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Hold On Until Love Wins

I was working on another article, but I can’t concentrate on it now. It’s hard to concentrate in a world with so much hatred, so much distrust, so much fear, and so much senseless murder.

I wonder how many people worldwide are shocked out of their daily routine by a tragedy. I wonder how many people must plow through their daily routines that tragedy is a part of.

The news is still coming in about a shooting in my home state of Virginia. A reporter and cameraman were shot on air not far from where I went to college. The families of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward are in mourning. And now perhaps the family of Vester Flanagan, the shooter who shot himself as police caught up to him and died after being taken to the hospital, is in mourning as well. My anxieties about a shooter loose in my home state have been quelled, but the overwhelming sorrow is just beginning to overflow.

I am in mourning for our broken world, ready to despair of hope that it can be repaired. And I recognize that even that despair, and the temporary paralysis that comes with it, is a luxury, because all over the world there are those who live in constant states of degradation, oppression and terror, who must somehow go about their lives anyway. Those living in the midst of war must somehow try to make a living despite the destruction and loss that has become a normal part of life, whatever the hell normal might mean. Babies and grandparents are struck with drones. Limbs are blown apart. People are slowly rotting away from malnutrition or dying from exposure because we can’t find the money to feed them or repair their destroyed homes, even as we spend more money to kill them. Throughout the world, weapons made right here are killing people on all sides of all conflicts, and in some parts of the world we are taking a more direct role in the destruction. The Global War on Terror rages on. And all over the world, the pain and horror and grief that has struck my heart so deeply today strikes so many hearts that must beat on in the midst of this churning machine of violence that we have turned the world into.

We do all of this in the name of national security, of course.

But we are a frightened, insecure nation.

We have nurtured an enemy mentality that pits us against the world (even as we justify our violence by claiming to be a force for protection in the world.) And the violence we export abroad is taking its toll on us. It’s been taking its toll on us for a long, long time, eroding our souls with every weapon made, let alone used, to destroy another child of God, either half a world away or right next door. How could a nation that spends more money than any other in the world, more than most of the world combined, on the military, not be infected by a culture of violence? How can we spend billions on bombs and guns and drones and missiles while neglecting the necessary funds for education and housing and healthcare, and claim to respect life? How can our leaders instruct us to kill abroad and be surprised when we find no other way to handle our problems here at home? How can we demand respect for human dignity while we continually glorify violence that tears human beings apart? How can we respect life while waging death?

As long as we live in fear and glorify violence, we can’t be surprised that efforts for gun control go nowhere. Of course we need gun control, but we also need to control our addiction to the myth that peace can be waged through violence. I can’t think of any myth that has so thoroughly duped humanity as the satanic lie that peace can be bought from sacrifice – from murder and war. The notion of a war to end all wars, a permanent peace arising from the rubble of destruction and death, is so demonstrably false. The house divided against itself is our own world, and we cannot stand like this. Will we keep hurtling ourselves headfirst toward our own destruction, putting our faith in instruments of death?

We live in a deadly world and we keep making it deadlier. So we are afraid, and we cling to our guns, and when someone poisoned by the idolatry of violence fires one of those guns, fearful people cling ever more tightly to their guns. When our own government clings to its nuclear arsenal in the name of “deterrence,” how can we expect anything less of citizens?

So I am weighed down by sorrow as today’s shooting mercilessly steals lives and accelerates the whirlwind forces of this cycle of violence spinning out of control. But I can’t wallow. Because my toddler is awake, and I have picked up my first-grader from school. How truly, truly blessed I am to be able to hold my children close, to know my husband will be returning from work, to still have the peace of mind to be reasonably sure that my loved ones will make it through another day safe and sound.

Too many people around the world live without the luxury of knowing their loved ones will return safely to them at the end of the day. Too many people in our own nation live without that luxury, as African Americans find it necessary to complete the sentence “If I die in police custody…” And increasingly, we are living in a nation where all of our security is disintegrating into a hollow illusion. We cannot be secure when we put our trust in violence.

But if today you have the blessed opportunity to hold your loved ones in your arms, do not let them go. In a hopeless world, find hope in the faces of those who love you, and radiate it back to them. The only way we are going to bring peace to this battered, shattered world is to make those human connections, and nurture the ones that we already have. If you believe in God, that’s where you find God, and if you don’t, well, that’s OK, as long as you believe in Love, because it’s the same thing. Hold on to your loved ones, dear friends. Hold them and see in their eyes the joy of a future filled with the love they bring to the world. Hold them until you can’t imagine a world in which anyone has to go without holding their own loved ones. Then go out and shout, strive, struggle to create that world, and when despair inevitably rears its ugly head, go back to their arms to revive your hope. Be those arms for someone who has lost a loved one to violence. Be love, and hold on in love to those who need love. Hold on until love wins.

Featured Image: Screenshot of “Reporter and Cameraman Gunned Down During Live TV In Virginia Shooting” AJ+ via Youtube.

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From Japan To Ferguson: Sacrificing Our Justifications For Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Girl and Emperor Palpatine.

My Daughter, the Star Wars Myth, and Jesus – How to Defeat Evil

I recently dropped my daughter off at her elementary school’s summer kindergarten program. When I opened the side door of our mini-van, the Girl* had a huge smile on her face as she held up a Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser.

I was a little shocked by the juxtaposition of my daughter and Darth Sidious – who is arguably the greatest fictional depiction of pure evil during the last 35 years. I was shocked partly because I have no idea where that Pez Dispenser came from. I didn’t buy it, but somehow it appeared in our van that day.

But I was also shocked because the Girl was all smiles and feeling a sense of joy as she held up this ugly sign of evil. Wookipedia states that Darth Sidious “was evil incarnate” and “the living incarnation of the dark side of the Force.”

I’m biased, but I think the Girl is adorable and all things good. And there she is, smiling and holding this symbol of “evil incarnate.”

In that moment, I think my daughter taught me something about defeating evil.

The Star Wars Myth

I grew up watching the original trilogy. Sometimes I would pretend to be sick on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t have to go to church. When I heard my parents start their car, I’d run to our living room and play a Star Wars movie on our VCR. (I know. I’m old.) Star Wars had a mythical, even religious, element for me.

I still love the Star Wars saga, but as I discovered mimetic theory, I began to see it with different eyes. Star Wars is based on a myth, a lie that tries to conceal the truth about violence. Now, there is moral nuance within Star Wars when it comes to violence. For example, after Luke defeats Darth Vader in Episode VI, he refuses to kill him. This act of nonviolence puts Luke in jeopardy as Darth Sidious nearly kills him with lightning bolts, but Luke’s act of nonviolent mercy converts Darth Vader to the “good guys.” Darth Vader then saves Luke by killing Darth Sidious.

That dramatic scene sums up the myth behind Star Wars. Walter Wink calls it the “myth of redemptive violence.” In his book, The Powers that Be, Wink describes the myth of redemptive violence as, “the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.”

When we are under the spell of the myth of redemptive violence, we think that our “good violence” will save us from our enemies “bad violence.” Thus, Darth Vader saves Luke with “good violence” by killing Darth Sidious. But if there is a truth that emerges from the Star Wars myth, it’s that “good violence” never actually solves the problem of evil; rather, it gives evil the oxygen it needs to spread. And so, even though the evil Darth Sidious was killed and Darth Vader converted, the truth is that Jedi violence never solves the problem of evil. Thus, we have three more movies coming out. (And I cannot wait!)

René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, points to the utter futility of violence in his book Battling to the End. Violence is futile because it functions to perpetuate itself. He claims that “it is impossible to eliminate violence through violence.” He goes on to give an apocalyptic warning, “Sooner or later, either humanity will renounce violence without sacrifice or it will destroy the planet.”

How to Defeat Evil

But if violence doesn’t work to defeat evil, what does? In holding the Darth Sidious Pez Dispenser, my daughter gives us a clue. The more we fight evil on its own violent terms, the more we become the very evil we attempt to defeat. But there are alternatives to defeating evil. What if we had posture towards evil that didn’t combat it with our own violence, or run away from it in fear, but gently held it in our hands?

Christians believe that Jesus definitively defeated the forces of evil. For Christians, faith is trusting that the way to defeat evil is the same way that Jesus defeated evil on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus was no Jedi. He didn’t use “good violence” to protect himself or others from the evil forces that converged against him. Nor did he run from evil. Rather, he defeated evil by entering into it, forgiving it on the cross, and offering peace to it in the resurrection.

Of course, many – even those who profess to follow him – think Jesus is absolutely crazy. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s true that following Jesus by responding to evil with nonviolent love is risky. After all, Christ was killed, as were his disciples. But fighting violence with violence is also risky and only perpetuates a mimetic cycle of violence.

The myth of redemptive violence still permeates our culture. We see it everywhere: In cartoons, movies, and politics. But the myth is losing its force as more people are seeing through its lies and realizing that violence can no longer defeat violence.

Although the forces of evil were defeated on the cross and in the resurrection, evil is obviously still present with us today. Unfortunately, many Christians have more faith in violence to defeat that evil than they do in Jesus Christ. But true Christian faith trusts that Jesus had it right.

The way to defeat evil is to nonviolently love our enemies as we love ourselves.

The way to defeat evil is to forgive it.

The way to defeat evil is to trust that God doesn’t defeat evil through violently taking life, but by restoring life.

*I don’t use the real names of my children on the blog, so I call them “The Girl,” “Boy 1,” and “Boy 2.”

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how many within “mainstream” Western Christianity believe the LGBT community—more specifically, the recent SCOTUS decision on marriage equality—is to blame for the imminent judgment on America. In this entry, I would like to mention how those in the Muslim faith appear to be included among those charged with causing the “fall of America.”

The hyperbolic rhetoric used to talk about over 1.6 billion Muslims is just as head-scratching as that which is used to describe the roughly 9 million LGBT Americans. Radio host Rick Wiles recently stated that “millions of Americans will die in one day in this country” at the hands of Muslim-Americans, whose only goal is “to slaughter the people who do not convert to Islam.” We hear statements like this over and over, predominantly by those on the Christian right. I do not wish to demonize those who make such claims, but what I do want to do is shed light on the fact that this is nothing more than extreme hyperbole. Sure, there are those for whom that statement would be true. However, as I will point out in the following paragraph, this is not the goal of the Muslim faith. Furthermore, a statement like Wiles’ is a double-edged sword. Given his logic, one could point to recent Lafayette shooter, John Russell Houser, who, in 2013 tweeted, “The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed [sic])” and conclude, “the goal of Christianity is to slaughter the people who do not accept Christ.” Both claims are nonsense.

The goal of any religion, broadly speaking, will depend upon how one interprets matters. Some religions have sacred texts. Some don’t agree on what is supposed to be “sacred text.” Some religions have varying views of God, or gods, if the case may be. The Muslim faith, then, is no different. Sure, on one extreme, is ISIS (and groups similar). They have a specific goal in mind, which involves radical violence. On the other hand, however, you have a group like the Sufi Muslims. One such Sufi is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, whom I mention in my forthcoming book, All Set Free. His understanding of Islam is beautifully summed up in the following:

Peace, unity, equality . . . when we are in one place, when we live in one place, eat in one place, sleep in one place, and when we finally join together in heaven in one place, that is unity. Even when we go to that (final) place, we all live together in freedom as one family, one group. In this world and in the next world we live together in freedom, as one family of peace. This is Islam. If we find this way of peace, this is Islam. – (Muhaiyaddeen, God’s Psychology, 218)

There should be no denying the plain truth that within various faiths, there are debates among adherents as to what constitutes “correct theology.” Just because a Christian makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs a “God-mandated” action, does not mean all Christians are in agreement. Likewise, just because a Muslim makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs an “Allah-mandated” action, does not mean all Muslims are in agreement either. (“Allah,” it must be noted, is an Arabic word simply meaning “the One God,” and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims). There seems to be a more accurate common denominator for the violence.

It does not matter if God is named YHWH or Allah, Zeus or Athena, if s/he is believed to be violent, then those who follow will likely be more tolerant of violence. In fact, in more extreme cases, followers of that god will eagerly engage in violence themselves. One problem with this belief is that when violence is justified—when an eye for an eye is how those religious interpretations operate for individuals and nations—they will, in reality, often ramp up the violence. (See the studies done by the University of Texas—sourced from Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, 142–43).

This leads to all manners of madness!

This also seems to be the case with the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

So, what is the answer to this conflict that seems to never end? Well, I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that question—do not engage in retributive violence. Or, directly in his words: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39).

Although the blame for the violence should be equally shared with all who engage in the violence, the supposed “Christian nation” should at least model what a Christ-like foreign policy looks like. Should it not? Yet, the United States seems to be right in the middle of the violence—not “set apart” from others who are involved. If leaders truly want the United States to be known as a “Christian nation,” should they not “turn the other cheek?” Should the United States not love those labeled “enemy?”

I realize the relationships between nations are not simple. But, shouldn’t nations who claim to desire peace not at least consider that one’s belief in God literally will be a matter of “peace” and “war?” If we can recognize there is a correlation between violence and our theology, shouldn’t we begin to take more seriously the idea that God is not violent? It seems that belief might then lead to more peaceful interactions between nations. I think there is enough experiential evidence that one’s faith dictates one’s ethics. We witness it over and over—history seemingly repeating herself ad infinitum.

One should not blame the entire Muslim faith in the same way one should not blame the entire Christian or Jewish faith for the violence and acts of terrorism. The common link between the violence is the belief in a violent God—one who vanquishes enemies and blesses those willing to die for the cause. At some point, someone is going to have to end the cycle of violence. My hope is that it will be those who claim to have the very model to do just that. Jesus had legions of angels to unleash on the Romans, yet he kept them at bay (Matthew 26:53). A “Christian nation” should follow suit.

Don’t we see where perpetual war has taken us?

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

Image Credit: Stock vector of world religions connected by international peace symbol. By casejustin via 123rf.com.

Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

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Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

The Iran Deal and American Self-Deception

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the American political divide are debating the merits of President Obama’s deal with Iran. While Obama claims he has forestalled an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least another 10 years with unprecedented weapons inspection, Republicans state that the deal will only encourage the world’s most dangerous sponsor of terrorism.

Only time will tell us about the merits of the deal. For now, I’m interested in the response from our Republican presidential candidates.

The Republican candidates are swirling around, trying to point the finger at the greatest enemy of the United States. Is it the dreaded Mexican immigrants? (Gasp!) Or is it the terrorism that Iran threatens to unleash upon the globe? (Double gasp!)

American Terrorism

Forgive me if it looks like I’m picking on the Republicans. After all, this is American politics per usual. And maybe it’s just human politics. But Republican candidates in particular are trying to convince us that there is an extremely dangerous enemy out there that threatens our freedom. But that’s not all. They are also trying to convince us that the Democrats are enabling our enemies. And so we should vote for Republicans because they will be tough on our enemies.

This response from the Republicans is an act of American self-deception. They, and we the American people, should know better.

The United States has met our greatest enemy that leads the world in global terrorism. And it is us.

To prove my criticism of violent American foreign policy is bipartisan, I’ll point out that the Obama Administration’s indiscriminate drone strikes are terrorist crimes against humanity. While the Obama administration rightly criticizes al-Qaeda’s practice of attacking enemies during a funeral as morally heinous acts of terrorist monsters, nothing stops Obama from using drones to kill our “enemies” as they attend funerals.

I put “enemies” in quotes because they ended being regular civilians, many even children. You know, “casualties of war.” Aka, “Oops!”

And Iran is the most dangerous supporter of state terrorism in the world?

No, we are. And Republicans are trying to gain our vote by criticizing Obama’s terrorist policies and promising that they will be far better terrorists. Which, our politicians claim, will keep us safe.

A Relationship of Fear and Desire for Peace

The fact is that Iran wants to be just like the U.S. We fear Iran and Iran fears us. A relationship of fear is a recipe for disaster. But the U.S. and Iran want the same thing. Iran has a fearful political regime that just wants peace. Iran feels threatened, and it has learned from the U.S. how to respond to threats – by mimicking those violent threats with violent threats of its own.

We are enemy twins, who, even in negotiations, won’t take violence off the table.

The way that the U.S. can free ourselves from this relationship of violence is through honest self-criticism. Instead of accusing Iran of being a great threat to global security, we would do well to have the courage to admit our own terrorist acts of foreign policy.

American Honesty and Genuine Peace

It is the height of American self-deception to claim that we are completely innocent and Iran is completely guilty. Just look at our modern history with Iran. In 1953, the U.S. orchestrated a coup to topple the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Why? So that the U.S. would have “a major ownership in the strategic and highly lucrative trade of Iranian oil … with the additional bonus of a pliable client state in the heart of the Middle East.”

In 1985, the U.S. secretly shipped weapons to Iran and sent profits to Nicaraguan rebels. In 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airplane. The U.S. says it mistook the Airbus A300 for an Iranian fighter jet.

Our greatest enemy is not Iran. It’s not Russia. Nor is it China. Our greatest enemy is ourselves. We have modeled for the world how to gain temporary peace through violence, which is a pattern that will only ensure a future of apocalyptic destruction.

The only alternative is to model a different method to achieve peace. American politicians must have the courage to stop deceiving the American people about our perceived innocence. Rather, we need our politicians to be honest about American involvement in terrorism and lead us in repenting of our violence. Modeling that honesty and repentance to other nations is the only possible way that the U.S. can help foster genuine peace in the world.

Photo Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

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Eid: A Promise Of Hope And A Celebration Of Empathy

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified and updated version of last year’s Eid al-Fitr message.

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Eid Mubarak from the Raven Foundation to all of our dear Muslim sisters and brothers! The holy month has drawn to a close, and all around the world, the ummah, or Islamic community, is celebrating the culmination of 30 days of fasting. Long daylight hours, at least in the northern hemisphere, have made this Ramadan among the most challenging in decades, with faithful Muslims refraining from food, drink and sexual intercourse while the sun is up – about 17 hours a day here in Chicago and similarly long hours around the world!

The hunger in the belly, the dryness of throat during the heat of the day, the restraint against urges of desire, are all meant to invite the soul into deeper relationship with God and neighbor and train the heart in the ways of compassion and civility toward friends and adversaries. In recent years, the sacred intentions of Ramadan have been further challenged by the heartbreaking violence raging throughout the world and devastating Muslim communities in particular. This violence is ravaging places like Afghanistan, where our 14-year-old war has all but been forgotten by media, Iraq, where ISIS is hypocritically and violently undermining the spirit of Islam in the name of Islam, Libya and Syria, where ISIS also has strong footholds, and Gaza, where the rubble from Israel’s latest bombing campaign one year ago, which killed over 2000 people, still has yet to be cleared, and none of the 17,000 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. These are just a few examples of the violence and aftermath of violence devastating predominantly Muslim countries around the world. For many, this day of celebration must instead be a day of mourning. So in the midst of this devastation and chaos, it is important to remember the promise of hope that is Eid al-Fitr (literally, “the lesser holiday,” the holiday after the fast).

Let us first ponder the meaning of Ramadan, the 30-day fast meant to tune the heart, mind, and soul toward God and break down walls and build bridges of compassion and solidarity between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed from God through the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an describes itself as a mercy and a guidance, and just like our world today and all times and places throughout history, mercy and guidance were desperately needed! My friend Adam Ericksen explains the world of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya, or Age of Ignorance, as a time when “fate” was thought to determine the rich from the poor, the winners from the losers, leaving little incentive for compassion or generosity. It was a world in which tribal gods were invoked in violent raids of conquest, and the wealth of a few created a world of desperation and misery for the poor, particularly the widow and the orphan. Sadly, this sounds very much like our world today. But it was in the midst of this violent and bleak hopelessness that Muhammad, tuning his heart and his mind to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, was able to hear the message of God: a message of ultimate peace, which is the meaning of Islam.

So it is appropriate that the month in which the Qur’an was revealed is a month of fasting, a time when the faithful enter into solidarity with the poor and hungry. As stomachs growl, those who are normally well-fed get a taste of the hunger 1 in 8 people worldwide experience (according to the 2013 statistics of the World Hunger Education Service). This voluntary material poverty is reminiscent of the world of Jahiliyyah into which the Qur’an was revealed, as faithful Muslims share the experience of the poor and suffering. Nothing dispels ignorance more than the active empathy that Ramadan requires.

This year, beyond connecting with the hungry, another profound way that active empathy was displayed was through a tremendous gesture undertaken by a coalition of Muslim networks working together to raise money for at least 8 African American churches that burned in the wake of the Charleston massacre. At a time when worship is brought into even sharper focus for Muslims, when spiritual connection and brother and sisterly solidarity is even more greatly pronounced, Muslims felt a desire to reach across faith boundaries. The burning of African American churches is an attack on the last, most sacrosanct refuge of the black Christian community, but Muslims reached out with an empathy deeply rooted in their faith experience and augmented by the holy month of Ramadan and raised over $30,000. In an interview for Al Jazeera America, spokesperson Linda Sarsour elaborated on the solidarity between Muslims and African Americans. This solidarity exists not only because the Muslim community includes African Americans, but also because Muslim Americans of all races are subjected to distrust and profiling on account of religion and the state of permanent US warfare in the Middle East. As Sarsour says,

We’re working on a lot of solidarity issues, including working against police violence, surveillance of political movements, building solidarity across the country. There’s so much more we can do together, and we’ve been able to do that in the past few years and it’s been remarkable.

The building of interfaith solidarity in the midst of the holy month is a powerful living example of Islam’s profound respect for the Abrahamic traditions and its tradition of peaceful interfaith relations. While the violence in Muslim countries gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, positive interfaith relations especially among the Abrahamic traditions are integral to Islam. This year, Ramadan has been a connection to those in times of struggle and turmoil, a time to build people up and provide a refuge of compassion and love – not just for fellow Muslims, but across religious lines.

Furthermore, in this month of spiritual renewal, desires are reoriented from human concerns to divine will. As Muslims find themselves sustained throughout the day not by food but by the loving God and supportive community, they liberate themselves from things that society tells us we need. Negative mimetic desires for material possessions, which can lead to envy and conflict, are tuned out as Muslims become models for one-another of positive mimesis. Turning away from selfish desire to following the desire of God, whose will is for all to love one-another, Muslims during Ramadan find mutual support as they strive through the day to renounce wants masquerading as needs, instead focusing their hearts, minds, time, and resources on those most in need. As food intake decreases, prayer, charity and compassion increase, and the empathy born from this experience extends past the imposed 30 days. The hope is that after the fast comes to an end, Muslims will continue to choose to spend fewer resources on themselves and more in the way of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, relying always on God’s abundant providence.

Eid is a festival of this abundance. It is a holiday that symbolizes that the mercy of God’s message, lived out among the faithful, dispels ignorance. It is a reminder that the same God who sustains us through hunger and poverty generously provides us with a rich and beautiful world to enjoy and share.  Eid is the promise of light after darkness, fulfillment after hunger, celebration after tribulation.

So many people worldwide, not only Muslims but people of all faiths and people who have lost all faith, are still in the midst of this tribulation and losing hope. Some have no food for a feast; some have no home to gather inside; some must bury their family instead of celebrate with them. May they be on the hearts and minds of all of those who can enjoy the feast today, and indeed all of us regardless of religion. As Muslims around the world come together today to celebrate the triumph of God’s mercy, abundance, and love, I pray that all of us may learn the lessons of Ramadan – empathy for the victims of violence and greed – so that we may all work toward a future Eid in which we invite all to the table – rich and poor, friend and foe, Palestinian and Israeli – to share the rich feast of God’s boundless love.

Image Credit: This image was generously created by ihsaniye and labeled for reuse.

 

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What Will We Learn?

Editor’s Note: This article is used with permission from Frances Fuller. It first appeared on Frances’s blog. 

I happened to be in Burlington, N.C., when a man asked me, “Are those people (the Arabs) just wired differently than we are, so that they like to fight?”

Of course, you can guess what I said. They are not. Violence is not an Arab trait. It is a human trait.

The history of the world illustrates this, the Middle East conflict being a mere example. We humans have always tried to solve our problems by killing others. Another horror in our own country reminds us of this. It happened several days ago in Charleston, South Carolina. In a church.

(In some other countries people may be asking, “Are those Americans just wired differently than we are, so that they kill people for the color of their skin? And in a holy place?”)  We don’t understand it ourselves and are wondering: What kind of monster could do this?

According to the news: a 21-year-old, white male, a “quiet” boy.  One who had expressed ridiculous fears: “black people are taking over the world.” One who knew enough history to regret that the Confederacy lost the Civil War and so intended to re-ignite the conflict. A racist who used his birthday money to buy a gun and carried it into a church. That’s not all, of course, but enough to make my point.

We would like to believe that everything about this event was surprising, an anomaly that no one could have predicted, that the young man had mental problems and just snapped. But let’s not fool ourselves.

Once one of my grown sons astutely observed that he and his siblings could do nothing without their parents knowing the antecedents. It is true. Their adult behavior started in childhood. Not only could we see everything coming, but we contributed, intentionally and not. Dylann Roof, too, dropped clues along the way, and he did not get where he is all alone. None of us ever has. Whether we are high achievers or drop outs, good neighbors or criminals, we had help to become who we are.

Because of this certainty, I often have troubling thoughts about young people who have committed crimes. Not long ago, for instance, a few miles from where I live, a teenager from an affluent family, broke into the home of an elderly couple and murdered them in their beds. He was deemed a monster and incarcerated for life, with no opportunity for parole. I kept looking at his picture in the paper and thinking. He is a kid. For all of his life he has been someone’s responsibility. How did a family, a California community, a school, a culture manage to shape him into a murderer? I know he did not get there alone, but only he went to prison.

I think a lot, too, about some of the people we call terrorists, because I have met some of them, in Jordan and Syria and Lebanon. Charming and kind young men, when they feel that charm and kindness are appropriate. Men with a sense of history, looking for a cause. Men who feel oppressed, bear grudges and harbor fears that easily become hatred. Often educated and jobless, they need a reason to hope. They did not get where they are alone but are products of a situation, society, peer pressure, the values of their culture. When they get guns in their hands, they feel better—powerful and in control. In their shoes, a lot of us would join their militia. But we are not in their shoes, so we support other young men, dear to our hearts, to go far from home and fight them. To know somehow the participants of war on both sides is to expose the heart to an unspeakable grief, similar in a way to being a shamed white Christian, watching black brothers and sisters weep in South Carolina.

So where has this thread of painful monologue taken me?

Only to the obvious, that Dylann Roof has antecedents also. He is a human being, a young human being, a product of the world he grew up in. A short time ago he was a child, listening, absorbing, imitating his elders. He did not become what he is without help, deliberate or accidental. It took history, family, friends, culture, country, all of us.

Now, the society that nurtured him and permitted him a tool of destruction will condemn him and incarcerate him for life, if not kill him.

But what will we learn?   Can we face the truth that we are racist? Can we master in ourselves the evil human impulse to kill? Do we have the courage to teach our children Jesus’ way, that it is better to absorb violence than to commit it? Are we willing to work together, all of us in our diversity, to create peace in our own country? Are we smart enough to prevent terrorism all over the world instead of preparing for perpetual war? Are we grieved enough to take drastic actions and get our world off this dangerous road?

 

 

FrancesFrances Fuller spent thirty years in the violent Middle East and for twenty-four of those years was the director of a Christian publishing program with offices in Lebanon. While leading the development of spiritual books in the Arabic language, she survived long years of civil war and invasions.

Frances holds degrees in Journalism, Creative Writing and Religious Education, and she studied Arabic at Georgetown University. She and her husband, James Wayne Fuller, live now in the foothills of the Sierras in California. They have five children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Her book, In Borrowed Houses, has won multiple awards and is available from Westbow Press, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

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We Do Not Hit!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Children are like sponges, always soaking up the world around them. Every little detail is noticed, especially when you least expect it. I have noticed this, for better or worse, with my daughter. From little mannerisms, to phrases of speech, my daughter imitates “mommy” and “daddy” more than anyone else in her life. This forces me to be on top of my game at all times—always vigilant so as to not model some horrific behavior that will only bring trouble for her. The interaction I witnessed between a mother and child today tells me not everyone is this aware of the impact their behavior will have on their children’s.

The topic of my last entry was on positive mimesis—this one will cover the negative side of imitation.

This particular encounter played out as follows:

A 3-year-old girl begins to “act out” and in doing so, hits her mother across the face. Her mother grabs the little girl’s wrist and smacks her on the hand—while at the same time saying “we do not hit!”

(While the negative effects of spanking [euphemism for hitting] are not the primary topic of this article, I would like to mention how opposed I am to the practice. Please look up as much data as you can prior to deciding “to spank or not to spank.”)

In the scenario above, the mother is not in fact teaching her child not to hit. Instead, she is teaching her child two things—both unintentional consequences of her actions. First, she is modeling for the child “how” to hit others. In this instance, she showed how to grab someone’s wrist, control it, and smack the back of the hand. Second, she is displaying her brute, physical force; now modeling “when” to hit someone. When her child gets bigger and is strong enough to control someone who is smaller and probably younger, she will more than likely use her own physical force to control and hit that smaller and younger person. More than likely, this will be a younger sibling and/or peer at school. The little girl may have heard, “We do not hit”; but she will more than likely copy her mother and do so anyway.

Rene Girard, in The One Whom Scandal Comes, writes:

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.”

In this particular case, the mother probably viewed her 3 year-old’s violence as “bad” because it was the “original” act of aggression. The mother’s violence—her “eye for an eye”—was good because it would “teach her daughter a lesson”. The reality, however, is that the 3 year-old girl learned the act of hitting from somewhere…and, more often than not, it is from one or both parents. So, who is responsible for the first stone, the child or the parent? Who will be responsible when the child copies her mother while at school, the child or the parent? Who is responsible when two siblings hit each other, the children or the parents who “spank” them for it?

There may not always be a direct correlation, but if I may use one piece of anecdotal evidence—my daughter, who is not spanked, never uses violence when dealing with adults, peers, or those younger than her. As much as I notice her imitation of me, I cannot help but think if I hit her in order to “teach her a lesson”; she would also imitate that at some point. I have no evidence to believe otherwise.

Where I used to see the most extreme examples this type of negative mimesis is when I worked in youth group homes. Part of my job was to monitor visits between parents and residents of the home. Inevitably, I would learn back-stories, histories, and, all too often, tragedies. There were stories of abuse and neglect—violence and madness—all manners of evil. Not to minimize spanking, but we are talking much more than spanking here! The kids I worked with for 8 years were the most abused of victims. And yet, they often became victimizers themselves. It was on one hand tragic, but on the other, all too predictable. In their situation, who is responsible? Given the dire circumstances many were in, and given that we are not autonomous beings but interdividuals (Girard’s term), I cannot conclude the youth were 100% responsible for all their actions all the time. As Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NRSV). I am certain the abused children I worked with for so many years felt like that many times in their lives.

My point in this entry is not to point out people’s behavior so I can then judge them—far from it. I am, however, dead set on pointing out behaviors that model “how to commit violence against others”. In doing so, my hope is that more and more people will acknowledge that all of us have this potential violence in us; all of us imitate each other and enter into mimetic conflicts. And all of us imitate self-destructive behavior from time to time. If we can acknowledge this, I believe we can then focus our energy onto positive imitation. When energy is focused on positive imitation of others, namely forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and love, real change can occur.

So, my goal is for those who engage in any form of violence—intentional or unintentional—to recognize the slavery it causes and progress toward a more peaceful “self”. In modeling peace, we free ourselves to experience true relationship with others. We discover our true humanness when we serve others wholeheartedly. Let’s start modeling that type of behavior. The sky is the limit as to how far humanity can go if we all begin to model peace.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Image from pixabay.com

“Piss Christ” And Drawing Muhammad: On Not Being Offended

I recoiled a little just typing the title to this article.

The title of the infamous photograph by Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” makes me bristle as much as the content of a crucifix submerged in blood and urine. I can’t get used to the language on a gut level, even as I have come to appreciate it on an intellectual and even spiritual level. My visceral repulsion to this juxtaposition of the filthy and the sacred is probably similar to the feeling Muslims get when they see the beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) degraded in crass and crude caricatures. It can feel like a blow to the stomach, with anger and disgust rising up in response, to see or hear that which we hold most sacred defiled.

Muslim Americans have had to deal with an exceptional amount of bigotry lately, even for an oft-misunderstood minority in a post-9/11 nation. In the past month, two large-scale events have been organized specifically to demean and provoke them. First came the “Draw Muhammad” contest hosted in early May by Pamela Gellar in Garland, TX. When this event ended in the shooting death by police of two vengeance-seeking gunmen, it prompted Marine veteran Jon Ritzheimer to organize a similar rally held on the last Friday in May in Phoenix, AZ. The rally began with another “Draw Muhammad” contest at a nearby Denny’s before protestors (mainly described as “armed bikers”) gathered outside a mosque at the time of the Friday prayer. While both rallies were promoted by their organizers as defense of the freedom of speech, they also deliberately vilified Islam, relishing in their defiance of the prohibition against depicting the Prophet and seeking to portray Muslims as violent, backward savages. The irony of such events, aggressively wielding hatred in order to provoke violence so as to call the dreaded “other” violent, cannot be lost on students of mimetic theory.

Imagine arriving at your place of worship, preparing to surrender your troubles to the all-compassionate, all-merciful God, only to be surrounded by a jeering, gun-brandishing mob claiming that you are violent. It is not only insulting, it is threatening. And while it is true that the Christian faith has also been ridiculed, the Christian community has not been targeted and labeled an enemy by popular culture, nor treated as such by authorities, in the same way Muslims have been in this nation that prides itself on diversity and “freedom of speech.”

Thus even the depiction of Jesus on the cross submerged in urine does not evoke the same range of negative emotions in believers as do the vulgar drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, for while the former can certainly offend, the latter not only offend, but also intimidate. They tell an already persecuted minority that they are unwelcome in a way that “Piss Christ” cannot, because “Piss Christ” does not reflect a larger animus against Christianity pervasive throughout our culture the way the cartoons do of Islam.

Nevertheless, I have seen the comparison made between “Piss Christ” and the drawings of the Prophet made several times recently, and they are worth comparing for more reasons than first meet the eye. In both cases, subversive works of art provoke anger and disgust. Yet believers have an opportunity in both cases to transcend their disgust and anger and explore and reveal the truth of their faiths – the God who needs no defense and responds to provocation with mercy, compassion, and love.

In an interview for the Huffington Post, artist Andres Serrano revealed that his infamous photograph was designed to evoke feelings of disgust, but not out of hostility to the Christian faith. Serrano says:

The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning.

A Christian himself, Serrano reminds us that though it has been sanitized and neutralized, disgust and horror are appropriate responses to the cross. They are appropriate responses to the condemnation Jesus received from those who thought they were doing the will of God. They are appropriate responses the human violence that continues to crucify Christ when wielded against anyone else.

Abilene Christian University psychology professor Richard Beck extends the imagery from the crucifixion to the incarnation in a powerful advent meditation. First exploring the psychology behind disgust, Beck explains the attribution of negativity dominance – the understanding that the filthy contaminates the pure. He then meditates on “Piss Christ” as a metaphor for the Incarnation, the descent of God into the shame and wretchedness of our own lives.

[I]n the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively–and blasphemously–believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the “piss” of our lives.

… This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

While Serrano’s art is designed to evoke the horror of the crucifixion, Dr. Beck’s meditation reminds us of the hope of the Incarnation and the resurrection. I want to reflect first on the horror. While there is violence in “Piss Christ,” most people see it as violence by the artist directed toward the faithful. It rarely occurs to believers to use the art to meditate on the actual event of the cross, in which humiliation, brutality and murder are exposed for all to see. We project our disgust outward, onto the artist, rather inward, onto our own violence that “Piss Christ” truly depicts. Our offense at others we whom perceive to be violent or blasphemous blinds us to our own violence. Disgust and horror projected at Serrano perpetuate the judgment that crucified Christ. Disgust and horror at our own violence that actually crucified Christ facilitate repentance.

The protestors in Garland and Phoenix could not recognize their own violence because they could only see the violence of a few extremists who have committed acts of terror in a misguided attempt to defend Islam. The Garland event was (in part) a response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. The Phoenix event was partly a response to the attempted attack on the Garland event. Ridicule and dehumanization, reinforced by open-carry weapons at the Phoenix event, were seen by those who carried them out as defensive tactics. Muslims, harassed and dehumanized and increasingly vulnerable to physical violence as events like these further polarize, are seen as the enemy. As Rene Girard has taught, people never see themselves as the cause of violence. Even the most aggressive fail to recognize themselves as the aggressors while looking to the aggression of someone else.

But there is hope! Violence does not have the last word!

Dr. Beck’s reflection on the Incarnation reveals a new dimension to “Piss Christ,” showing how God comes even in the filth and shame of our violence. Our violence cannot overcome the love of God, who absorbs it, forgives it, and redeems us from it.

That same love and redemptive forgiveness was on display in Phoenix. Immersed in the muck of hatred and vitriol, many people either lash out in vengeance or internalize the anger. Violence could have contaminated the peaceful atmosphere of the mosque, spreading the contagion of hate and fear and division.

Instead, compassion prevailed.

Instead of acting on offense, Muslims of the Phoenix mosque followed the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who endured ridicule with patience and gentility. No stranger to being immersed in filth himself, the Prophet Muhammad, according to tradition, once endured the hatred of one particular woman (among many) who would empty her garbage out the window when he passed by. When one day he passed her window unscathed, he knocked on the door to her home to make sure that she was okay! Moved by this same spirit, the Muslim community in Phoenix invited the protestors into the mosque, offering hospitality, space for dialogue, and, for those moved to listen, the opportunity for a healing of the heart.

In particular, the eyes of Jason Leger and his uncle, Paul Griffith, were opened by their experience. Walking into the mosque wearing profanity-laced anti-Islam t-shirts, they left with a newfound empathy for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Though they insist on the right to even offensive free speech, they have made the choice not to express such hatred. Leger says:

When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.

I feel that me and a few people like my uncle Paul, and the Muslim people, taking the time to talk to each other,  feel that we changed the thoughts of some people, and they changed the thoughts of me. Paul specifically said he would not wear that shirt again.

Love can break down the walls of fear and hatred. Love is stronger than anger and fear, stronger than violence and filth. I stand with my Muslim sisters and brothers in this love in spirit, and should the need arise, I hope to stand with them in body as well.

It is natural to be offended when we see that which we hold sacred mocked and abused and violated. But God’s own children – those whom God holds sacred — are abused and violated and humiliated every day in a cycle of violence perpetuated by those who lash out in anger… to defend God! The filth that surrounds “Piss Christ” is that of our own making. The violence that is projected onto Muslims resides in the hearts of those who project it (although some Muslims do lash out in violence, believing themselves to be defending God and morality, and thus the pattern continues). When we choose to be offended, we keep the cycle of violence turning, churning the muck of hatred and fear that keeps blood flowing.

But the negative need not dominate the positive.

We can follow in the footsteps of those nearest to the heart of God. In the Christian tradition, God came in flesh among the filth of our lives and endured rejection, humiliation, and torture to redeem us. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad endured rejection, humiliation, and expulsion to bring words of compassion and a model of redemption.

Christ need not be protected from the piss. He has been there, and remains there until the least among us are treated with dignity and respect. Muhammad need not be violently defended when caricatures are drawn. Instead, he is honored when such ridicule is met with the same gentle forgiveness he himself modeled, forgiveness that subtly but certainly corrects the offense by modeling respect.

Some things in life are worthy of our offense: brutality, hatred, cruelty. These are the blasphemies that offend God. But harsh judgment, condemnation and violence only perpetuate these offenses. Instead, we are called to respond in the same way that God responds to our offenses, with active mercy and love.