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The Planned Parenthood Scandal: Beyond the Morality Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Oscar Scandal: Sean Penn, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Responding to Racism

Alejandro Iñárritu and Sean Penn. (Photo: Flickr, Disney | ABC Television, Rick Rowell

Alejandro Iñárritu and Sean Penn. (Photo: Flickr, Disney | ABC Television, Rick Rowell)

“Sean Penn’s ‘Green Card’ comment may have ruined the entire Oscars.”

That was the headline at the Huffington Post this morning. I didn’t watch the Oscars, but I’m always curious about pop-culture scandals. What could Sean Penn have said that was so egregious that it threatened to ruin “the entire Oscars”?

Penn delivered the award for Best Picture, which went to Birdman. After Penn opened the card, he took an awkward moment to gather his thoughts about how he would introduce the winner, whose director happened to be his long-time friend Alejandro Iñárritu.

That’s when Penn delivered the scandalous introduction, “And the Oscar goes to…Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman.”

The 2015 Oscars had already been dubbed “The Whitest Oscars Since 1998,” Hollywood didn’t need more confirmation of racism. The Twittersphere was certainly scandalize by the comment. Many pointed out that no one made comments about British directors and actors not having their Green Cards. Many shared Mario Lopez’s sentiment when he tweeted, “And great job Sean Penn. Ruining a fantastic moment with a green card ‘joke.’ #Tacky.”

Some have defended Penn. Matt Apuzo of the New York Times tweeted, “Sean Penn is friends with the guy! Classic Oscar move: an easy to misinterpret inside joke about a sensitive political and ethnic issue.”

Unfortunately, there are no inside jokes when it comes to “sensitive political and ethnic issues” when 34.6 million people are watching. It was a stupid comment that reminded me of high school bullies who made fun of classmates and cowardly hid behind statements like, “I was just joking.” No. You weren’t. You were being a racist jerk.

I hope you clearly see how I feel about Sean Penn. Like many others, I’m scandalized by his racist comment.

As I prepared with many others to sacrifice Sean Penn as our next pop culture scapegoat, I was struck by Alejandro Iñárritu response. He was surprisingly un-scandalized by Penn’s remark. In fact, he diffused Penn’s racist “joke” with his own brilliant humor, “I don’t want to talk…Oh my God. They want me to talk because I’m the worst English speaking guy here. Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious, I guess.” And then he directly addressed the issue of immigration,

I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.

I was very impressed with Iñárritu’s response precisely because he remained un-scandalized by Penn’s comment. His response was important because scandals are problematic. They distract us from the real issue. Sacrificing Sean Penn with our hatred won’t solve the problem of racism or the need for immigration reform. In fact, our hatred will only add to the hostility that already surrounds these “sensitive political and ethnic issues.”

The best way to respond to racist comments is to follow Iñárritu’s lead by becoming un-scandalized. Don’t focus on Sean Penn. Don’t fall into the cultural trap of scapegoating another person. Directing our hatred against an individual might make us feel good, but it distracts us from the real issue. Instead, work for justice by focusing on the issue, not by demonizing individuals. And then, as Iñárritu suggests, treat everyone, including those with whom we disagree, “with the same dignity and respect”.

Hating Charlton Heston and Following Jesus

Scandal is an essential aspect of religious consciousness. It is not simply negative. The victim who offends us also helps us to recognize that the ‘normal’ way we do things is fundamentally flawed. So are we willing to let ourselves be scandalized in a way that challenges us?

Jeremiah Alberg

hestonI have never held a gun in my hands or fired a weapon of any kind, but (and?) I am steadfastly in favor of gun control. The image of Charlton Heston with a rifle brandished above his head at an NRA meeting after a school shooting, declaiming “From my cold dead hands,” makes me red with anger. It has completely ruined “The Ten Commandments” for me, which was one of my favorite movies. I can’t watch any Charlton Heston movie anymore (yes, not even “Planet of the Apes”) because my hatred of Heston, may he rest in peace, obscures my vision. Why anyone would put their precious right to bear arms above the safety of children is impossible for me to fathom. My condemnation of such callousness is securely rooted in the righteousness of God’s justice which seeks to defend the weak, protect the innocent, and end the plague of violence once and for all.

It seems that Charlton and I are locked in a rivalry over the meaning of guns. Are they peacemakers or child killers? Is “bearing arms” a right or a threat? And who gets to decide? The more Charlton claims the right for himself, the more I want to take that right from him. Prof. Jeremiah (Jay) Alberg would say that alberg book coverI am scandalized by Charlton. I knew that before reading Jay’s book, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts. I mean, I know that my self-righteous anger and my movie boycott are two scandalized reactions which kinda embarrass me. Seriously, why do I care so much about what Charlton Heston thinks? I cope with my embarrassment by mostly avoiding the gun control issue. No need to think about it anyway, because I already know where I stand, and that I stand in the right.

I try to avoid conversations with fans of conceal-carry laws, but sometimes it’s impossible. I have a dear friend, Dave, who owns a ranch in Wyoming. He says he foregoes the conceal part and openly carries his weapon, especially to meetings with neighbors about water and grazing rights. Not to openly carry would put him in a weakened position. It’s not that anyone is going to use their weapon, he tells me, but it sends a message. My reaction? I try to avoid having a reaction in front of Dave, but afterwards, I can’t help but judge Wyoming as some sort of primitive state, literally and figuratively, that is far inferior to mine.

What I didn’t realize until I read Jay’s book was that by avoiding Charlton Heston and gun control conversations I was jeopardizing my spiritual development. If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, which I do, Jay says that I must learn how to use scandals as a path toward deeper understanding. He says that it’s an essential part of the Christian journey because, get this, “Christ is a scandal… He cannot be without scandal, and the Gospel cannot be proclaimed without the element of scandal.” Geez, what does that mean? Jay explains by offering a paraphrase of Jesus saying, “Blessed is whoever is not scandalized in me” (Matt. 11:6):

Jesus is suggesting “Precisely insofar as you draw close to me, you will be tempted to stumble. My relationship with you will inevitably lead to that point where you do not want to go, where you will find it difficult to follow. I will ask something of you that you would rather not give. It will be particular to who you are, the thing to which you are attached.”

Great. I’m getting the idea that where Jesus is inevitably leading me is to get over my seething anger toward Charlton and my sense of superiority over Wyoming. Sigh and sigh again. I don’t want to. I like explaining to my family and friends every Easter when The Ten Commandments is cycled endlessly on cable channels why I refuse to watch it. Because I’m a good guy, okay! Good guys hate Charlton and everything he stands for! And so when my dear friend, Openly-Carry Dave, invited me last weekend to go to the shooting range with him, I hesitated for a second. I froze between my sense of superiority and Jay’s admonition to find a way through the scandal. Maybe this was the way. So I said yes.

suzanne with gunI went with Dave and let him teach me how to safely shoot a .22 caliber and a 9 millimeter gun. Am I even writing that out correctly? I don’t know, but I do know that Dave was delighted to be my teacher and I began to understand a little bit about why guns can be – dare I say it – fun. The guns we were using were primarily for target practice. They are no good to cowboys and wouldn’t stop a charging elk or moose, but I guess they do send a message! Anyway, Dave said, “If you are good at something, you like it,” by way of explaining why folks like target shooting. Hmmm, I get that. I do like things I’m good at, and I get good at things I like. Makes sense.

I wasn’t any good at target shooting, but I felt my heart soften a little bit. I realized that there might be things about Charlton I didn’t understand and perhaps shouldn’t judge. I wondered if there were ways, God forbid, that I put my own wants and desires ahead of the well-being of children. Maybe there are. Maybe I should think about that a bit more. Maybe if I care so much about children I should devote more time to listening for where God might be calling me to help rather than nursing my grudge against a man who died years ago. Geez, maybe I will have to watch The Ten Commandments this year and find some other way to be good. Wish me luck.

Join me for a live video chat with Jay Alberg on Thursday, March 27. For more info and how to join the call, click here.

The First Lie: Language’s Big Bang

alberg book cover

Once a person begins to desire what the model desires, he learns very quickly that disclosing the desire – naming it, speaking it – is the shortest route to making certain that he will never obtain the object. In this situation only dissimulation will succeed, and the best way to dissimulate is to say the opposite of what one means.

Jeremiah Alberg, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts

Everyone lies. We tell little lies all the time, sometimes in the name of kindness or courtesy – “No, really – you look great in that color!” or “You have the last piece of my birthday cake, I insist.” Sometimes we catch ourselves or others in really big lies – “I am not a crook!” or “I only drink socially” or “My government does not engage in torture.” But what if language itself began with a lie? A lie so big that it had the generative power of a big bang? That’s the intriguing thesis of Jeremiah Alberg’s new book, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts, which uses the insights of mimetic theory to uncover the way language is so infected by rivalry that its ability to connect us to the truth is compromised.

Let’s begin with an everyday example that illustrates what Alberg is talking about:

Pillow Fight

My daughter, Emily, was shopping last week at a home furnishing stores. She was looking for a red pillow to go with a new area rug. As she was holding the perfect pillow in her hands, a woman came up to her and said,

The pillow that started it all!

The pillow that started it all!

“I was just looking at that one. I only put it down for a second.” Was this a lie or the truth? Emily, having been raised on the milk of mimetic theory, knew instantly that it might contain a little of both and that she was being drawn into a mimetic rivalry with a stranger. What is a mimetic rivalry? It’s when someone is infected with a desire for something that you possess because you possess it. In other words, the truth was not what that woman said to Emily, but what my daughter instinctively understood: “She wants the red pillow because it is in my hands. My holding it has designated it as a desirable object. But she thinks her desire is original, that she wanted it first!”

Emily could feel her own desire enflame instantly.  A half dozen reasons why she, Emily, had every right to the pillow went through her head, and she felt that a contest could have quickly erupted. She knew that if she wanted to avoid a conflict and have any chance at the pillow, Emily would have to pretend she didn’t want it. So she lied. “Oh, that’s fine” she said, “You can have it.” Feigning disinterest, Emily walked over to another stack of pillows and pulled out a different red pillow, one with a butterfly on it. Emily thought it was particularly ugly, so she pushed it back into the stack and sure enough, the woman rushed over still holding the first pillow. She said, “Oh, that one that you just touched! Can I see it?” Emily said, “Yeah, sure!” then milled around looking at other pillows, while the stranger was deciding between the two pillows now in her hands. In a few seconds, she said, “You know what? I don’t want this one anymore. You can have it,” handed the first pillow to Emily and walked away with the butterfly one.

The Lie That Keeps the Peace

This incident strikes a familiar cord because we often instinctively understand that to get the object of our desire, the best strategy is to pretend that we do not desire it. Lying, in other words, not only gets us what we want but it does so peacefully. If Emily had decided to argue with the woman over the pillow, she could have won a war of words with her or even a tug of war, but something much more important would have been lost. Both Emily and her rival would have experienced a rupture in the peace of their day. Hmm, lying can avoid conflict and get what you want? A lie that is as good as gold and better than MasterCard – what a strategy!

The lie came with a cost, however. Emily used language to obscure her rival’s view of reality, to keep her in the dark about Emily’s true desires. I can imagine the story the rival told about finding the butterfly pillow, and I doubt that Emily figured in it at all. If she did, the rival would not have been able to tell an accurate story about Emily’s desire because she never had access to it.

The First Lie: Language’s Big Bang

It turns out that Emily’s use of a lie put her in touch with the origins of language! Her use of a lie born of rivalry was like a time machine taking her back to language’s big bang. Language emerged from an attempt to talk about a very first “thing”, language’s “singularity”. Lots of guesses have been made about what that first thing was: Was it a carcass that would feed the community or perhaps a hunting band attempting to coordinate their attack or a woman, a sexual object, that men were competing over? Of course, none of us will ever be able to find concrete evidence of what the thing was, but we can observe its ripple effects in human civilization. Detectable in myths of human origins, this first thing caused ripples through our cultural universe just like the background radiation detectable in our physical universe. Prof. Alberg would see a background ripple from language’s big bang in Emily’s use of language. Her lie born of rivalry contains evidence of the “first thing” and that language began not just by talking about it, but by telling a lie about it.

So what was this “first thing”? To answer that question, we must look through the lens of another everyday experience, another ripple effect from language’s big bang: scapegoating. When little potential conflicts like the one between Emily and her mimetic rival escalate into open conflicts, they can quickly draw others into the war zone. Imagine if, one by one, customers and staff in the store began to take sides in the pillow contest. Soon smaller, hidden quarrels would emerge as strife spread through the community. Now imagine something like this happening before a moral code, legal system or police force could be called upon to calm things down.

The solution that humans stumbled upon at our origin was the solution of the scapegoat, in which all the quarrels of the community were turned against one victim who was blamed for everything. Uniting against this victim unifies the community, calms down the quarreling and restores the peace. Scapegoating incidents like this happened thousands of times over thousands of years as humanity slowly ritualized and mythologized these murders into a foundation upon which to build and maintain unity (enabling the emergence of moral codes, legal systems and police forces).

But there is a lie at the heart of scapegoating and a successful scapegoating depends upon our faith in the lie, in the community being utterly convinced that the lie is the truth. The lie is that this random passerby who was sacrificed by the community was not the source of the initial rivalry or any of the others that escalated from it. There is also a truth, of course – all good lies have an element of truth in them. The truth of scapegoating is that by uniting against him or her peace was successfully restored to the community. This combination of truth and lie is the big bang of language and all of human culture. As such, there is not a singularity at our origins, but a duality that persists in the truth/ lie paradox of language. Alberg explains how the randomly chosen scapegoat victim is the “duality” at the origin of language:

He or she is an innocent victim who is held to be guilty of all the evil but who now becomes the source of all blessing. The evil and the blessing are real, but the victim’s guilt and beneficence are not true… Thus the transcendental signifier [the first source of meaning] is a fundamental misrecognition of the truth. It’s representation in language shares in this duplicity.

The Scandal of Language

If the guilt of the scapegoat, however mistaken, is not unanimously believed, then the benefit of peace that results from his expulsion or murder cannot be achieved. The peace that made human culture possible depends upon the lie, and language itself emerged out of the necessity of maintaining the deception. This is what Alberg refers to as the “scandal” of language – it presents itself as representing the truth yet its hidden purpose is to prevent our access to the foundational truth of human culture, the truth of the scapegoat’s innocence. The “first thing” of language, the big bang of human culture, turns out to be an innocent victim killed by a community. To gaze directly at that truth would shake the foundation of culture; to avert our gaze is to be trapped in the lie. And so language is infected by the necessity of the lie and our use of language is corrupted from the beginning. A scandalous conclusion, to be sure.

From a shopping trip for pillows to the origins of human language! We have taken an incredible journey in a short time, but one that I hope has whet your appetite for more. I invite you to watch the video interview I conducted with Alberg, to join me for a live conversation with him on Thursday, March 27, to read his book and above all to begin to ask the question Alberg wants us to ask: Is there a way to “hold out the possibility of peace” amid escalating rivalries that does not depend on sacrificing an innocent victim and then lying about it? Surprisingly enough, Alberg believes that while being scandalized can block access to the truth “it is also the place where the battle between staying with the illusion or looking long and hard at reality is played out.” He speaks to his readers directly: “Our journey is to get beyond scandal.” Journeying beyond scandal with Alberg is an enlightening and personally transformative experience. Please don’t miss it!

Scandalized by Gangs: A Live Chat with Rev. Romal Tune

Romal-300sqBefore we chat with Rev. Romal Tune at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement this Wednesday, February 26, I need to make a confession: I wish that the young people who join gangs would go to church instead; if there’s a God in heaven, then gangs should wither and die and church youth programs take their place.

It doesn’t sound like much of a confession, does it? Before I met Rev. Tune, author of God’s Graffiti founder and Executive Director of Faith for Change, I didn’t think so either. I thought I was making a fairly obvious, perhaps routine moral judgment: gangs bad, church good. But Rev. Tune is a former street kid who has committed his life to improving academic outcomes for at-risk youth so when he talks about churches and gangs, he speaks with authority. After hearing him rock the house at the Christianity 21 Conference in January my confession poured out of me.

Romal challenged my simplistic moralizing when he pointed out that churches sometimes mirror typical gang behavior when we shouldn’t – adopting with strict membership requirements, defining ourselves in opposition to other types of Christians, and reserving our ministries for our own community – and fail to imitate what we should – their passion and commitment to meeting youth where they are, taking care of their needs, and providing a sense of safety, belonging and purpose.

Moan about your dwindling attendance at youth programs all you want, Romal says, but don’t demonize or dismiss gangs as having nothing to teach us. Not like I did, hence my confession: I scapegoated gangs, using my condemnation of them to avoid taking responsibility for the mainline church’s failure to attract and retain youth members. The thing is, I should have known better because I work with mimetic theory which has this concept of the skandalon. That’s Greek for scandal and is often translated as stumbling block. We lift the idea straight from Jesus who taught us that if we are scandalized by something, we are probably caught up in a rivalry. (See Matt. 16:23 and all of chapter 18 to see Jesus linking scandal and rivalry.) That’s right – the reason I was so down on gangs was because they were better at doing the thing I claimed to value so highly. I condemned them so I could deny to myself just how much I envied their success and how much that success challenged the depth of my commitment to youth. Instead of walking the talk, I demonized gangs and congratulated myself on being the good guy.

This idea of the scandal is difficult but critically important if we want to be truly good. To follow Christ more completely we need to avoid being scandalized by our scapegoats. Which is why at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, a Patheos premium blog, we are going to spend the month of March exploring scandal during our live video chats with experts in scandal and mimetic theory. During this important series, we are offering a free 30 day membership to new subscribers who join TNA by Thursday, February 27. That means you can join our live chats with Romal Tune; Jim Warren, author of a great new introduction to mimetic theory, Compassion or Apocalypse; Rev. Paul Nuechterlein, author of the incredible online resource Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary; and Richard Beck, author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Morality who blogs at Experimental Theology. Find out more about this great line-up of guests and how you can take advantage of this special offer at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement.

duck dynasty pic

Duck Dynasty and the Idolatry of Freedom

I know. We’re all a little fatigued about the Duck Dynasty and freedom of speech controversy. As many have pointed out, everyone has been free during this controversy. Phil Robertson was free to make his statement to GQ. GQ was free to publish it. A&E was free to suspend Robertson for making comments that it thought hurt their image. And, despite that justification, A&E is free to air Duck Dynasty marathons on December 23rd, 24th, and 25th. (Yes, on Christmas day you can watch twelve and a half hours of Duck Dynasty. A&E is taking this controversy straight to the bank!) We are free to watch, or to not watch, future episodes of Duck Dynasty. We are all free to take sides. And bloggers are freely adding to our Duck Dynasty fatigue by writing endless blog posts.

This blogger asks for your forgiveness in writing yet another post that adds to our fatigue. So I’ll keep this brief.

There is something about freedom that we are missing in this debate, especially from a Christian point of view. When it comes to freedom, we want to fight for the freedom to do or say whatever we want. This is the highest point of freedom in the United States. It’s a freedom that is based on freedom for individual rights. It’s a freedom that says that I should have the right to say whatever I want without any negative consequences.

Whenever Christians use “freedom” and “rights” as an excuse to marginalize a group of people, we become idolaters of freedom. This idolatry of freedom has negative consequences. Actually, “demonic consequences” is not too strong a phrase. In his book Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Wolfgang Palaver states, “[I]f we fail to use our freedom in a positive way, it can lead to an explosion of the demonic” (28).

We are seeing “an explosion of the demonic” in this controversy. As Michael Hardin reminds us in his ebook on “The satan,” the word satan means accuser. An “explosion of the demonic” is an explosion of satanic accusations against our fellow human beings. “Freedom” is being used on every side in this controversy as an excuse to accuse our fellow human beings of violating someone’s “freedom.” This is the satanic idolatry of freedom that is leading to “an explosion of the demonic”, of endless accusations in the name of “freedom.”

Fortunately, there is a way out of this idolatry. We can “use our freedom in a positive way” as Palaver suggests. In this positive sense, freedom does not lead us to seek our rights over and against them; rather, Christian freedom is about being for our fellow human beings and loving them just as they are.

Paul pointed to this positive sense of freedom when he wrote in Galatians 5:13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The American notion that freedom is about the individual is false. Freedom is always relational. When Paul wrote “but through love become slaves to one another” he meant that we are bound to one another. We can be bound to one another through love or through hate. The question of freedom is always the same: Are we going to use freedom in a negative and idolatrous way that leads us to unite over and against our fellow human beings as we fight for “freedom”? Or are we going to use freedom in a positive way that leads us to love our neighbors as ourselves?

The Miley Cyrus Scandal: MTV’s Video Music Awards, Sex, and Moral Outrage

robin thicke miley cyrus

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus
[Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for MTV]

I didn’t watch the Video Music Awards last night, but this morning I noticed that Miley Cyrus is getting all the attention.

Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe gives voice to the moral outrage that many are feeling. She just couldn’t stop lambasting Miley for her performance:

That was really, really disturbing…That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed…probably has an eating disorder…That was disgusting and embarrassing…I feel terrible…That was really, really bad. They [MTV] should be ashamed of themselves…She is a mess…I don’t want to see that ever again on this show…It was pathetic.

Well, Mika’s vehemence intrigued me, so I found the video on YouTube and watched it. It’s bad. Awkward might the best word I can find to describe her performance, and it only became more awkward when Robin Thicke joined her onstage. Then it became awkward and demeaning. And I was instantly reminded of why I don’t watch the VMAs.

I don’t watch the VMAs because I expect this very thing. For example, back in 2011, the Ryan Seacrest Blog stated that, “The MTV ‘Video Music Awards’ have always been a must for millions of people waiting to see the latest and most outrageous moments on television.” Do you remember when Dianna Ross fondled Lil’ Kim’s breast in 1997? Or when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed in 2003? Or when Sacha Baron Cohen dressed as a scantily clad angel and landed in a sexually explicit way on Eminem in 2009?

Wait, you don’t watch the VMAs either? Well, fortunately many websites have provided us a list celebrating the most scandalous moment at the VMAs, including not just gossip websites like Celebuzz, but more serious websites like the Huffington Post and CNN.

The truth is that we love feeling morally outraged by scandals, especially sex scandals. I love to blame celebrities, politicians, and star athletes when they get caught up in these scandals – I especially like to blame them when they are obviously guilty, which is one reason that the VMAs are so popular. Every year the VMAs provide us with a live, juicy scandal, where guilt, shame, and attempts at sexual excitement are projected on a television screen for all of us to see.

Our response of moral outrage is totally understandable, but mimetic theory helps us understand something deeper about these scandals. Scandals are about scapegoating – blaming others for our cultural problems. As James Warren points out in his recent book Compassion or Apocalypse? A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, whenever people blame others, “They are able to occupy the high ground of conscience because they have a scapegoat to blame, to mock, to gossip about, to cast aspersions upon” (246).

It’s easy to take “the high ground of conscience” toward Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for their hyper-sexualized performance at the VMAs, but it won’t solve the bigger sexual problems facing our culture. Sex scandals and blame will continue with each of our cultural rituals. Who will scandalize us at the next awards show? Who will scandalize us at the Super Bowl halftime show? Who’s the next politician to have an affair? Who’s the next celebrity to attend drug rehab? I don’t know, but I do know that we will love feeling morally outraged and enjoy taking the “high ground of conscience” as we imitate one another in uniting in animosity against whoever is caught up in the latest scandal.

If we are honest, we will admit that Miley isn’t much different than the rest of us. Whether positive or negative, we all crave attention, which is exactly what Miley is getting from us right now. Here we see that scandals are always relational and we are each responsible for our role in them: They create a co-dependent relationship between the offender and the offended. Miley needs our attention and we need her scandals to feel morally superior.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. I hope that Miley and Robin will take responsibility for their actions, but we all need to take responsibility for a culture that breeds these kinds of scandals.

Now, you might be asking, “Isn’t talking about scandal just innocent fun? I mean, are we really supposed to stop gossiping about celebrities, politicians, athletes, and our neighbors?”

The biggest problem with our addiction to celebrity scandal is that scandals can start to consume our lives. Talking about celebrity scandal can seem innocent enough but, like a contagious disease, it will soon spread to other areas of our lives. We will start gossiping about our family members, friends, and neighbors. And once that happens the relationships we actually care about threaten to be destroyed.

Maybe the answer isn’t in getting caught up in moral outrage, but rather to move away from feeling scandalized and towards feelings of compassion.

 

Some questions I have: Instead of outrage, is it possible to feel compassion for Miley Cyrus? Why hasn’t much attention been paid to Robin Thicke’s role in this scandal? What would happen if you started feeling compassion for someone who created a scandal in your neighborhood? If you began to love your neighbor as yourself, would you start a scandal? 

Paula Deen: Scapegoat du Jour?

deen photo

Photot courtesy of www.metrocookinghouston.com

The brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, the Food Network star accused of tolerating a racist atmosphere in the kitchen of one of her restaurants, has sent my Scapegoat antennae vibrating. Folks are lining up on opposite sides of the issue, to either defend or condemn this Queen of a Southern cooking financial empire. Dropped by the Food Network, Smithfield Foods and now Walmart, and with a Facebook page populated by supporters, Paula Deen’s accusers and defenders are facing off like battalions on a battlefield. Extreme polarization like this is a symptom that Scapegoating is underway so I suggest everyone take a deep breath and back away from the deep fat fryer while I offer a few Scapegoating observations.

The Verdict is Already In

Polarization is not about a search for truth. Polarization indicates that each side believes it is in possession of the truth and is running on overdrive, panting with the effort of making their accusation stick. “Paula Deen is a racist!” shout her accusers. “Why do you hate Southerners?” counter her defenders. No matter which side you are on, you are steadfastly, undeniably certain that you are in the possession of the truth and on the side of good.

Outrage is Perceived to be a Moral Necessity

Polarization is almost always accompanied by outrage. Under these conditions, being outraged by another’s behavior is a clear indication of your moral pedigree. Only someone so dedicated to truth and justice would feel the depth of outrage you feel at the morally reprehensible behavior of your opponents. Of course, both sides feel outraged so we find the opponents locked in mortal combat: the only satisfactory outcome is the total defeat of your opponent. Good must conquer evil and you will not rest until you have fulfilled your moral obligation.

Guilty or Not, the Accused is a Scapegoat

Polarization accompanied by outrage is a clear indication that the accused is functioning as a Scapegoat for both sides. Two truths are being concealed here, the first one we already indicated. Determining the truth of whether or not Paula Deen is actually a racist is not even on the table. Pre-deciding the truth about Paula was a pre-requisite for the combat. But the second truth being concealed has to do with the polarized opposites. By insisting on their own pre-determined goodness, neither side needs to ask themselves whether they are behaving badly. No self-examination required here because, as with Paula, determining the truth about our own behavior is not even on the table. We are pre-judged by our own righteous indignation as steadfastly, undeniably good.

Scapegoat du Jour

That’s the function of a Scapegoat: to establish our identity as good people over and against some evil other. With the bad guys clearly determined, the Scapegoaters give themselves a free pass. They conveniently avoid having to answer uncomfortable questions such as: Have I ever used a racial slur or laughed at a racial joke? Do I stereotype racial or cultural groups? Am I prejudiced in ways that I am currently blind to? In what ways do I benefit from the systemic racism in America today? The Paula Deen scandal is currently providing just such an avoidance mechanism for the polarized, outraged critics and fans who will be sorry to see the frenzy die down. But it will. Paula’s predicament will fade from the scene and she will re-emerge months or years from now reborn and rehabilitated. Most of us will hardly remember all the fuss because we will have already moved on to the next juicy scandal, renewing our sense of ourselves as good while avoiding a fresh set of uncomfortable questions with the next Scapegoat du jour.

OMG! Miss Utah Made a Mistake!!! Let’s All Feel Superior!!!

Miss Utah, Marissa Powell (Photo: Jeff Bottari/AP)

Miss Utah, Marissa Powell (Photo: Jeff Bottari/AP)

The Internet is abuzz with Miss Utah. Marissa Powell was asked at Sunday night’s Miss USA Pageant,

“A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does that say about society?”

Powell responded, “I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are continuing to try to strive … to … figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem right now. I think, especially the men are … um … seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to see how to … create education better. So that we can solve this problem. Thank you.”

Her answer was painfully incoherent, and as you can tell in the video, the poor girl knew it. There’s a bit of irony in the question that has been missed. Maybe we should be asking, “What does it say about our society that we still have these kinds of beauty pageants?”

These young women are paraded around a stage like sacrificial lambs. We admire their beauty, almost to the extent of objectifying them. But beauty is not the reason we watch. There are beautiful women on television all the time. We watch because we love to see someone fail.

The reason Powell has become a scandal in the United States is that her failure gives us a reason to feel superior. People.com says Powell, “botches her answer on Miss USA.” The Huffington Post states that she “fumbled” her question. USweekly.com declares that while Powell didn’t win Miss USA, she “definitely won the flub of the night!” Comments on the YouTube video pile on the negative judgment: “I’d never want to date something as dumb as that, no matter what it looks like.” “I tell ya the truth, miss Utah along with all those people sitting in there cheering are dumb. Our dogs prove daily that they are smarter than the human race.” And, “Why didn’t she just answer the question? She tried to tie her ‘answer’ to jobs and the economy. WHY? She should just keep it simple.”

Timothy Burke of Deadspin sums up how many felt during Powell’s answer, à la Billy Madison:

What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

In what sense is Powell a scandal? In his book Compassion or Apocalypse?, James Warren reminds us that we misunderstand scandals if we think of them primarily as events that shock our moral sensibilities. Rather, scandals are events that have “both attracted and repelled [us] at the same time.” For example, those who are scandalized by Powell are repelled by her “insanely idiotic” answer, and yet they are also attracted to her. She is, after all, a model of beauty in our culture. We are attracted to her because we know that very few people ever make it on a national beauty pageant. She is superior in beauty — a quality that we both admire and envy. We want to be beautiful like her, but there are too many obstacles in our way, so we envy her. The only way we can feel superior to her is if she fails, and then we can unite mimetically with others in a shared sense of superiority.

Feeling a sense of superiority over and against another is, of course, a sign of our own weakness. We need someone to fail to know that we are successful. We need someone to be bad to know that we are good. We need someone to make an “insanely idiotic” statement to know that we are smart.

So, what does it say about our society that we still have these beauty pageants? It means that we are addicted to scandals. We are addicted to gaining a sense of superiority by watching our cultural models fail.

What’s the solution? Warren claims that instead of a mimetic response of feeling superior against another, “we can have a mimetic response of compassion” toward all people. Instead of piling on the criticism when people make a mistake, how about we give them a second chance?

Fortunately, not everyone in the media is piling on the shame. The Today Show did give Powell a second chance. Click here to see how she responded.