The Qualifications Quibble: What Do We Require of Our Leaders and Ourselves?

The Qualifications Quibble

One of the electoral season’s obligatory scandals occupied the media spotlight last week when Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in mimetic rivalry, accusing (implicitly or explicitly) each other of being “unqualified” to be president.

Briefly, on a segment of Morning Joe, Hillary Clinton expressed concern that Bernie Sanders did not know how to deliver on his central campaign promise, to break up the banks, as an unflattering interview with the New York Daily News had implied. (Actually, Sanders’s assertion that he had the authority to break up the banks via the Dodd-Frank bill and the treasury department was correct, but the interviewer continued to question him, implying that he did not know his own talking points). She asserted that Sanders had “not done his homework.” While stopping short of calling Sanders unqualified, a staffer had leaked the Clinton political strategy to “disqualify” Sanders. In return, Bernie Sanders explicitly called Hillary Clinton “unqualified” to be president based on her vote for the war in Iraq, her millions of dollars in donations from Wall Street, and her support of trade deals that hurt American workers.

Being swept up in mimetic rivalry is par for the course when competing for anything, particularly for the highest office in the nation. For all the heat behind the words, negative campaigning is to be expected to draw contrasts between opposing candidates, and I do not begrudge either Clinton or Sanders for drawing contrasts. However, honesty matters. Clinton’s assertion that Bernie “had not done his homework” is based on a misleading and disingenuous interview that was spun by major media outlets against Sanders. If she had reached her conclusion that Sanders is unprepared based on her own experiences working with him in the Senate, as either a fellow Senator or perhaps as Secretary of State or First Lady, it would behoove her to give better examples. For his part, Sanders’s assertions that Clinton showed poor judgment on the Iraq war and trade deals, and that she has taken significant sums of money from Wall Street, are all true, though if he sincerely believes that these decisions are “disqualifying” he would not continue to pledge endorsement of Clinton should she be the Democratic nominee. In the heat of the campaign, both candidates may have been too loose with their rhetoric. But I do not think it benefits us to dwell on the scandal of he said/she said. This episode has brought up deeper issues, however. What, exactly, are the qualifications we demand of a leader? And what qualifications do we have when it comes to our role in building a better nation, a better world, a better future?

What Qualifies A Leader?

The media tends to frame elections in terms of candidates running against each other. That makes sense, of course, as elections are essentially competitions. But they are also an opportunity for candidates to tell the people what they are for. Likewise, when we think about what qualities we desire in a leader, it helps to ask, “What do we want for our people, our country, and our world?”

The most fundamental thing I want for our world – the one thing on which everything else depends – is a healthy and sustainable planet. Global warming is a threat to all life, far beyond American life, far beyond even human life. I believe we need a leader who takes the threat of global warming seriously and would be willing to take substantial action to reduce our carbon footprint.

Reducing our carbon footprint necessarily means reducing military action worldwide, as the United States military is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels on the planet. Of course, I wish for a reduction of our military action and our military budget not primarily for the sake of the land but for the sake of all people, as living in peace and security is a fundamental human right. But to speak of reducing our military action makes many people uncomfortable when we are convinced that our military actions are for our protection. If we view our protection as a priority over and against the welfare of others, we will be reluctant to reduce our military action or funding. But if we consider our welfare interconnected to that of others, and recognize that our violence perpetuates a cycle of violence, then we can understand that a leader can be for the security of our nation and for the replacement of violence with diplomacy and reconciliation at the same time. In fact, there is no way to be truly for security without being for peace, as violence will always perpetuate itself.

Finally, I want a leader who shows concern for the health, welfare, and prosperity of all people, particularly the marginalized. The quality of someone with much power can, I believe, be measured in his or her treatment of someone with little or no power. This means I want someone who is humble enough to listen when called out on privilege, and someone who can recognize and push to correct systemic injustice in its myriad forms, from racism to sexism to ableism to heteronormativity and more.

What Qualifies Us?

These are a few very broad areas that form the values I employ when considering candidates for a leader. But no leader can work alone, and the  people most in need of a more just, more compassionate, more peaceful world, those who currently suffer the most from marginalization, poverty, environmental degradation and violence, theirs are the voices that need to be heard the most. Whether leaders ensconce themselves in circles of power and shut out other voices or strive to their utmost ability to be true public servants, no leader, no administration, no government, can tackle the problems of our world without a vocal and active citizenry making demands and contributing time, ideas, and resources to solutions.

So when we consider what “qualifies” a leader, it is incumbent upon us to consider the goals we wish our leaders to work toward, and ask how we might work toward those goals ourselves, independently of election cycles, regardless of whomever occupies the Oval Office or any office.

If I want a healthy and sustainable planet, I must do my part to reduce my carbon footprint – from recycling to public or “green” transportation (biking, walking when possible), reducing packaging, being aware of energy and water consumption, and more.

If I want peace, I must strive for peace in my own relationships. I must humble myself to hear the criticism of others, be willing to do right by others even at the expense of my pride, replace enmity with empathy. I must also strive for peace among my children by modeling peaceful conflict resolution. I must continue to speak and work and occasionally take to the streets for peace in the community and the world. I must remind myself and everyone else that to be against a war is to be for the people, for the planet, for the future, even for the leaders who may wish for war in the first place, as our well-being is deeply and intimately interconnected.

If I want a more just, equitable and compassionate nation, I must embody solidarity with people on the social, cultural and economic margins. I must strive to understand my own privilege and listen to discover how to turn such privilege into equality. I must listen, learn, and act… in that order, or rather, in that order over and over again in a continuing cycle.


During election season, the horse race of who’s up and who’s down and the “scandals” of who said what latest “outrage” can drown out important issues. A negative tone permeates the atmosphere as we define ourselves not only against candidates, but against their supporters (who could be our neighbors!) Even when we agree on what we seek in a leader, we may disagree on which candidate best fulfills those qualities, and set ourselves up against even those who would normally be our allies. Campaign season, so interminably long in the United States, can bring out the worst in all of us.

But the changes required to heal our nation and our world require us working with each other and for each other, independently of the election cycle. They require that we recognize what we have to give beyond our vote. They do not require agreement on a particular decision, like whom to vote for, but they do require cooperation, listening in the midst of disagreement, and recognizing the value of the contributions of others.

As we consider what we require in a leader, let us ask what is required of us? This question was posed in scripture by the prophet Micah, and (separation of church and state notwithstanding), the answer is one that, with slight modification, serves us well as citizens: justice, kindness, and humility.

Image: Disney / ABC Television Group’s Photostream. Available on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs 2.0 Generic license

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scalia and Ginsburg pic

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – The Hope of Friendship

In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia death last Saturday, I’d like to put politics aside for a moment and talk about friendship. That’s because if anything good came from his untimely death, it is the fact that we are learning about his friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is a friendship that gives me hope.

But before I tell you about that hope, I’m going to confess to you my resentment. Deep down, I’m scandalized by their friendship. I mean, as a progressive I’m left wondering, How could she do that? How could Ginsburg be friends with him? In fact, she says they weren’t just friends; they were “best buddies.” BFFS with him!

This just isn’t right. I mean, they aren’t supposed to be best buddies. In our politically divisive climate, they are supposed to be worst enemies!

Besides, doesn’t Ginsburg know that Scalia stood for everything we Progressives are against? He seemingly compared the morality of homosexual conduct to the morality of polygamy, cruelty to animals, and even murder. He didn’t “want to have to deal with global warming.” He defended torture. He said the Constitution doesn’t protect women’s rights. And he suggested that black people should go to slower colleges.

And here’s Ginsburg, our Progressive hero, crossing the political divide to befriend Scalia. The two vacationed together, spent New Year’s together, and went to the opera together. The gall! Doesn’t she know that we Progressives need to stick together? And one way that we stick together is to unite against a common enemy. Hatred against a scapegoat is the glue that so often unites us.

So I confess to you that I feel some resentment toward Ginsburg. And, after hearing the news of this unlikely friendship, I’m sure that many conservatives are feeling something similar toward Scalia. That’s because group identity is so often formed by uniting against the same enemy. James Alison puts it like this,

Give people a common enemy, and you’ll give them a common identity. Deprive them of an enemy, and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.

This is the default way of forming human identity. For example, we progressives know who we are because we have the same scapegoats – those conservatives! But the same is true for conservatives. They know who they are because they have the same scapegoats – those liberal progressives!

This may be the default way of forming identity, but it’s not the way we have to form identity. Scalia’s friendship with Ginsburg shows us the alternative. They passionately disagreed on almost everything. But their friendship points us beyond even our most severe disagreements toward something bigger – the love of friendship.

Jesus called his followers to love everyone, including our enemies. It’s a love that’s not based on primarily on positive emotions for another. Rather, it’s based on actively reaching out toward the other. It refuses to join our own group in uniting in hatred against a scapegoat. It’s a love that can disagree with the other, but it also loves the other as the other is. In other words, love doesn’t seek to change the other to conform to our views. It just loves the other and seeks friendship with the other.

But make no mistake, to become friends with our group’s scapegoat is risky business. It takes great courage because in becoming friends with a scapegoat, our group will likely be scandalized. Cross over the hatred that divides “us” from “them,” our group may become resentful as its identity is challenged. It will feel like “the crutch by which they know who they are” is being taken away. And what does a group do when its identity is challenged? It reinforces its identity by uniting against another common enemy, in this case, the one who broke ranks with us by becoming friends with the other. What a traitor!

But friendship that risks crossing the divide of hostility is the hope the Scalia and Ginsburg give us. It’s the hope of Christ who calls us to love all people, just as they are. People are not objects to be converted to our cause; they are humans deserving of love and friendship. If we take that message seriously, we will remove the crutch of scapegoating. We will cross the border of group identity formed in opposition to the other. Instead, we will seek ways to intentionally form friendships with the other. And when we do, we will risk scandalizing our group.

But that’s okay, because we know that love and friendship that crosses over the barriers of scapegoating is exactly what the world needs at this very moment.

Image: Flickr, Leven Ramishvili, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., April 17, 2014, Creative Commons Copyright, Public Domain Mark 1.

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Hillary Clinton’s Emails, Donald Trump, and Moving through Scandal

Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay claims that the Justice Department is preparing to file charges against Hillary Clinton for mishandling of classified information in her emails. Delay said in an interview, “I have friends who are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict.”

I don’t know the veracity of Delay’s statement. Nothing would surprise me during this political season. His statement could be a complete fabrication made to cause more drama in a presidential election season already filled with enough drama, or an indictment could happen tomorrow.

Clinton’s email scandal isn’t going away any time soon because Republicans will keep bringing it up. Delay guaranteed as much, claiming that if the attorney general doesn’t move forward with an indictment, she will be put on trial. “One way or another, either she’s going to be indicted and that process begins, or we try her in the public eye with her campaign. One way or another, she’s going to have to face these charges.”

I don’t want to scapegoat Republicans for bringing up the scandal. Democrats have called for similar indictments of their Republican counterparts. Many have insisted that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and former CIA directors be charged with crimes against humanity. Hillary may have her email problems, but the Bush/Cheney administration is plagued by torture reports.

Whether it’s emails or war crimes, both sides are scandalized by the other. What we often fail to see, however, is that scandals have a paradoxical nature to them. We may despise or condemn those who we think cause scandals, like committing war crimes or being sloppy with allegedly classified information, but deep inside we are also attracted to them.

René Girard has a helpful way of explaining the term scandal. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard states that the more a scandal “repels us, the more it attracts us.”

In other words, the more we hate our political rivals, the more we are attracted to them. What attracts us to them? They have the things that we want – success, power, and prestige. The very things we want is what they have, and because they have the things that we want, they seek to prevent us from taking those things away from them.

Republicans are both repelled and attracted to Hillary Clinton because she has the successful political career that they want. Scandal is driven by this form of rivalry and resentment. Underneath the obsession with Clinton’s email is a resentful feeling of superiority – that where she failed, we could have succeeded. As Jeremiah Alberg points out, “… what drives scandal is the secret thought, ‘I could have done it better.’”

And so we find ourselves trying to outdo our rivals, competing for the same prize. We tend to deny that we have anything in common with our enemies, but underneath our denial, our mutual desire for power and prestige makes us the same. But we aren’t just the same in our desires, we also become the same in our actions.

That Democrats and Republicans seek to indict one another is a good example of becoming similar in our actions, but the scandal that is Donald Trump is another good example. Trump has scandalized not just the United States, but many throughout the world. In response to Trump’s suggestion that we ban all Muslims from the United States, Great Britain responded with perfect imitation as politicians suggested that they should place a ban on Trump. They were repelled by Trump, something they openly admitted, but as loud as they denounced his policy suggestions, they could not see that, in fact, they were mirroring the very thing they condemned. In fact, they were so attracted to Trump that they perfectly imitated him in the desire to banish people from their country.

There’s an ancient proverb that says, “Like a dog returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” That’s a good description of scandals. It’s inevitable that we will return to scandals like a dog returns to its vomit. Of course, we don’t just return to political scandals, but we return to scandals with family members, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. When we become scandalized, we drive a wedge between ourselves and others by refusing to admit how alike we are. Scandals may be inevitable, but the good news is that we can learn to manage them in three healthy ways:

First, when scandals come your way, don’t deny them. Don’t deny that you are repelled and attracted to the one who is causing scandal. Try not to blame them. Instead, ask yourself why you are repelled and attracted to this person. What is it about them that you want to have or to be? What do you admire about him or her?

Second, remind yourself that it’s okay to be repelled and attracted by your scandalous rival. Don’t beat yourself up for falling into a scandal. It’s okay. In fact, it’s human.

Third, find the good in your rival. Find ways to verbally affirm the good things that they are doing and seek to work together to accomplish those good things. Working with them builds a trustful rapport and the possibility for working together on the good things that you want to accomplish, too. Even more important, since we are more like our rival than we generally like to admit, finding the good in them means that we will also find the good in ourselves.

Jesus said that, “It is impossible that scandals should not come.” So, expect scandals to come. Instead of denying them or getting stuck in them, by following these three steps we can move through them. As we move through scandals, we find ourselves less scandalized, more forgiving of ourselves and others, and better able to work with others for a better future.

*Photo: Flicker, Marc Nozell, Hillary Clinton in Hampton, NH, Creative Commons License, some changes made.


Pope Francis, Kim Davis, and Progressive Purity Codes

Editor’s Note: This article was written and published to Teaching Nonviolent Atonement at Patheos yesterday, before the news came out to clarify the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis. Even so, this article offers a useful perspective on the “scandalous” nature of such a meeting.

By now you’ve heard that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis last week. I’d like to make two things clear up front: First, I love Pope Francis. I think he is making huge leaps in the right direction for Christianity on a global scale. Second, I think Kim Davis was absolutely wrong to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. I firmly believe that her stance against gay marriage is a misreading of scripture and Christian tradition. I believe that Christians can, and should, support marriage equality.

But since we discovered that Pope Francis met with Davis, many Progressives have been in an uproar. Many have tried to explain away their meeting by saying that the Pope didn’t know about Kim Davis or that there was some conspiracy within the Vatican to get Kim Davis a meeting with Pope Francis.

I might lose my Progressive credentials for this, but why are so many Progressives offended that the Pope would meet with Kim Davis? I get that many are concerned that the Pope may have endorsed her actions to exclude same gender marriage, but we just don’t know if that was his intent. Still, there’s another important issue here, and that is purity codes.

It’s as if the Pope has crossed our progressive purity codes. Sure, we love Pope Francis when he hugs a man with boils, meets with prisoners, and advocates for the poor. But meeting with our enemy? Oh that’s too much. So we hunker down to remind ourselves that Kim Davis is the enemy and anyone who fraternizes with our enemies crosses the lines of our purity codes and becomes contaminated with “otherness.”

There’s even this article with the catchy title, “How Pope Francis Undermined the Goodwill of His Trip and Proved to Be a Coward.”

Pope Francis knows that his job isn’t to make us Progressives happy. His job isn’t to get on our program. That’s because our program is so often based in opposition to our enemies. Our purity codes tell us who is in and who is out, who is worthy of love and who we should hate. So let’s just admit it – we hate people like Kim Davis. She makes our skin crawl. Our identity as Progressives is in part based by being in opposition to those we label as Evangelicals or fundamentalists or conservatives. And so we are against Kim Davis.

And many Progressives want Pope Francis to be just like us. Many want Pope Francis to have the same enemies that we have. We want him to hate the same people that we hate. That’s why we’re so scandalized when Pope Francis met with Kim Davis.

But that’s not Francis’s job. His job is to shine the love of God into the world. God doesn’t play by any purity codes, including progressive purity codes. The doctrine of the Incarnation reveals that God isn’t in rivalry with humanity. God didn’t come into the world through Jesus Christ to judge or condemn humanity. Rather, God came into the world to save us from our purity codes that create hostile identities of “us against them.”

The truth is that our enemies are not God’s enemies, because God has no enemies. The highlight of biblical teaching about God is the truth statement found in 1 John, that Jesus has revealed that “God is love.” Period. If that’s true, as every Progressive I’ve met would affirm, then God loves everyone, including those we call our enemies. Including Kim Davis.


Jesus tells us that God’s nourishing sun and refreshing rain fall on the just and the unjust alike. God makes no distinction between friend and foe, righteous and unrighteous. Rather, God loves and cares for everyone.

God loves Kim Davis. The Pope’s most important job is to shine God’s love into the world. That’s what he did by meeting with her. Does God’s love for Kim Davis mean that God endorses everything Kim Davis does? Of course not. Neither does God’s love for me or for you mean that God endorses everything that we do.

As a Progressive, I’m glad that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis. He reminds me, and all Christians, that our mission in the world isn’t to follow our group’s purity codes. Instead, it’s to cross the purity codes that divide us and them. It’s to follow the God who unabashedly loves all people.

For more, see Morgan Guyton’s excellent article, “Jesus would have met with Kim Davis and Gene Robinson.”

Image: Pope Francis and Kim Davis (Photos: Flickr: Pope Francis – by the Republic of Korea, Creative Commons License, changes made; Kim Davis, by Mike Licht, Creative Common License, changes made)

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

The Planned Parenthood Scandal: Beyond the Morality Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.