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Iowa, Ted Cruz, and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Ted Cruz ended last night with a yuuuuge victory over Donald Trump in Iowa. (Sorry, had to do it!) Religion played a big role in Cruz’s victory. The New York Times reports that Cruz’s victory was “powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians.”

For his part, Cruz reaffirmed his connection with his evangelical supporters by invoking divine favor upon his victory. “God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first say, to God be the glory.”

But I can’t help but feel uneasy about the God proclaimed by Cruz and his evangelical supporters. That’s because, when it comes to their evangelical faith, they have an identity crisis.

The word “evangelical” has a specific meaning and history. It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news.”

Evangelical has become a distinctively Christian term, but during the first century it was used predominantly by the Roman Empire. In fact, when Caesar sent his armies off to conquer new land in the name of Roman peace, Roman soldiers would announce military strength as the “Gospel according to Caesar.” Rome waged peace through violence. In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley states that,

In the Roman world, the “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the “savior” who had brought “salvation” to the whole world. The peoples of the empire were therefore to have “faith” (pistis/fides) in their “lord” the emperor. Moreover, Caesar the lord and savior was to be honored and celebrate by the “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus.

Now, a good Bible believing evangelical will instantly recognize the politically subversive language of the New Testament. In the face of Roman military that brought the good news of “peace” by the sword, the early Christians delivered an alternative message of good news that claimed “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Make no mistake, their evangelical message was political. They sought to reorder the world, not through Caesar’s military strength, but through Christ’s nonviolent love.

The early Christians subverted Roman violence through their use of language and their actions. They claimed that the good news was found not in Caesar, but in Christ. Christ, not Caesar, was the “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. People were to have “faith” in him as their “lord.” Jesus was to be honored and celebrates at assemblies, which would become known as churches.

But for the early Christians, words weren’t enough. They took Jesus’ command to follow him seriously. Jesus didn’t lift the sword to defend himself against the violence that killed him, and neither did his disciples lift their swords. Rather, they continued to challenge the Roman Empire’s “good news” of achieving peace through violence. The disciples claimed that true peace could only be achieved by following the nonviolent way of Jesus, whose evangelical message commanded that his follower love everyone, included their enemies, including those who sought to persecute them. In following Jesus their Lord, the disciples were murdered, just like their Lord and Savior.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years to last night in Iowa and we discover that Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters have an identity crisis. They claim that Jesus is their Lord with words, but not in action. Cruz promises to “carpet bomb” America’s enemies. He promises to beef up the American military, a military that spends roughly the same amount as “the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The U.S. military is already the strongest military that the world has ever seen.

René Girard wrote in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End that Christians must make a decision about violence because Christ has left us with a choice, “either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

Christianity is non-belief in violence because it believes in the one true God who on the cross responded to violence not with more violence, but with nonviolent love and forgiveness.

“To God be the glory,” a victorious Cruz proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Iowa. But I can’t help but wonder – what God is Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters talking about? Because “Hey! Good News! We just carpet bombed the hell out of you,” sounds a lot more like the gods of ancient Rome than the God of Jesus Christ.

As long as evangelicals proclaim faith in Jesus as their Lord, but continue to believe in violence as the way to peace and security for the United States, they will suffer from an identity crisis. And rightfully so, because that combination is not the Good News.
Photo: Ted Cruz delivering his victory speech after the Iowa caucus. (Screenshot from YouTube, ABC News)

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Nonviolent Resistance in the South Hebron Hills

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Cassandra Dixon, was submitted via contributing Raven author Kathy Kelly.

The worst worries of a child’s school day should be homework. Maybe a lost book, or an argument with a friend. No child’s walk to school should routinely involve armed soldiers and fear of sometimes being chased and assaulted by angry adults. But for the Palestinian children who live with their families in the small rural villages that make up the South Hebron Hills, this is how the school day begins. Illegal settlements and outposts isolate and separate their villages and soldiers are a constant in their lives.

Once, the trip from the tiny hamlet of Tuba to the school in the village of Tuwani was a calm and beautiful walk along a quiet road connecting the two villages. During the l980s Israeli settlers built a settlement on privately owned Palestinian land, which had been used to graze sheep and goats. Following construction of the settlement, the settlers established an illegal outpost. Now, industrial chicken barns sit astride the road that once served children walking to school, farmers taking livestock to town, and families traveling to Tuwani, or the larger town of Yatta for health care, shopping, and higher education.

Between the settlement and the outpost, what remains of the road is closed to Palestinians. With one exception, – children walk behind an Israeli military jeep to reach their school. Their parents are not allowed to walk with them.

The twenty or so children who make this trip start their school day in an unprotected field, anxiously waiting for the Israeli soldiers who will oversee their walk to school. Villagers had built shelters in which the children could await the soldiers, but Israeli authorities have dismantled every shelter. If it is raining, the children get soaked. Some days the soldiers are the same soldiers who chased or arrested shepherds the day before – shepherds who may be the brothers or fathers of these children.  Some days the soldiers are late, leaving the group of children waiting, vulnerable to attack and within easy reach of the outpost.  Some days the military escort does not arrive at all, and the children make the trip to school with international volunteers along a longer path, which also lies alongside the settlement.

About 1,000 people live in the neighboring villages, an estimated half of whom are children. Nevertheless, because the villages lie inside of Israeli Firing Zone 918, the military uses the land for military training.

Amazingly, despite all of this, it is almost unheard of for children to miss a day of school. Parents are determined that their children will be educated. When I began volunteering in Tuwani, the school reached only to third grade. Now thanks to the community’s determination to provide their children with education, students can complete high school in the village, and although facing a continued threat of demolition by Israeli military bulldozers, villagers have built and staffed primary schools for children who live in 8 nearby villages.

This is what nonviolent resistance to military occupation looks like.

I’m grateful that I can spend a portion of this year in Palestine. For many years children in these villages have taught me about nonviolence. Sometimes, the presence of international human rights workers holding cameras has some small positive effect on their days.

U.S. people bear some responsibility for the interruption of their childhoods. The U. S. subsidizes about 25% of Israel’s military budget, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers conservatively estimated at $3.1 billion a year.

I’m working with the Italian organization Operation Dove.

They support Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation, standing with families in their commitment to remain on their land.  This includes accompanying school children and farm families as they walk to school, graze their animals and tend their crops. Operation Dove helps document the harassment, intimidation, arrests, detentions, home demolitions, checkpoints, road closures, military training exercises, and settler attacks. Villagers also report to Operation Dove when they endure theft and when their crops and property are destroyed.

Protective presence provided by activists is not a large-scale solution to the violence that intrudes into childrens’ lives in Palestine. But many years of visits with these families persuades me that it’s important and necessary to support and participate in the villagers’ nonviolent efforts. Families that confront militarism and occupation help us move beyond our addiction to militarism and violence.

The children I met early on are grown now. Some have gone on to college, and some have families of their own. These young people have every reason to be angry. Their childhoods included fear, intimidation, demolitions, arrests and isolation. But they have also grown up witnessing their community’s steadfast commitment to nonviolently resist injustice. Their families have supported them well, including them in the community’s struggle for dignity. Against  all odds they are growing up with humor and tenacity instead of anger and bitterness.  They are living proof to the rest of us that love wins.

To read more about Operation Dove’s work in the South Hebron Hills, visit http://www.operazionecolomba.it/togetherattuwani

Cassandra Dixon lives at Mary House of Hospitality, a small catholic worker house which offers hospitality to families visiting the federal prison at Oxford, WI, and works as a carpenter in Madison.

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Photo Credit:  Cassandra Dixon

Caption:  This little girl was injured by two masked settlers who attacked her with stones as she gathered herbs with a friend on the path between Tuba and Tuwani. She and her siblings make the same trip on foot each school day. She is an amazingly smart and tough young girl – insistent that the many odd volunteers that pass through her life should learn her name and visit her family’s home. She needed four stitches in a head wound after the attack.

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My Foray Into The World of Death

I am currently writing my second book, which I have entitled, From the Blood of Abel: Humanity’s Root Causes of Violence and the Bible as an Anthropological Solution. In the first chapter, I discuss various manifestations of violence, the most overt being that of war. This has not been an easy task, as I have read so many tales of brutality. So many different cultures and religions—Christianity not exempt by any means—ruining so many lives. One people group stripping another of their humanity, epoch after epoch after epoch it seems. Trails of tears, forced cannibalism, extermination camps, human sacrifice by the thousands, and torture—my G-d the torture! Honestly, it has made sleep much more difficult to find as of late. However, it has not been all negative. It has also helped clarify and strengthen some things. I am going to share both the positives and negatives of my recent foray into the world of death.

I will begin by simply stating that life is so very fragile. It really is. I knew that before, and I’m sure that you do too, but when you dive headlong into the sort of research I have been doing, and at the pace I have been doing it, your thoughts and feelings about this are only reinforced. You feel intensification in your realization that each and every moment could be your last, because of the simple fact that many of us still live with an “us vs. them” worldview. And when you’re a “them”—and all of us are to some—the angel of death lurks around many more corners than he should. Fragility and anxiety—which we all already have—in fact transform to sheer terror for many because of how we view the “other.”

It is reasons like this that initially made me realize how much of “traditional” Christian eschatology and soteriology seemed, well, awful. I know: great theological argument eh? But, for instance, in some schools of Christian thought, one could “achieve salvation” without having loved. One could “have faith in Christ” that they are saved, all-the-while causing fear and terror and torment and pain and humiliation in others. History has shown this. And many times, these “others” are not “saved,” in spite of the fact that they are vastly more loving than the “saved” that cause them such horror. So yes, that is awful. None of it makes sense. Christian justification just seems to boil down to a giant contract, in which our own rationale leads to “making the correct choice” so that our best self-interests are met.

That being said, I don’t want to remain negative any longer. Actually, quite the opposite! What I really want to say is that somehow, we are lucky enough to have a God who still loves us. At times, I may say that I do not know how the hell he does it, but in reality, I do know. It is because God is love and beneath the muck and grime, the hatred and bigotry, the racism and sexism and homophobia, and underneath all the fear that leads us to these things, we are made in God’s image. All of us are. Genesis 1:26 tells us that (I know, proof-texting, yuck!) We must then think God loves all of his children, even if they remain prodigal unto death. Dare we think that death can stop God’s love? I scoff at the notion. Thus, no matter what we do—to ourselves and to each other—in the end, all will be well. And when I say all, I really believe all.

As I have pondered my own death over the past few months, I have become increasingly grateful that I believe in a God who will always work toward my good. Death still causes anxiety at times (I’m not quite ready to follow Paul in mocking death itself), but there is comfort in knowing that it will also be what brings me to God and therefore, toward reconciliation with everyone. Isn’t that the greatest hope we can have? To live in perfect harmony with everyone who has ever lived, to have perfectly restored relationships, to see Christ in each and everyone, for God to truly be “all in all.” I think it is. But realizing this would not have been possible without understanding the truth that God will save everyone whom he wants, which is indeed everyone. Anything short of that, as St. Silouan the Athonite might say, would be unbearable for love. We are just too interconnected, anthropologically and psychologically. And because love is the reason for all of this, we must hope that love wins in the end.

Image: Afresco da Anastasis, Ressurreicao – Liberacao do inferno (The Harrowing of Hades) photograph by José Luis Bernardes Ribiero via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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Star Wars and Theology Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Good and Evil

One common critique of the Star Wars saga is that it holds a simplistic view of good and evil. For example, Star Wars makes it easy to tell the difference between good and evil. The distinction is as plain black and white. The Jedi are good and the Sith are evil. The Rebellion is good and the Empire is evil. Even the costumes point toward a simplistic understanding of evil – the Stormtroopers are white, while the main villains, Darth Vader and now Kylo Ren, wear black. And, of course, their humanity is hidden by the fact that they wear masks.

Unfortunately, this simplistic notion of good and evil doesn’t just exists in the movies. It’s alive and well in our culture today. Once we eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we are the force of good in the world, thus, they are the force of evil. We then tell mythical stories about the evil other. These myths lead to radical examples of claiming to be good while scapegoating others.

The latest example of this patently false myth are the “evil” Muslims who are out to conquer the United States. Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, recently held a rally in South Carolina. In good mythical fashion, he turned to the dark side by accusing Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country of “probably” being members of ISIS. You know, because they are Muslims. In response to Trumps remarks about Syrian refugees, a Muslim woman at the rally stood up in silent protest as she wore a shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.”

Despite her silence, the crowd turned against her, shouting at her to leave by chanting, “You have a bomb. You have a bomb.” For his part, Trump claimed, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred; it’s not our hatred.”

Trump and many of his supporters live in a mythical world. A world where the distinction between good and evil is as clear as the distinction between night and day, between Christian and Muslim. They are a force for good; whereas silent Muslims wearing “Peace” shirts are full of hatred. Of course, I can easily split the world into good and evil. As I critique Trump and his supporters at the rally, I risk doing to them the same thing that they are doing to Muslims. I risk making a mythical claim to be a force of goodness over and against their force of evil.

Fortunately, Star Wars offers us an alternative to that myth. The critique that Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil is false. Stars Wars constructs the myth of good and evil only to deconstruct it.

The deconstruction of the mythical understanding of good and evil emerges in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. As he runs and flips around the swamp-like forest with the little green alien on his back, Luke asks the mythical question, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda replies, “You will know, when you are calm, at peace.”

But Luke discovers a greater truth about knowing the good side from the bad. The Force leads him into “The Cave of Evil.” As he enters the cave, he asks Yoda what’s inside. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda responds. Luke took with him his fear of the dark side; his fear of confronting Darth Vader.

A few moments after entering the cave, Luke has a vision of Darth Vader walking towards him with his lightsaber extended. Their sabers strike three times, then Luke slices off Vader’s helmet. It rolls to the ground, stops, and the mask exploded, only to show Luke’s face in the helmet staring straight at him.

In that scene, Luke discovered the truth about good and evil. In Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of evil in cinematic history, Luke sees himself. Even before he knows that Vader is his father, Luke learns that his identity is connected with Darth Vader. That’s because the evil that we see in the other is the evil that is inside ourselves. But we’d rather not see the evil within ourselves, so we suppress it by projecting it onto others. And so, at this moment in the Star Wars saga, Luke begins to discover that the distinction between good and evil is not primarily a distinction between himself and Darth Vader. Rather, the distinction between good and evil is a distinction that exists within himself.

Luke’s spiritual awakening is in the fact that he didn’t banish the darkness from within himself. He didn’t scapegoat the fear and evil within his own soul. When we do that, the fear and evil within only grows bigger and more menacing. Rather, Luke acknowledged the evil within himself. Later in the saga, after he slices off Darth Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi, Luke stares at his own mechanical hand. Once again he becomes aware of the darkness within himself. He was able to resist the dark side not because he made a distinction between the good in himself and the evil in his enemies, but because he learned how to manage the darkness within his own soul.

Kylo Ren has a similar experience in the Force Awakens. He feels the tension between the light and the dark within himself, but manages it in a different way. Kylo holds his Grandfather’s helmet and offers a prayer, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the dark.” Luke and Kylo both feel the light and the dark within themselves. The difference is that Luke was able to incorporate the light and the dark. In doing so, Luke made peace with the darkness within. But Kylo felt tormented because he resisted the light that shined in the darkness of his soul.

The truth is that we are all a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. The great Russian novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn warned that, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus taught this lesson, too. He asked his followers, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Jesus and Star Wars both challenge us with the difficult spiritual practice of examining the darkness that lies within ourselves. Taking the log out of our own eye is painful work; I’d much rather point to the speck of evil that’s in my neighbor’s eye. But Christianity reminds us that we are much more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. We learn from Jesus, but we are much more like the disciples who abandoned, betrayed, and turned against Jesus during his darkest hour.

But the good news is that like Luke never gave up on his father, Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He resurrected to give his disciples a new mission. That mission wasn’t to locate evil out in the world and destroy it. Rather, Jesus’ mission is to “feed my sheep.” The great adventure that is Christianity is not to fight violence with more violence, but to care for those in need and to love even those we call our enemies.

More about that in the next part of this series.

Images: Luke Skywalker after defeating Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (Screenshot from YouTube) and Kylo Ren praying to Darth Vader’s helmet (Screenshot from YouTube)

Other parts of this series:
Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure
Part 2: The Myth of Good and Evil

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Martin Luther King, Jr. – Justice, Love, and the New Jim Crow

In 1955, Martin Luther King found himself as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement that would start a revolution in the United States.

Rosa Parks ignited the Civil Rights movement when stood up to the segregation laws of Jim Crow that demonized black people and forced them to live in conditions there were inferior to white people. Parks was arrested after she claimed her inherent dignity by refusing to move to the back of a bus. Just a few days after her arrest, King, who had recently moved to Montgomery, was elected to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

For weeks after his election, King received threatening phone calls from anonymous voices. The phone rang throughout the night and as King picked it up he heard voices saying things like, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery!” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 77.)

They were only threats, until one night. King was away from his home at a meeting for the boycott. His wife Coretta and their newborn baby girl were home. At about 9:30 pm Coretta heard a loud explosion that rocked their house. It was a bomb.

Word of the bombing reached the meeting. King saw people whispering secrets, as if they were trying to keep something from him. He went to three of his best friends and urged them to tell him what happened. His closest ally delivered the tragic news, “Your house has been bombed.”

The threats of violence suddenly became very real to King and his family. And he would deal with those threats throughout his life. He instructed those at the meeting to stay calm, go straight home, and adhere to their philosophy of nonviolence as they sought justice in the face of systemic racism.

King rushed to his house and found Coretta and their baby uninjured. Coretta was remarkably calm, all the more remarkable because the police commissioner, the mayor, and many white reporters had already made their way into King’s dining room. And a crowd already formed outside of their house to support the Kings and protest the bombing. Police were also in their yard, attempting to disperse the crowd, which, in turn, had begun to threaten the police with violence.

King knew that his love for nonviolence as a means to seek justice was at stake. He walked outside to his porch and calmed down the crowd. Then he delivered one of his many powerful impromptu speeches, saying to the crowd,

We believe in law and order. Don’t get panicky … Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that’s what God said. We are not advocating violence … I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. … For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, 80.)

This scene from Martin Luther King’s life tells us so much about the man. In the face of violent injustice, this great American hero set forth a vision of justice and love that was radical for his day, and his vision remains radical in ours.

King taught us that Justice and love go together. We often think that these two concepts are opposed to one another. That there’s a tension between justice and love. Love is nice, so this thought goes, but there are times when we need justice. Here, justice is seen as a form of punishment, as in a penal justice system.

This idea also affects our understanding of God. For instance, there’s an idea out there that there is a tension between the love and justice of God. My friend Michael Hardin says that if God is tense, then God should see a therapist.

But Martin Luther King resolved that tension. For him, God’s justice, true justice, didn’t mean punishing enemies. Rather, justice for him as he followed Jesus, was about reconciliation. Today we call it “restorative justice.” It’s a justice that restores individuals to themselves and it restores our relationships with one another. King wanted the persecuted and the persecutor to find healing. When we live into this justice that seeks restoration, healing, and reconciliation, King said that we live into the “Beloved Community.”

King also changed our understanding of love. For King, love wasn’t primarily an emotion. It wasn’t based on positive or romantic feelings for another. This isn’t a Valentine’s Day love. Rather, love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is a doing. Love refuses to imitate the hatred of our enemies, but shows the world an alternative way of being. When we live into that alternative, we know that we are living into a just love, what King called the Beloved Community.

I don’t know about you, but this form of justice and love is not easy for me to live into. And it wasn’t easy for Martin Luther King, either. He challenged America’s original sin of racism and when he did that the powers and principalities fought back. That’s because the violent oppression of racism was embedded in our nation from the beginning.

Fortunately, slavery ended in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. But unfortunately, the abolition of slavery didn’t abolish the sin of racism that continues to infect the United States with unjust social policies against African Americans.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains the pattern of racist structures that are still alive in our country. That pattern looks like this: we started with slavery, then moved to the segregation of Jim Crow, and now we have the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

The War on Drugs, started by Ronald Regan, targets African American men. Millions of black people have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes that many of them didn’t even commit. Once imprisoned, they become felons and, like the old Jim Crow laws, are denied basic civil and human rights.

The racism of mass incarceration is made more obvious by the fact that white people sell and use drugs at a higher rate than black people. And yet it is African Americans who suffer the unjust effects of mass incarceration. As the Huffington Post explains, “White America does the crime, black America does the time.”

Why? Michelle Alexander says it’s because of a political system that pits police against African Americans. When Regan waged the War on Drugs, drug use was actually on the decline in the United States. Police didn’t want to fight a War on Drugs because drug use wasn’t a major problem and was actually a distraction from more violent crimes.

But Regan was determined, so he provided financial incentives for police departments to arrest drug offenders. The federal government payed police departments for every drug arrest the police would make, but “Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, not even for violent crimes.” (New Jim Crow, 77). Regan got his drug war, and every president since has continued the demonic War on Drugs. The police aren’t bad in this scenario; they are caught up in an evil system, in the powers and principalities of the world that need to be transformed in the name of justice.

Why the emphasis on African Americans? Because they don’t have a defender. Tragically, that’s what continues to make African Americans easy scapegoats in the American social system. Imagine if millions of white people were incarcerated at the same rate as black people for nonviolent drug crimes that they may not have even committed. Because white people have social power, the white community wouldn’t stand for it. But the black community, which has been marginalized, disenfranchised, and demonized from the very beginning of American history, doesn’t have that kind of power.

Now, it’s easy for white people of good will to start feeling guilty or powerless or fall into denial when it comes to the massive racist systems of the United States. But those feelings aren’t helpful. What is helpful is to find ways to work for justice.

There is hope because there are things we can do. Stand up against the powers and principalities that lead to oppression. Name the forces of evil, including the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex. Seek friendships with our African American brothers and sisters as we share our lives together and walk hand in hand, seeking a more just America. Listen to their stories without becoming defensive when we hear the truth about racism. Read African American authors, particularly Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

We can stop racist jokes and comments when we hear them. We can keep talking about how racism infects our culture, especially as we continue in this presidential campaign that has been charged with racism against African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. We can confront gentrification and redistricting that benefits white people and pushes black people further to the margins of American society. We can participate in political campaigns and vote in ways that confront racist policies of our past and of our present. We can claim that black lives matter because for too much of our history we’ve claimed that black lives don’t matter.

And in all of these things that we can do, let us work together to follow in the spirit of Christ that breaks down the hostile barriers that divide us against one another. And let us heal that divide with the bridge of love and justice that is called the Kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Image: Flickr, United States Mission Geneva photo stream, Martin Luther King Day, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The State of the Union: Spiritual Wisdom to Heal the Political Divide

There was much to appreciate about President Obama’s speech last night. I also think that Nikki Haley’s Republican response was commendable on many levels. Both put forth a vision and a hope for renewed political cooperation, and they even repented in the ways they and their parties have contributed to the politics that have greatly divided the United States.

Governor Haley suggested some good spiritual wisdom about the loud political noise that has spread throughout the US, “Often the best thing we can do is turn down the volume,” she said. “When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Ah, yes, if we could just turn down the noise and listen to one another, even to those we call our political enemies, the world would be a radically different and much better place.

In a similar manner, President Obama modeled for us the spiritual practice of repentance. He repented of his part in propagating political divisions. “It’s been one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he stated. “That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have been better to bridge the divide.”

To listen better. To repent of our participation in systems that breed rancor and suspicion. Those are deep spiritual practices that will heal the politics of our nation.

Unfortunately, I fear that both Obama and Haley aren’t leading us far enough with their messages. In order to heal our national political divisions, we do need to listen. We do need to repent. But our problems are bigger than national politics. We need to heal our global political divisions. And to do that, the United States needs to have the courage to listen and repent on a global scale.

But instead, Obama and Haley offered the same old solutions to our global problems. In the face of terrorism they both claimed that the solution is not listening to our enemies, nor repenting of our own violence, but that we should be more violent. While Obama boasted that the United States already has the greatest military the world has ever seen and spends more on our military budget than the next eight countries combined, Haley stated that if the Republicans held the White House, “… we would actually strengthen our military.”

But military violence isn’t working. The more violent we become, the more we sow the seeds that produce more violence against us. The anthropologist René Girard taught us that violence is mimetic, or imitative. It’s human nature to respond to violence with more violence, but as Girard warns, the reciprocal exchange of violence for violence isn’t working to keep us sage. “[V]iolent imitation is the rule of the day,” writes Girard in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End, “not the imitation that slows and suspends the flow [of violence], but the one that accelerates it” (13). Violence is accelerating because we live in truly apocalyptic times. Weapons of mass destruction are easier to make and nuclear weapons threaten us with global annihilation.

If we want a future, we need to stop threatening our enemies with violence. Instead, we need follow Governor Haley’s advice and start listening to our enemies. Maybe if we listened to them, we would find the truth.

The truth is that our enemies, even those we label as “terrorists,” do not hate us because of our freedom. Rather, they are frustrated because of many American policies – policies that, following President Obama, we should repent from.

In a dig against Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Obama said that our answer to terrorism shouldn’t be to “carpet bomb civilians.” I agree. That would be disastrous for so many reasons, including the fact that to kill innocent civilians would be an act of terror. It would make us just like the terrorists that we condemn.

But that’s exactly what President Obama has done during his presidency. Drone warfare has terrorized civilians and created a breeding ground for recruiting terrorists. As this Huffington Post article states, “Nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target. U.S. drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.”

My colleague at the Raven Foundation, Lindsey Paris-Lopez, takes it a step further in her Open Letter to President Obama: End the War in Afghanistan,

Principled journalists have long published atrocities regularly committed by our military. These atrocities are rightly called acts of terrorism and war crimes when committed by others. The practice of “signature strikes”, assigning death sentences from afar to people whose identities are unknown based on patterns of their behavior, assumes that life and death judgments can be made without knowing a name or having a conversation. It puts the lives of Afghan citizens into the hands of a military that has been trained to dehumanize them (as killing without knowing someone’s identity is the very epitome of dehumanization). But our military goes beyond killing those whose behavior may reasonably be deemed suspicious, and targets people caught in the act of helping their fellow human beings. We kill rescuers. We attack mourners at funerals. And in one of the most callous, dishonest policies imaginable, we have effectively demonized the entire male population of countries we purport to be helping by preemptively labeling all military-aged males killed in attacks “enemy combatants.”

The best advice for the future of America, indeed, the future of human existence, came last night from both sides of the political aisle. We should repent of our national and international participation in violent atrocities. And we should listen to others, even to those we call our enemies.

The state of the world is in peril. If we do not repent and listen, we will continue to be the very terrorists we despise. Even worse, if we continue down this violent path, we will resign ourselves to the extinction of humanity.

Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. The same can be said about the gun, the tank, the drone, and the bomb. We must find another way, the way of listening and repenting, if we are to survive.

Image: President Obama deliver his State of the Union, 2016. Screenshot from YouTube.

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ayatollah

Divine Revenge? Islam and Khamenei’s False Doctrine of God

Iran and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties yesterday after a weekend of escalating violence. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed a popular Shiite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who angered the Saudi Royal Family by calling for their removal in 2011. The Saudi Royal Family claims that the execution was an act of national defense, because it accuses Iran of creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.

In response to the execution, Iran requested that the Saudi ambassador condemn the execution. Saudi Arabia said, “Hey, two can play that game” and requested that the Iranian ambassador “vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation” of the execution.

Then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter (as apparently you do when you are a supreme leader) to proclaim God’s vengeance! “Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.”

Ouch.

There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine.

Girard claimed that humans are mimetic, and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. In other words, humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But the violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow. In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings. According to Girard, humans tend to believe that,

Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating. Everyone wants to strike the last blow, and reprisal can thus follow reprisal without any true conclusion ever being reached. (Violence and the Sacred, 26)

Throughout his long career, Girard revealed the human aspect of violence. Like the Saudis and Iranians, it is we who condemn one another with escalating threats of condemnation and violence. According to Girard, violence is purely human.

Which means that God has nothing to do with violence or vengeance or revenge.

Girard was a Christian who claimed that the long trajectory of the Bible reveals the distinction between human violence and God’s nonviolent love. He challenged any notion that God is associated with violence. Girard only made a few comments about Islam during his career, but I’d like to show how the Islamic tradition offers a similar challenge to associating God with violence.

Because I want to be clear that I am not imposing my Christian theology onto Islam, I’ll tell you about Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster in Germany. As with the Bible, Khorchide knows that there are different images of God in the Qur’an. For him, the question is, “Which image of God are we talking about?” Khorchide says that some Muslims choose to believe that God is a dictator who acts like a violent tribal leader that cannot be challenged.

Political leaders, like the Ayatollah, promote this understanding of God because they view themselves as “shadows of God on earth.” Khorchide says, “This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God.” This makes God into a tribal deity, who pits “us” against “them.”

Of course, one can read any holy book, including the Koran and the Bible, and find images of a violent tribal deity. But Khorchide asserts that the God of the Koran is not like that. “I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful?’ There has to be a reason for this.”

The reason is that the God of the Koran is Grace and Mercy. For Khorchide, “The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and a child.” The God of Grace and Mercy radically transforms the human understanding of God and violence.

Khorchide talks specifically about the Islamic concept of Hell. For many, Hell is the ultimate example of God’s violence and revenge. This is where evil doers will burn forever as a result of divine vengeance. But Khorchide states that idea is a complete misunderstanding of Islam’s view of Hell. “Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without.”

The Ayatollah is wrong to associate God with revenge. And so are we whenever we associate God with violence. The God of Islam has nothing to do with revenge. Rather, the God of Islam, the God of Mercy, wants us to stop the cycles of vengeance that threaten the future of our world. In fact, God wants us to transform our bitter enmity with friendship. As the Koran states that God’s goal for human relationships is reconciliation – “Good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).

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Image: Flickr, Khamenei poster in Persepolis, by Nick Taylor, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

SWAT_team_prepared_(4132135578)

Law, Order, And Social Suicide

Want a ringside seat for the war on crime? Go to killedbypolice.net. A few hours ago (as I write this), the site had listed 1,191 police killings in the U.S. this year. I just looked again.

The total is up one.

This, about killing number 1,192, is from the Fresno Bee, which the site links to:

“Authorities have identified the woman fatally shot by a deputy early Tuesday as a 50-year-old military veteran.

“According to Merced County Sheriff’s Sgt. Delray Shelton, Siolosega Velega-Nuufolau was shot after waving a kitchen knife ‘in a threatening and aggressive manner’ at the deputy.

“Authorities were called to the scene in the 29000 block of Del Sol Court (in Santa Nella, Calif.) by a neighbor, who reported that Velega-Nuufolau was in the neighbor’s driveway, screaming for someone to call 911 at about 12:30 a.m. It is not clear why she wanted authorities called.”

Mentally disturbed woman with a knife, police officer fires, another one dead — and it just happened, reaching public attention while I was shuffling papers in my office, ambling downstairs for coffee. Something about this feels so raw, so . . . personal. Indeed, as personal as a heartbeat. And the “wrong” that I felt pulsing as I read about the shooting — and, justified or unjustified, police killings have been happening this year at the rate of almost three a day — had nothing to do with procedure or legality: whether the shooting was “justified.” The wrong felt so much bigger. We deal with social dysfunction by discharging bullets into it, over and over and over.

We’re killing ourselves.

This is the outcome of a punishment-based conception of social order. And because it’s mixed with racism and classism, the toxicity is compounded exponentially.

We live under the illusion that social order is sustained by law . . . I mean, ahem, The Law, a collection of rules allegedly grounded in some godlike moral sensibility located in state and national legislatures and enforced — lethally, if necessary — by a system of justice almost completely conceived as a mechanism to dole out punishment for disobedience. Not only are many of the rules that have attained, over the years, the moral stature of Law unbelievably stupid — “whites only” restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters come to mind — even the sensible laws, against, for instance, robbery and murder, are permeated with exceptions that protect the socially powerful.

Human society is not a linear mechanism held together by the enforcement — bang, bang, bang — of rules, but an organism as complex and paradoxical as life itself.

This is why the national discussion about police killings, which has finally gotten underway, must occur in a state of open, up-reaching consciousness too often missing from most media accounts. Questions of order, safety and security need to be addressed in a context bigger than the flawed system allegedly responsible for their maintenance.

We — meaning the police, meaning all of us — don’t maintain order so much as create it, day by day, moment by moment. How do we disarm this creation process and realign it with healing, growth and love, indeed, with the evolution of who we are?

Consider:

“Within two seconds of the car’s arrival, Officer Loehmann shot Tamir in the abdomen from point-blank range, raising doubts that he could have warned the boy three times to raise his hands, as the police later claimed. And when Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running up minutes later, the officers, who are white, tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs, intensifying later public outrage about the boy’s death. When his distraught mother arrived, the officers also threatened to arrest her unless she calmed down, the mother, Samaria Rice, said.”

This is from a recent article by Dani McClain in The Nation, revisiting the shooting a year ago of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, in the wake of the news that no charges will be brought against the officers involved.

The outrage I feel as I read this is only peripherally about the behavior of individual officers and the justice I want is by no means limited to their criminal convictions. Their actions occur so clearly in a context that is national in scope: Our police are warriors. That’s how they’re trained and that’s how they think of themselves.

For instance, a Wall Street Journal article from last summer notes: “The majority of cadets at the nation’s 648 law-enforcement academies in 2006 were trained at academies with a military-style regimen, which included paramilitary drills and intense physical demands. . . .

“So-called soft skills have gotten less attention. Police recruits spend eight hours on de-escalation training, compared with 58 hours on firearms and 49 hours on defensive tactics, according to a 2015 survey of 281 law-enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police research and policy organization.”

Here’s the thing. While the concept of the warrior, or soldier, is glory-saturated, and while the physical and emotional intensity of the training is enormous, and while the macho appeal of being a warrior is understandable, the focal point of this training is the existence of The Enemy and how to defeat it — which primarily means how to kill it. And as many people have pointed out, training to kill The Enemy involves deliberately dehumanizing the population in question. This is why war always involves horrific moral backlash.

And this is the nature of militarized policing, which is the opposite of community policing. The cops are warriors, and when they enter the zone of the enemy — when they see themselves as belonging to an occupying army rather than to the community they’re “protecting” — they are likely to dehumanize those they encounter, especially if the encounter is antagonistic.

Thus in Tamir Rice’s shooting, the officers were clearly acting like they were in a war zone, surrounded by The Enemy. The boy with the pellet gun is quickly taken out. A teenage girl, screaming in shock and grief, is tackled and cuffed. The dead boy’s mother is warned that if she doesn’t calm down, she’ll be arrested.

This is worse than two officers acting illegally. This is two officers doing their jobs. And the system they serve has exonerated them.

By the way, at killedbypolice.net, the death toll has gone up to 1,194.

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

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Copyright: Oregon Department of Transportation via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Wheaton

Bearing Fruits of Repentance: Wheaton College, Islam, and the Incarnation

The Advent season calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of these words since the season began, but they have taken on a further dimension for me within the last week as the news surrounding Wheaton College has turned national attention to a recurring question that is at the heart of my vocational journey: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

A brief recap: Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at historically evangelical Wheaton College, donned hijab – the headscarf worn by many Muslim women – as an Advent discipline to show solidarity with Muslims at a time of unprecedented violence and persecution of the Muslim community. In explanation of her gesture of solidarity, Dr. Hawkins said, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

It was her explanation, not her action itself, which led to Dr. Hawkins’ suspension from Wheaton College pending a review to determine if her words are compatible with the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith. Right now, the college administration believes that they are not. In their statement on the matter, Wheaton administrators insist:

The freedom to wear a head scarf as a gesture of care and compassion for individuals in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution is afforded to Dr. Hawkins as a faculty member of Wheaton College. Yet her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith.

There is so much to say that I don’t know where to begin. My proximity to Wheaton and my life in the community, my history with Islam and my love for Muslims, and my understanding of Christianity informed by mimetic theory, are all intertwined within my heart and mind in a network that is impossible to unravel.

I live down the street from Wheaton College. I love to hear the chapel bells ring from inside my house. I feel a great affinity for this community of Christians who are intentional about living their faith.

And living out the Christian faith is exactly what Dr. Hawkins is doing. I know the administration suspended her for her comments, not for wearing hijab, but suspending someone who embodies Christ — at Advent (a time when we are called to prepare for Christ) — speaks to a lack of a deep understanding of how Jesus interacted with those rejected by his religious community. Jesus, of course, was himself rejected by the religious community. At a time when the United States is waging war in 7 predominantly Muslim countries, when politicians and religious leaders are not only stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric, but proposing oppressive anti-Muslim legislation, when religious leaders are calling people to arms to “end Muslims” (an injunction which Wheaton students courageously denounced), when presidential candidates tout their leadership by noting their ability to kill Muslim children by the thousands abroad (to protect our nation, of course!), Muslims here are experiencing real violence: threats, harassment, abuse and attacks. Standing with them by wearing hijab is a risk that puts one in the position of Christ, who was himself an outsider and who was himself cast out. Putting one’s own self at risk to stand with those who are persecuted is what embodying Christ means. It is much more than a “gesture of care and compassion.” This is the context that must be understood in regard to Dr. Hawkins’ actions.

In light of the profound depths of that truth — that Dr. Hawkins was living out her Christian vocation to embody Christ – her suspension takes on a dimension of adherence to “the letter that kills” rather than the Spirit that gives life.

Nevertheless, I understand, intimately, Wheaton College’s reluctance to concede that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I have wrestled with this question from multiple angles. My history with Islam has been made public here. And I must admit that both when I converted to Islam and when I reaffirmed Christianity, I was chiefly concerned with getting God “right.” Even as both of these faiths have been simultaneously dear to my heart, I have struggled with deep questions and wondered how to be true to the revelation of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ while also affirming that Muslims, who deny the Incarnation, worship the same God. It is not an easy matter. While I believe whole-heartedly that the One God loves, guides, and hears the prayers of all worshippers, I understand the desire to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus as more than a prophet – as the full embodiment of God, the “structuring principle of reality” (as Michael Hardin so aptly defines the “Word” of God).

But as I continue to undergo repentance, to open my heart and mind to the love of God that is rebuilding humanity on a new foundation, a paradox I struggle to articulate becomes ever more clear to me. It is because, not in spite, of the Incarnation that I can know that Muslims and Christians worship the same true God when we affirm and embrace each other, and the same false god when we exclude and hate one another.

This is the truth that the Incarnation reveals: God is Love and Love itself is the language, the medium, the essence and content of worship. Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, people of all faiths and no faith at all, worship when they live in love that transcends boundaries, love that does not confine itself to family or faith or community but reaches out to embrace all. If worship can be defined as being in communion with God, and God is Love, then being “in love,” living into one’s place within Love in harmony with all of creation, is living in worship. One day worship and understanding will meet in full, when God’s kingdom is realized on earth as in heaven. Until then, all religions reveal in part what we will one day know fully, but also obscure the truth with false human understanding. Repentance, turning from the false human understanding of God – with all the violence, exclusion and victimization that comes with it – to the truth of God’s love and letting that truth restructure ourselves and our world, is our mission until we all embody our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Repentance means we will constantly have to re-evaluate our core beliefs in light of the continuing revelation of God’s love as it works on our hearts and minds. God’s love is revealed not only through scriptures, but through our relationships with people of all faiths who reveal mercy, generosity, compassion, and even – less comfortably – our own prejudices, blind spots, and mistakes.

Imagine being called to repentance at the time of Jesus. A marginal Jew – born poor in an unclean stable, taken to a foreign land (Egypt, to which the scriptures continually forbid the return), of questionable paternity, who eats with sinners, violates the Sabbath, embraces lepers, and rebukes the religious establishment – could this be the long-awaited Messiah from God? So many expectations are subverted and thwarted in Jesus, even as he fulfills the tradition of the prophets calling for compassion for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Jesus cuts through the tangled web of human prejudice and false understanding of God (which leads to exclusion) on the one hand and divine revelation from God (which leads to embrace for all, including those marginalized or deemed enemies) on the other that is intertwined in his own Jewish tradition, and challenges the religious leaders of his time to do the same when he says “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Ultimately his life and teachings – his wholesale rejection of the violence on which the world has turned – culminate in so deeply offending not only the religious establishment, but the world order, that he becomes the victim of the Romans and the Jews – rejected, in other words, by the whole world. Human violence killed Jesus; divine Love vindicated and raised him from the dead. Imagine the re-orientation, the re-evaluation it would take to acknowledge the crucified one as the Living God?

Jesus is not where most people would look for God. But if we believe that God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, and that people are made in God’s image, then we have to open ourselves to seeing God in all people. And we must acknowledge that the chief revelation of Jesus concerns not just God’s metaphysical nature (the Trinity did not become doctrine until centuries later) but God’s character. The wonder and mystery of Jesus is that a small community saw — in this poor, marginalized, crucified criminal – the truth of God. God was revealed not as the author of violence or violent order, but as its victim.

The truth that Jesus reveals about God, that God stands with the poor and marginalized, is the same truth that was revealed to Muhammad. Muhammad lived in a time of great wealth disparity and tribal warfare. He was distressed by the corruption, greed, and violence he saw, and the oppression of the weakest members of his society. He would go off alone to meditate, intuitively sensing a higher power than the warring gods. The compassion within him drove his heart to seek the God who is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful before he could articulate it. It was in tuning his heart to the needs of the vulnerable that Muhammad was able to discern a message from the true God.

There are differences between Christianity and Islam, but the message of God’s love for the weak and vulnerable, those once thought forsaken, is the same. The faith of both Jesus and Muhammad is in the God who loves those deemed unloveable. Their chief messages concerning care for “the least” come from the same Source of Love. Furthermore, all who love across human divisions are guided by God, whether they understand themselves to be or not, for God is Love. Both Jesus and Muhammad had an intuitive knowledge of God that transcended (in some ways encompassed, but in other ways defied, and in any case went beyond) the understandings of their societies because they dared to love outside the box.

And to undergo repentance, we too must dare to think and love outside of our own theological boxes. So, while I agree with Dr. Larycia Hawkins that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I also agree with Wheaton College that her statement is in contradiction to the Wheaton College Statement of Faith. I respect the right of Dr. Hawkins and members of the Wheaton community to interpret that statement differently, but as I understand it, the Wheaton Statement of Faith displays a hermeneutic that interprets the life, work, and message of Jesus in a way that confines God’s salvation to an elect rather than understands the Incarnation as God’s revelation of unconditional Love to all. The Wheaton Statement of Faith can be supported by scripture, but it is not the only way to interpret scripture, and a hermeneutic that begins with Jesus’s boundary-breaking love renders a different perspective. The process of repentance will keep us open – heart, mind, and spirit – to God’s incomparable love, which will mean continually re-evaluating our statements of faith and theological understandings. Statements of faith are wonderful maps, helping us articulate where we are on a path, but they should never be confused with the destination, which is Love. I believe Wheaton College should reinstate Dr. Hawkins not because they should agree that her statements are in accord with theirs, but because we are all called to repent, to let our hearts, minds, and understandings evolve, to open them continually to God, who we will find revealed in wondrous ways in all people.

And when we do repent, we will bear fruit worthy of repentance. Standing in visible solidarity with Muslims, recognizing their dignity in the midst of a culture of disrespect and violence directed toward them, and declaring that they worship, love, and are beloved of the same God whose love we are called magnify. Dr. Larycia Hawkins is bearing fruit worthy of repentance. May we all find the courage to do the same. Amen.

Image: Photo by Lindsey Paris-Lopez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Set Free

Special Book Feature Saturday: All Set Free by Matthew Distefano

Introduction: From Fear to Freedom

Fear is a terrible prison. Navigating the dark corridors of confusion and anxiety, searching for clarity and understanding and relief only to run into walls of self-doubt and torturous demons haunting your consciousness with the most terrifying “what ifs,” living in fear can be paralyzing, isolating, and self-diminishing. When the cause of such fear is anxiety about the nature or existence of God, it can be overwhelming, because the consequences it threatens are eternal. For one who struggles to believe in a God who is described by many to be both the very source of love and the author of the most excruciating eternal torments, admitting such fear is in itself a source of anxiety. In apprehension of isolating yourself by expressing worries no one else seems to acknowledge, in trepidation of essentially sealing a dreaded fate by admitting aloud that you just don’t know – when the horrors of hell for disbelieving somehow seem more palpable than the God whose blend of love and torture is impossible to comprehend – wrestling with such doubt, like Jacob in the Jabbok, can feel like drowning.

Although I come from a very different background within the Christian tradition than author Matthew Distefano, he has articulately expressed the fear that once held me captive – fear of my own unbelief, fear of hell, fear of God. But much more, he has succinctly and eloquently shone a light on his journey to the perfect Love that casts out such fear. The revelation of God’s universal healing and reconciling love in Jesus is undoubtedly a gift of grace, but Matthew has also put much effort into the metanoia – the transformation through the renewal of mind — that was begun in him by Christ. His assurance that God’s love enfolds everyone has come through careful study of theology, anthropology, hermeneutics, and the historical context of Jesus’s life and ministry. I saw parallels to my own journey while reading this book, and find that it both enhances my understanding of God’s love and helps me to communicate to others the amazing process of moving from anxiety to adoration and distress to discipleship. Should you be haunted by frightening interpretations of scripture or perplexed by the violence of God, reading this book with an open heart and mind (and an open Bible!) will not only illumine Matthew’s journey from fear to freedom, but may well propel you on a journey of your own! I know it is Matthew’s hope, and mine as well, that all will one day be All Set Free.

 Is God Violent?

 Though Matthew’s faith journey is different from mine, the fears that haunted us both, along, perhaps, with the desire in spite (or partly because) of those fears to know God better, led us both to the same question: “If there is a God, is he/she violent?” (xii) It is perhaps the most important question that can be asked, for how it is answered according to each person who asks (or subconsciously assumes) will have profound implications on that person’s understanding of the world and, thus, the mark that person leaves on the world. Belief in a violent God will lead to justification of violence, even if the goal of such violence is peace through the eradication or subduing of enemies. It is clear that a great deal of humanity is caught up in such an understanding of God. Yet the significance of this question encompasses but also transcends how it is answered by people. If the answer is “No, God is not violent at all,” then there is hope beyond the vicious cycle of violence that has entrapped so many, and hope for reconciliation for all within the all-encompassing mercy of God. The implications of this exceedingly good news are mind-blowing; to think, all the pain, suffering, heartache, devastation – physical and social and economic and psychological and spiritual violence – will all one day be made well by One who will wipe every tear from every eye!

Matthew’s continuing theological journey led him to a conclusive “No” to the question of God’s violence. The fullness of God’s peace that surpasses all human understanding is a continuing revelation, but the affirmation that “God is Love and in Him there is no darkness at all,” is assured. The beauty of this news has made Matthew want to shout God’s grace from the rooftops at any cost, and he writes with passion. However, coming out of fear, coming out of a well-meaning community that interpreted the violence of scripture at face value, Matthew shows deep empathy for those who believe in, or fear, eternal consequences for incorrect belief. The God portrayed in scripture is indeed frightening without a particular hermeneutical lens. That lens is Jesus, but Jesus can only be properly understood in the context not only of his human history, but in the context of what it means to be human at all. Thus, after a brief examination of the roots of Universalism within historic Christianity, giving the skeptical reader an initial hope that such all-encompassing love may not be “too good to be true” after all, Matthew leads the reader on a journey through anthropology as well as theology. Embarking on the path laid by Matthew’s scholarship, the reader travels beyond the walls of fear to the astonishing light of news that is better than many have ever dared to imagine.

Journey Through Science, Scripture, and Spirit

 Matthew convincingly argues that if we do not know ourselves, we will project unconscious presuppositions onto whatever it is that we study or engage. This is particularly problematic when we seek to understand God, for we will inevitably recreate God in our own image, with devastating consequences! Thus it is necessary to approach scripture – the record of humanity’s relationship with God – from an anthropological perspective as well as a theological perspective. And for understanding what it means to be human, Matthew turns to René Girard.

Matthew’s treatment of Girard’s mimetic theory and its implications on human nature and the link between religion and violence at the foundation of human culture is succinct but sufficient to illumine the necessity of an anthropological lens upon scripture. Such a lens changes everything! Understanding how human beings are formed in relationship to one-another, how we are designed for imitation, gives profound insight into the inner workings of both love and violence, for both are products of human connection. Imitation of not only behavior, but of desires, can lead to connection when the object of those desires is shared, but conflict when the object of those desires is coveted exclusively for oneself.

In the section “The Girardian Trajectory,” Matthew efficiently shows how shared desires lead to conflict, how conflict escalates, and how the ensuing violence that threatens to consume and destroy the community finds an outlet in a scapegoat. Onto the scapegoat all the evil intention of the community to destroy one-another is projected, so that s/he is seen as the origin of the conflict; the original objects of shared desire are forgotten in the focused, righteous hatred against the scapegoat. Once expelled from the community, by collective murder or expulsion, the resulting catharsis brings such a euphoria that the scapegoat once considered evil is now the bringer of peace, supernatural, divine. However, because conflicts will inevitably arise again, it will be necessary to repeat such collective violence. Eventually, these patterns of violence and violent peacemaking will turn into conscious safeguards against all-out violence – rules, routines, and sacred stories to remember them by – that will form human culture. Matthew eloquently traces the initial murderous event that unifies the community through the pillars of culture – prohibition, ritual, and myth – to show how the violent resolution to conflict gave rise to religion.

Once one understands the link between violence and religion, once one sees religion as a violent safeguard against violence, the violence of scripture begins to make sense. The notion of a violent god is deeply ingrained in the origins of human civilization, and the demands for sacrifice in scripture are illuminated. Yet scripture tells another story as well, a story of humanity on its way out of the darkness of fearful subservience to a violent god, out of its entrapment in violent conflict with one another. There are signs of a God who brings peace and order not through violence, but through mercy, who resolves human conflict by rechanneling desires so that people live for the good of others rather than themselves. There are injunctions from the prophets to care for the poor and marginalized, those who had been scapegoated and ostracized by their communities in order to “keep the peace.” All of this culminates in, and is fully revealed by, the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus, our model, our liberator from the cycle of violence, our Prince of Peace, shows us what it means to be fully-human, to live into our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano can take a discerning eye to scripture, separating the anthropological revelation – the human understanding of a warrior God who brings limited peace to limited people through sacrifice and conquest – from theological revelation, the breaking-in of God’s mercy to challenge sacrifice, bring the marginalized into the sphere of public concern, and halt cycles of violence with forgiving love. With Jesus as the ultimate model, imitating the Father and enjoining us to imitate him, scripture presents the alternative – the cure – to negative mimesis as positive mimesis. Matthew traces Jesus’s hermeneutic, his interpretive lens, on scripture through the New Testament references to the Hebrew Bible to show how Jesus rejected the violence of God. Instead, Jesus modeled the concern for the poor and marginalized that the prophets spoke about – concern that was a critique of human violence mistakenly attributed to or thought to be commanded by God. Ultimately, however, Jesus confronts the depths of human violence not only through his teachings, but through his death and resurrection. After illuminating the scapegoating mechanism, Matthew deftly explains how Jesus – God incarnate – undergoes that very mechanism, enduring all of humanity’s violent projections, all of the hate and fear and shame and blame – becoming the victim of humanity’s deadly curse of violence – in order to undo humanity’s violent mechanism for achieving peace. In the resurrection, Jesus’s innocence was vindicated, and all of the prohibitions, rituals, labels and walls that humans use to keep peace by casting others out were put on trial and exposed for the unholy violence that they are. Through his analysis of scripture informed by mimetic theory, Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that God has nothing to do with violence, that the violence in the atonement is ours, and we are “atoned” (at-one-d) by God’s gracious mercy in spite, not because, of violence. Yet if violence has always been humanity’s means of achieving peace, and violence is now exposed for the evil that it is and rendered impotent, what now will save us from imitating one-another’s desires and becoming entrapped in conflict, rivalry, and war?

Only Love can bring peace. That is the message of Jesus. Peace built on the backs of scapegoats, peace built over the graves of victims, will always fail, but Love will restore all things, just as love restored Jesus to life. Matthew Distefano convincingly argues that this Love must embrace all, for to sacrifice any one is to leave the scapegoat mechanism in tact. A God who saves us from sacrifice must save us all, must not sacrifice any one of us. Matthew makes it abundantly clear a God who answers violence with love will not inflict violence in an everlasting torment of hell. However, he explains the references to hell in scripture as the temporal consequences of human violence. He even explains how the mercy of God may involve pain – pain as of a wound being healed, as we are disciplined, corrected, purged of the violence so deeply ingrained in our identities which are ultimately foreign to the image of God in which we were created. He takes on some of the difficult sayings of Jesus and reads them, not in the light of a violent god whom we now know is a product of deficient human understanding, but in the light of mercy that can be experienced as severe. Being embraced in God’s mercy ultimately means becoming aware of the pain one has inflicted upon others, because God brings every victim, including our own, out of the shadows. Such mercy may indeed sting, but it is grace. Matthew articulates God’s severe but undeniably beautiful grace with passion, compassion, wisdom and humility.

Conclusion

But if you are a long time reader of Raven, none of this is new to you. You may not be trapped in an existential fear of hell (though there is much here to read if you are in doubt or anxiety!) Perhaps your greatest fear right now is in finding the perfect gift for your loved one. If that is the case, I encourage you to become All Set Free of your holiday stress and buy Matthew Distefano’s book today! (P.S. If this hard-sell, which is just an attempt at humor, bugs you, please pretend I ended this review with the penultimate paragraph above! Happy Holidays!)

 

Image: Cover of All Set Free via Amazon.