but the destruction of property in Iraq and Syria by U.S. bombs regrettable but justified. What is becoming harder to deny is that despite promises to the contrary, the use of “good” violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is an exercise in futility.

Unfortunately for our world, our leaders, the media, and the general public are all caught up in the self-defeating paradigm of sacred violence. All we seem able to do is to channel our violence into a condemnation of our adversary’s violence, shroud our violence as a sacred good, and hope that peace can be restored. As we are seeing in Ferguson and throughout the Middle East, the peace bought through violence is doomed to repeated failures requiring ever more infusions of “good” violence until the distinction crumbles in hypocrisy.

Violence is Not the Answer

Just as the ancient world lost their faith in the goodness of human sacrifice, so today we are losing our faith in justified violence. The false difference between murder and justified killing is evaporating and no amount of appeals from our modern priests can re-convince us that the difference is real. We need to find another way to create and maintain the peace of our communities that condemns all violence for what it is: violence. We must not only condemn the violence of our adversaries, but realize that we fall under the same condemnation. All violence is evil, all killings are murder, and the realm of the sacred is nothing more than a delusion shared by all of humanity.

Predictably, the realm of the sacred will not go down easily and will thrash violently against any attempt to destroy it. Which is why we see increasing uses of violence both domestically and abroad even as the futility of violence is becoming harder to deny. As we persist in using sacred violence to achieve peace, despite evidence that it only yields more violence, we begin to resemble the definition of insanity offered by Albert Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. As I said, the events in Ferguson reveal that we are in more dire straights than we realize.

I’d like to close with a few voices from outside the realm of the sacred from those who are calling for an end to the use of violence under any circumstances. Poignantly, Michael Brown’s family issued this statement after the Grand Jury verdict:

We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen… We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.

The Brown family is pleading with us to find another way to live peaceably together that does not involve us justifying our violence. Of course, they are echoing another victim of violence, Jesus Christ, who, from the cross, pleaded with his Father for the forgiveness of his persecutors. He returned with the marks of his persecution on his body, offering mercy not vengeance. His was not an attempt to excuse or justify violence, but simply a statement of truth: justifying violence will never end violence. It only perpetuates it perhaps to the point of apocalyptic self-annihilation. Only when good people stop justifying their violence as “good” will we be able to end the scourge of violence once and for all.

I’d also like to offer you the words of my dear friend and colleague, Adam Ericksen, who is engaged with his own effort to resist the despair that has overtaken him in the face of the violence in Ferguson. I hope we can find the courage to resist taking sides and instead examine our own complicity in a world addicted to scapegoating and sacred violence.

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

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

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

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

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

Violence Nevermore!

Image from winteriscoming.net

Image from winteriscoming.net

Happy Halloween, Dear Friends! Tonight, for a spooky edition of Book Feature Friday, I decided to do things a little differently. As it is Halloween, my article tonight is going out in costume — disguised as a parody of the original Raven by model-obstacle  famous master of poetic horror, Edgar Allen Poe. Just have fun with it friends; it’s my “treat” for you this Halloween!

Once upon a midnight dreary
I woke pondr’ing mimetic theory –
How we imitate each other and role models gone before –
Patterns of human behavior,
And our deep need for a savior
From the violence we savor
That consumes us all the more.
As we compete for our desires with each other more and more
Are we doomed forevermore?

From infancy we form obsessions
With our parents’ prized possessions,
Such that it’s my phone and kindle, more than toys, my girls adore.
My actions for them will inspire
Their own acts, so I aspire
To make sure that I desire
Things and goals worth striving for
My kids are watching all the while, of this one thing I am sure:
I’m their model evermore.

And this human form of learning
From each other has us yearning,
Coveting the things of others, on TV or in the store
More than just for things, we’re aching
For identity, mistaking
Goods and wealth for self, forsaking
What we should be living for:
To love and serve each other should be all that we are living for,
Be our mission evermore.

Yet we find ourselves competing
On and on without retreating
‘Til in anger self-defeating, we find ourselves in all-out war.
Coveting in our hearts creates
Violence that escalates
In cycles that perpetuate
Evermore and evermore
Violence keeps coming back round through that e’re revolving door
Evermore and evermore.

From Cain and Abel, rival brothers,
The virus quickly spreads to others
Jealousy turns lethal, righteous anger ends in gore.
Violent acts keep on compounding
Til the whole wide world is drowning,
Can mercy, too, be so abounding?
Can we hope to find a cure?
From our brutal, warring madness, surely we must find a cure
Or keep searching evermore.

Yet our violence seems abated
When we unify our hatred
Against a single victim we find easy to abhor.
We’re not at each others’ throats
As long as we have our scapegoats
But this short-lived antidote
Just hides our sickness all the more
When we think that we are righteous, we’re deluded all the more
And no better than before.

Whole societies and cultures
Feed off sacrifice like vultures
Never seeing human beings in the ones whom we deplore.
Mob-like, gathering in alliance
To pour out our wrath and violence
On some victim whom we silence,
To be heard from nevermore
Victim purged, we find catharsis; fragile peace has been restored,
Truth is sacrificed once more.

Scripture tells the bloody story,
How we think we see God’s glory
In the sacrifice of others and the victories of war.
Though we’re caught up in believing
In our violence so deceiving,
Looking down, Our Father’s grieving,
Pitying us all the more.
When time was ripe He came among us, His good image to restore,
Reconcile us evermore.

Seeing violence in God’s name and
Grieving for us, Jesus came and
In the form of humble servant, took his place among the poor.
Joining prostitutes for dinner,
Healing lepers, calling sinners,
He stood not among the winners,
But our outcasts he restored.
‘Til authorities and powers couldn’t take him any more.
Vowing vengeance swift and sure.

Against him former foes united
Herod the King and Pontius Pilate
Whipped and stripped and body broken, thorns upon his head so sore
Mob and leaders vilified him,
Followers betrayed, denied him
Human malice crucified him,
But God raised him up once more!
In the Vindicated Victim, we see God as ne’er before
Off’ring mercy evermore!

When the words of peace were spoken,
Then the curse of hate was broken
Sins are healed by forgiveness, not by sacrifice and gore
What a friend we have in Jesus
Seeing others as he sees us
From our violence he frees us
From our senseless rush to war
Only love can break the cycle that leads us on and on to war
On and on forevermore.

In Jesus Christ we fin’ly see that
God could never ever be that
Genocidal tyrant once more dreaded than adored.
By death and hate no longer blind,
We put on Jesus’ heart and mind
And guided by his grace we find
New life, new love, new hope restored.
Freed from jealousy and greed, at last to God we are restored.
Ever and forevermore.

This mimetic theory tells us:
When fickle desire compels us
To fight each other for the things our culture tells us to fight for,
If we live instead for others
Give to sisters and to brothers
And be not fighters, no, but lovers
The world can be whole once more
With Jesus as our human model, our world can be whole once more.
Of this truth we can be sure.

Who coined this theory? Why Girard did
And that’s why he is regarded
As one who makes us see our world, our faith, ourselves, as never before
The insights we gain from his reading
Of the scriptures has us pleading,
“Stop the sacrificial bleeding
For we can afford no more!”
No more sacrifice and violence, there cannot be any more!
This we must work to ensure.

This nonviolent hermeneutic
That we find so therapeutic
Applies not only to our scripture, but to our lives all the more.
From politics to parenting
We keep on finding the same thing:
The insight from Girard can bring
Us closer, closer to the cure
From our bitter warring madness, God’s love is our only cure
Girard just helps us see it more.

Here at the Raven Foundation
We work on proliferation
Of mimetic insights, to spread peace from shore to shore
Exposing violent tendencies,
Reducing our dependencies
On scapegoats and enemies;
Won’t you join us, we implore?
Take Christ as your mimetic model, we emphatically implore
To make violence nevermore!

The Courage To Disarm

Knotted Gun in front of UN building, NYC. Image from worldmomsblog.com

Knotted Gun in front of UN building, NYC. Image from worldmomsblog.com

The Ferguson tragedy, like all those that preceded it and all that will follow — involving the trivial and panicky use of lethal force, by the police or anyone else — stirs up questions the social status quo doesn’t dare face.

 

My sister, Sue Melcher, put it this way: “I find myself also nauseated that another issue never seems to enter the discussion: the issue that a highly trained officer could make such a mistake with a gun demonstrates that just having the weapon present increased the danger of the situation. Had the citizens been armed, how many more casualties could there have been? None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely — and is that even possible?”

 

The “wise” use of lethal force . . .

 

We’ve wrapped our global civilization around the certainty that we understand and revere life in all its vastness and mystery so completely that we know when to cut it short, indeed, that we — those of us who are officially sanctioned good guys — have a right to cut it short in, it would seem, an ever-widening array of circumstances. In so doing, we allegedly make life better for the social whole. This is called militarism. To keep this profitable lie going, we refuse to look deeply at its consequences.

 

When we inflict death on distant cultures, at the sterile remove that modern weapons grant us, we can avoid all but the most cursory awareness of the consequences of our actions. But when we do it at home, it’s not always so easy.

 

Ferguson, Ferguson. A community — and a nation — erupted in agony at the hellish absurdity of Michael Brown’s killing. One of the deeper, darker questions concealed in the maelstrom of rage and grief of Ferguson is this one: What if Officer Darren Wilson had not been armed when he told the two teenagers to get out of the street? What if the police force that employed him knew of, and practiced, effective, nonlethal forms of keeping order in the community (and did not regard the people it was “protecting” as the enemy)? This is not a simple question, but it has a simple answer. Michael Brown would be alive and Darren Wilson would not be in hiding.

 

But no one is asking it because the popular imagination doesn’t even entertain the possibility that such methods exist — or can be created.

 

I ask this question now not to toss a superficial answer or two at the national and global violence epidemic we’re caught in but to establish, first of all, the idea that violence has consequences and, furthermore, that having lethal force at one’s fingertips also has consequences. “None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely,” Sue wrote. This is true if only because such power can always be wrested away from us, and knowing this is bound to bring an intensified level of panic into someone’s decision-making process — even a trained professional’s.

 

The demand for police accountability that the Ferguson tragedy has unleashed is a demand for public scrutiny of an officer’s state of mind when he makes the decision to use lethal force. At present, such accountability is murky, contained as it is within the police and legal community. Most likely, these communities will protect their own and cut officers slack for acting out of panic.

 

Consider what Michael Bell learned during his campaign for police accountability. Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force whose 21-year-old son was killed by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., in 2004, eventually won a wrongful death lawsuit in the incident and used the $1.75 million settlement to pursue a campaign for stricter police accountability in Wisconsin.

 

Writing recently in Politico, Bell noted the results of the campaign’s research: “In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.”

 

What concerns me about this isn’t so much the protection of police officers who use lethal force unnecessarily as the protection of lethal force itself. This is what gets off scot free time and again, in shooting after shooting, and therefore remains unquestioned as a necessary part of social order. If the consequences of lethal force were subjected to objective scrutiny, I believe we’d be looking for alternatives with far more seriousness.

 

Bell’s son, for instance, was killed in the course of a routine traffic stop. According to the police report, one officer screamed that his gun had been grabbed and a second officer shot the young man in the head, “sticking the gun so close against his temple that he left a muzzle imprint.”

 

Because the Bell family hired a private investigator, they learned details of their son’s killing independently of the legal system, e.g., “that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror,” Bell wrote. In other words, a minor misperception escalated instantly into a fatal shooting, ending a young man’s life and inflicting a lifetime of grief on those who loved him. Not only that, it shattered the life of at least one of the officers involved. The officer who screamed that his gun had been grabbed committed suicide six years later.

 

Violence explodes in every direction. According to the Badge ofLife website, U.S. police officers commit suicide at a rate of 17 per 100,000 officers, well above the rate of the general public and close to that of the U.S. military. It’s also well above the rate of officers who are killed in the line of duty.

 

“Particularly startling in the study was the finding that not a single suicide in 2008 (or 2009) was ever attributed to police work,” the site notes. “While police departments announce that law enforcement is a ‘highly stressful, traumatic job,’ they prefer to place the blame for a suicide on the family or on the officer for having some kind of ‘personal problem.’”

 

Lethal force gets off scot free.

 

As militarization of the police escalates and our brutal wars for profit come home to haunt us, the time has come to face the violence we bring on one another in the name of social order. The time has come to find the courage to disarm.

 

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.

Deep Justice In Ferguson

Ferguson

Image from www.nbcnews.com

Black ’hood, white cops. “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”

And so it begins, and begins, and begins. An African-American boy dies for walking in the street — for yet one more insanely small transgression. Protesters cry for justice. The legal bureaucracy hunkers down, defends itself, does what it can to paint the deceased 18-year-old, Michael Brown, as a bad guy. Sides harden in the media. Once more it’s us vs. them. Nobody talks about making things right; nobody talks about healing.

But we can’t talk about healing — yet. We can’t talk about Ferguson, Mo., and the standoff between angry residents and the heavily militarized police, now two weeks old, without talking about institutional racism. In a healthy, free society, the idea of a “standoff” like this would be absurd, because the police aren’t a separate entity, controlling that society on outside orders, like an occupying army. In a healthy society, police serve the community; they’re part of it.

What has happened, and is happening, in Ferguson is sufficiently preposterous and cruel that the mainstream media coverage hasn’t completely surrendered its sympathy to the police and portrayed all the protesters as rioters. A young man, walking in the street with a friend, was shot six times — twice in the head — by a police officer. Even if the police version of events (he was defiant, there was a struggle) is true, the shooting was an act of breathtaking aggression and should never have happened. And so many witnesses dispute this story, the reality looks a lot more like cold-blooded murder; thus the residents of Ferguson have a right to demand answers, and justice.

What they also have a right to demand, though most of the coverage hardly acknowledges as much, is control over their own community and complete assurance that they are not regarded by their “protectors” as the enemy. They have a right to demand deep justice — and deep change. Michael Brown’s shooting was not an isolated incident; it’s part of the legacy of manifest destiny, a.k.a., racism that has shaped the United States of America.

“Michael Brown’s tragic death,” writes Nadia Prupis at Common Dreams, “is part of a much more pervasive trend of police brutality on large and small scales that is strengthened and perpetuated by militarization — one that encourages the police to see the people as an enemy, and vice versa.”

The enemy, in particular, are people of color. Prupis quotes Eastern Kentucky University professor Victor E. Kappeler: “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities . . . were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.”

Slavery, of course, is “history.” The conventional understanding is that we’re long past that regrettable era. Human enslavement occurred so long ago it might as well be part of some other national history — some other universe. Bringing it up, at least in the media, is in poor taste, apparently, guaranteed to summon groans and eyeball rolls. This is the case even though it’s been barely a generation since the civil rights movement curtailed slavery’s direct descendant, the Jim Crow laws and vicious racial discrimination on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Confederate flags still decorate public space and private consciousness. No matter. Slavery is history. Let’s move on.

But, as Kappeler, who is in the School of Justice Studies, goes on to say: “The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.

“The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War,” he adds. “In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction.”

One phrase lingers: “control of minorities.” Could it be that such an imperative is part of our social DNA? This is institutional racism. It would put the Ferguson killing into an all-too-graspable context, beginning with Officer Darren Wilson’s command — “Get the fuck on the sidewalk” — to Michael Brown and his friend. The officer wasn’t keeping order in Ferguson; he was controlling the movement of two young African-American males, who are “minorities” despite the fact that Ferguson is mostly black.

I have no doubt that the standoff in Ferguson — the demand for change — goes this deep. I also have no doubt that teargas won’t pacify the protesters and replace their anger with fear of authority. Neither will all the military hardware the Defense Department can supply.

Fascinatingly, the standoff between police and protesters all but ended for one evening a week ago, when the governor pulled the local police force off the front lines and gave control of the situation to Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Instead of confronting the protesters as the enemy, Johnson, who is black and grew up in Ferguson, joined them. There were no gas masks, no armored vehicles — and, suddenly, no standoff.

At Michael Brown’s memorial service, Johnson said: “I will protect your right to protest.” Turning to the boy’s family, he added: “My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry.”

This was a mirage, of course. The tear gas and confrontation — the occupying army — returned soon enough, and the community split apart again.

But deep change is coming. The events in Ferguson have forced our history out of hiding.

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.