Death To My (category of) Enemy

Upon the pages of church history there are many stains. And why should there not be? If the church, the body of Christ, is composed of deeply flawed individuals, then it should be no shock that an account of the work of the church in the past 2 millennia should have some dark moments. While there is plenty of positive history within the church, and countless acts of love and justice have been done in the name of Christ, there is a fair share of negatives as well.  Crusades, witch hunts, the burning of heretics, the slaughter of strangers, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland, these are all events which tell of a bloody and darker side of the work of the Body of Christ. While many of these dark events may be in the past, the church still contains the potential for great acts of evil, and in many ways we are seeing a resurgence of, if not the acts of evil, at least the desire for evil.  But what has united these dark events? What is the underlying failure within the church which perpetuates these acts of evil toward both those who do not claim to be Christian and those who claim to be Christian but hold doctrinal differences?  It is, I would argue, a deeply flawed understanding of the command to love the enemy.

It would appear that the command to love the enemy has often been interpreted as a command to “love your neighbor when they annoy you.”  From sunday school, to church sermons, to chapel messages at Christian colleges, there has been little definition of who our enemy is, generally resulting in an interpretation that does not go far enough.  My goal in this paper is not to define exactly who the enemy is, but rather make the argument that for the follower of Christ, the ontological category of “enemy” is useless. I hope to express that the command to love the enemy, is truly a command to no longer view anyone as enemy. If the enemy is that which allows us to define our identity and maintain social structure, then the new identity in Christ and the Kindom of Heaven social structure, reject any need for the category of enemy.

The first question which must be addressed is why we have enemies. What is it

that creates an opposition between two people or groups?  Why, in this age of enlightenment and globalization, would reasonable humans have an enemy? One argument which could be made is that a group of people need an enemy in order to define their own position.  Without an “other” we would have no sense of an “us” or even a “self.”

This is shown in the scapegoating theory of Rene Girard. According to Girard, the “other” to our “self” helps create and mediate our desire. The more that the desire is alike between both parties, the differences between the parties begin to diminish. The lack of difference crushes all senses of societal hierarchies. This diminishing of difference is the diminishing of identity. How then does the self regain its (tribal) identity? According to Girard, this is most often accomplished through the scapegoating and vilification of the other.  By scapegoating, a group can renew their identity as they are now obtaining of an “other” which they can contrast with their own identity and thus renew hierarchy, without addressing the real problem of desire.  The enemy is necessary in order to define the self. This is not applicable only to society, but also to one’s own self.  Society needs an enemy in order to maintain social structure, hierarchy, and identity, while the self needs an enemy/other in order to define itself.

Slavoj Zizek gives an example of scapegoating as a way of holding societal hierarchy when he discusses the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in The Puppet and the Dwarf.  In the appendix of the book, he shows that the Vietnam War began to sow seeds of doubt in the idea of american exceptionalism.  The american identity of being both just and powerful was shaken by the war and the supposed differences between the United States and “lesser” countries began to disappear.  Zizek makes the point that the 9/11 attacks actually allowed the country to revert to its state of perfection.  By claiming the role of victim, the constructive critiques of american identity were overruled by the return of an enemy.  Rather than waking up the american public, the 9/11 attacks worked to put the public back to sleep in american ideology and reinforce a social hierarchy.

Likewise, we can see the continued effects of terror attacks as a way of forming american identity during the past decade and a half.  The Muslim is still the scapegoat, the enemy, who allows us to live an ideological national identity.  Videos of different political rallies and speeches in the last campaign season show this clearly. Where the Muslims are considered to be in antagonism to women’s rights, an American can thus assume themselves to be very respectful of women, even if this point is made by a man wearing a “Trump that bitch” shirt. By scapegoating the “other,” distinctions in identity can be drawn up, even if they are not reflective of reality.

There are more examples of this outside the current American political climate.  In a recent interview with the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf reflected on the war which incorporated the breakup of Yugoslavia. Volf had grown up in Yugoslavia in what is now Croatia.  Volf states that the people in that time were “very hesitant to not consider those who differ as their enemy.” Volf states that this  is because, “If you took away their enemy, it would take away their reasons for existence.”  The existence of the “enemy/other” allows does not only define the group identity, but operates even on an individual level.  Volf however draws this scapegoat-based self-identity into question, saying that “love of the enemy” is one of the most important characteristics of Christianity.

It is at this point where a critique is necessary. In what way can we understand the call to love the enemy if we cannot truly have an identity without an enemy? Do we love our enemy, knowing that their existence as enemy is a necessary evil for our own existence and self-understanding? Or shall we claim to have no enemy, and thus lose any self understanding and social structure?  This is the question which I think needs to be answered by the church today.  What does it mean to love the enemy that we supposedly need?

Jesus is very clear about the importance of loving the enemy. His command is recorded in the gospels of Matthew and of Luke. While the two gospel accounts have slightly different wording, the message boils down to loving, praying, blessing, and doing good to those who persecute, abuse, curse, hate, and do evil to you. There are three points I would like to draw from this teaching.

In one sense the command to love the enemy already begins to destroy the category of enemy, for an enemy is always a two-way involvement. Unless both parties view each other as enemy, a violent relationship can be understood not as an enemy relationship, but rather an abused-abuser relationship.  If one is willing to continually bless and do good to those who could be considered enemy, the entire identity of enemy is destroyed.

Secondly, both passages speak of how easy it is to love those who are like you. Do not even sinners and tax collectors do the same?  There is little struggle in doing good to those who hold the same tribal identity, your family, or you friends. In Matthew’s account of this teaching, Jesus challenges the tradition of “loving your neighbor and hating your enemy.” This tradition is the logical, common sense move. Nothing makes more sense than to like those who are like us and to hate those who pose a threat.  But Jesus commands us to do the hard task of loving the enemy.  Is this not, if I may borrow from Paul, the wisdom of God which makes foolish the wisdom of the world? Is this not the weak shaming the strong, when one who is attacked responds with love and blessing? This is the stumbling block not only to the Greek philosophers, but to most of human history, to america, to war, and to those who would define their identities through those who are different.

But it is the third point which I believe holds the most potent attack on the category of enemy.  In both accounts of this teaching of Christ, the authors bring up a new identity as children of God.  Matthew writes “so you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.”  Likewise Luke writes, “And you will be sons of the most high.”  Is this to be understood that by loving your enemies you will earn the title of “child of God?”  I would argue that it is rather the identity as child of God which allows us to love our enemies. This new identity is one which does not need an enemy in order to be defined.

How then are we to understand our new identity as children of God?  While there is an abundance of writing on this new self, I would like to bring in Henri Nouwen to break down this identity. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic Priest who held positions teaching psychology at Yale, Notre Dame, and Harvard, before eventually settling at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto working with those who had developmental and physical impairments.  Not only did Nouwen work day in and day out with the “weak” members of society, but he also suffered from serious depression, putting him in an unusually powerful place from which to speak of both the weak shaming the strong of this world and weakness being made strength by God.

Henri Nouwen wrote specifically of the new identity in Christ as that of the beloved child of God. Where all humans need both significance and security, and often obtain it through scapegoating and the self-definition that comes with it, Nouwen advocated finding strength and significance in the love of God.  While it would be foolish to attempt here to compile his writings on being the beloved, a main theme is that it is only through the love of God that we may love the world without economic (give love in order to obtain) goals, and that insofar as God calls all beloved, we may live without enemy, knowing that the enemy is simply someone who has not yet realized their own belovedness.  This is certainly akin to the passage of St. Augustine in which he states that the peculiarity of the City of God/City of Man dynamic is that the citizens of each  are constantly intermingling. The citizens of the City of God live among those who are not yet, but will be, citizens as well.

Is this not how the child of God must view the “enemy?” Not as an opponent who we are at war with, but rather as a fellow beloved child of God who has yet to realize their own identity?  But if this is true, where is the “difference” which allows society to stay together? How shall social hierarchies stay in place if, as Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for all are made one in Christ?”  How can a society function without these distinctions, and in what way can one understand their own identity without the enemy?

The first question is answered by Jesus as he gives a new look at societal hierarchy.  While the loss of distinction may, according to Rene Girard, destroy any sense of social order, we must understand that Girard speaks of a society which follows the “wisdom of this world,” that is, a “power-down” society in which the powerful and wealthy are in charge. This must be contrasted with the society based on the “wisdom of God which shames the wisdom of this world.”  Jesus is very clear that in the Kindom of Heaven, the leaders are actually the lowest of all.  So how shall we answer the loss of distinction which destroys the hierarchies of society? We shall simply remember that the Kindom of God does not require such hierarchies, and thus does not need “the  enemy/scapegoat” to restore balance.

But while this may work for society, how are we to understand our own identity as beloved without the unloved enemy from whom we are distinct? How shall we understand our belovedness without a non-beloved whom we can contrast ourselves with? What is the measuring stick for the Christian then? It is here that Paul’s distinction between the old and new self may be useful.  For if we are called to “put of the old self,” and “put to  death that which is worldly within us,” then there is already a difference within ourselves. By shifting our focus from the difference between the beloved children of God, we may find the “difference” of identity within our own personhood and the work of Christ within us all.  The measure which we are put up against is not the “other” but the “self.”  From here the identity as the beloved can be defined in relationship to what we were, and not to what we view others as not.

While the “enemy” may be a necessary category for the “wisdom of this world,” the wisdom of God shames it. While the enemy may be a necessary category for social hierarchy, the Kindom of Heaven bids us to let go of hierarchy. And where the enemy is necessary for self-identification, the follower of Christ finds the difference of identify in the old and new self.  Thus can there be any necessity for the “enemy” in Christian language? Must there be an “other” to which we are opposed?  While the world and even the church itself have defined themselves through what they are not, as seen in the orthodox/heretic and theist/atheist spectrums (among many more), what I hope to have shown here is that what needs to be put to death is the self which requires an enemy. Rather than putting the enemy to death, it is the role of the Christian to put the very category of enemy to death, and to offer love to those who have not yet realized their identity as the beloved.

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Death To My (category of) Enemy

The Democratic Party of God

In light of the current political landscape in America, it would appear that there is a tension in which the democratic party may be interested in claiming to be aligned more closely with the Christian mission than the right wing politics which are prevalent at the start of 2017.  The Atlantic recently published a video asking whether the democratic party would begin to appeal to more religious voters, citing the political work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter as examples of progressive politics and religious belief going hand in hand.

What I would like to explore in this article is whether or not current left wing politics mirror Kingdom of Heaven politics and what it would take for any political set-up in America to mirror the Kingdom of Heaven.  I will be looking at the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and how a political set-up can be affected by this duality. I will also touch upon the orthopraxic symptoms of the Kingdom of Heaven and current political stances toward these issues. Finally it will be explored as to whether or not either political party can be truly considered to embody THe Kingdom of Heaven.  I will also from now on be referring to the Kingdom of Heaven as the Kindom of heaven. This is not to cause any issue in interpretation, but rather an attempt to move further away from both gender specific God-language and unhelpful and confusing concepts of power structure. I am attempting, as Tripp Fuller would say, “dropping the cock and the crown.”  Any reference to the “Kindom of God/Kindom of Heaven” should be understood as the reign of God as announced by Christ.

At first glance, the conservative party is surely the Christian political party.  Indeed 90 percent of republicans believe in God and are at least fairly confident in their beliefs.  This is compared to 76 percent of democrats who hold the same beliefs on the existence of God.  Furthermore, the democratic party is dominant in all non-Christian demographics such as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Etc. In this sense, one could easily assume that the Republican party is the “Christian” party.  However, this illusion is blurred, if not destroyed, when we look at the parties through the lense of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy refers to proper belief. It involves the set of doctrines which have been declared as absolute by the early church and pre-reformational Christian councils.  The outside of orthodoxy is of course heresy, and the church has often considered the heretic as a threat which needed to be handled.  While heretics are no longer executed in prominent Christian communities, there is still a great amount of distrust toward those who hold beliefs which fall outside of the orthodox power structures.  Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently likened an early Christian heretic to Hitler a book about culture war.  History is written by the winners, so it should not be a surprise that the threat level of a person who attempted to understand a part of the Christian faith would be exaggerated. If the orthodoxy/heresy structure is indeed the qualification of Christian identity, then it is highly likely that the conservative party can be considered “God’s Party.”

But what if “Right Belief” is not the primary signifier of the Christian Identity.  In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells the parable of two sons. When approached by their father and tasked to work in the vineyard, one son answers that he will (intellectual obedience) while the other son refuses (intellectual disobedience.) The subversive move made in this parable is that it is actually the intellectually disobedient son who fulfills the father’s wishes (active obedience) while the intellectually obedient son participates in active disobedience.  While right belief, (orthodoxy) is shown by the son who agrees to work but does not, the son who does the will of the father shows right action, also known as orthopraxis. While orthodoxy and orthopraxis are not necessarily exclusive in this parable, Jesus shows that orthodoxy alone does not guarantee obedience to the father, while one can indeed be obedient to the father without orthodox belief. Thus the true “party of God” cannot be evaluated through orthodox belief, but rather through the bringing of the Kindom.

So what does it look like for the Kindom of Heaven to be on earth? While Jesus primarily speaks of the Kindom of God in parables, he does, at points, offer up what he is doing as a way for someone to interpret whether or not the Kindom is at hand.

When John the baptist sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the messiah, Jesus simply tells them to inform John of what they see.  “The blind receive sight, and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Later on Jesus enumerates on how he will identify his followers. They are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those imprisoned.  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus declares his Kindom mission, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  In the Sermon on the Mount, arguably the magnus opus of Kindom teaching, Jesus constantly flips the self-serving ideas of the day, reinterpreting law and prophet towards a life that is lived in the service of others, with little to no regard for the self.

For practical purposes in this essay, we will consider Kindom symptoms to involve compassion for the least of these, particularly in the realms of physical, economic, and judicial needs.  Physical needs involve food, water, and health. Economic needs involve clothing, shelter, work for those who are able, etc. Judicial needs involve welcoming the stranger, caring for the widow and orphan, racial and sexual justice, and defending life.

So what have the political parties in America made of these Kindom symptoms?  Looking at all of these Kindom symptoms, the democratic party appears to be a heavy leader. While I personally am not capable of locating the origins of most social programs within the political spectrum, it is often the left wing which currently fights for justice for the least of these. From welfare programs, to opposing sexism and racism, to welcoming refugees, it is primarily the democratic party which defends these actions, while the republican party often seeks to cut certain programs pertaining to immigration, healthcare, and welfare.  The republican party has indeed gone further in protection of the unborn, although German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes the point that perhaps to have children born into economic and social injustice may be more of an offense against life than an affirmation of it. Either way, it is hard for any defense of the republican party when it thinking of the way we treat the least of these, especially when the amount of Christian people within the party is taken into account. Christian beliefs within the republican party have lately been used to argue against supporting the least of these, and have been used to support a Christian-based political power structure. This is to be compared to the recent spike in religious reasons for hospitality and justice on the democratic platform. Protests against recent conservative policies and executive actions have had serious support from the religious left, using the teachings of Jesus and the church as arguments for the welcoming of refugees, racial reconciliation, and justice-based programs for the least of these.

It would certainly appear that, when viewed in the light of orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy, the democratic party is the party of God, the party of the Kindom of Heaven. The issue which we arrive at here is the overall paradigm in which these Kindom symptoms are performed. While the symptoms of the Kindom are being worked toward, can it not be argued that the overall structure of the democratic party fails to take on the even more radical and revolutionary descriptions of the power structure itself?  There are three critiques which I would like to offer to those Christians who find the democratic party to be the new moral majority and vehicle of the Kindom of God.

Firstly, the democratic party has in many ways turned the orthopraxic symptoms of the Kindom into its own set of orthodox beliefs which must be ascended to.  The calls for justice and mercy have quickly become standards of belief. Those who do not believe in the ideals of the political left are chastised and excluded from participation in redemption. For many of those who do however hold those beliefs, the belief system seems to be more important than any attempt to actualize the ideals of justice, mercy, and acceptance.  What has become important is the belief that healthcare is good, refugees are welcome, and that racism still exists in America. As long as a person holds these orthodox beliefs of the political left, the orthopractical side is dropped from importance.  The belief structure operates as a sign that all is well and that the person is supporting the cause of justice, even if they are participating in implicit forms of injustice in their day to day life. This mirrors the conservative notion that as long as a person believes in Christ, it is irrelevant whether or not they follow him. The belief itself prevents someone from actualizing the call to action within the belief. The parable of the two sons who are asked to work in the vineyard flips this primacy of the intellect. Quite frankly if your beliefs don’t manifest themselves in justice, they may be more of an excuse to not do justice.

The democratic party has also failed to actualize the power-under structure of the Kindom of Heaven.  In Matthew’s account of the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus makes two fascinating claims about what the structure of the Kindom of God will look like. In Matthew 18 Jesus explains that the greatest in the Kindom is the most humble.  The example which he offers is that of a child, one of the lowest ranking positions in the social structure of the time. A child is obedient, but also vulnerable. While Jesus takes the role of the child by washing the feet of the disciples, the weakness of this position is shown in the Hebrew commands to care for the orphan.  But Jesus goes further in explaining this leadership structure in the Kindom. Upon being asked if the sons of Zebedee could sit at the right and left hand of Christ, he declared that “The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the son of man came not to be served but to serve.”

Jesus here advocates a power structure where the weak and vulnerable are the  leaders. The Kindom of God is not a Kingdom, where power moves from top-down and through coercion. Rather the Kindom of Heaven is brought through the weakness and vulnerability of those within it. The emphasis should not be on the powerful, but rather the powerless. Jesus himself exemplifies this in the kenotic self-emptying incarnation.  Jesus is not interested in declaring a Kingdom through acts of great power and might, but rather brings the Kindom through restorative acts of love.  The contrast between the arrival of the Kindom as shown by Christ and the Democratic political attempts to create justice cannot be more clear. Justice cannot be brought through the enacting of laws which are coerced through power.  Rather the Kindom must arrive through power-under political structures, where weakness and lack are the signifiers of leadership.  It must be, in a word, grassroots.

Finally the democratic party must be criticized through the lens of the Apostle Paul and his teachings on love in 1st Corinthians.  In chapter 13 Paul delves into the difference between Kindom action and Kindom motivation.  While a person may have total knowledge, or faith, or even give away all they have, these actions must contain love. The motivation of the action must be love. It must be an action done out of the purity of heart which Jesus blesses in the Sermon on the Mount. This raises questions of economy, not in the sense of financial markets, but in the sense of giving in order to get. This idea of economy and gift is common in the work of Jacques Derrida and was brought into explicitly Christian discussion by John Caputo.  Questions are raised of WHY we attempt to actualize the Kindom of God, WHY we make moves toward justice. It is not hard to come up with a multitude of reasons for our actions. We may act good in order to be thought of highly by others, or in order to receive divine reward. But is this truly acting out of love? What if, in the way orthodox beliefs can operate, we do good works in order to alleviate our guilt for participation in unjust social structures?  Indeed we must consider whether or not we would participate in Kindom work if we did not already participate in anti-kindom work.  The true question is in what ways are acts are co-opted by selfish reasons, and what it would look like for our acts to be lived out of love for the other.

The democratic party in this sense cannot be the party of God. The drone strikes and deportations which were authorized under President Obama can hardly be spoken of as acts of love. Furthermore the unwillingness to show hospitality toward the least of these we find in everyday life betray a commitment to our own comfort which the democratic party holds. A true non-economic political act of hospitality would not even vet the refugees which arrive at our borders. To do even the slightest evaluation of whether or not someone may enter the country is to enter into an economy of your own self. “How can I help, without having any negative influence on myself.”  The truth of the Democratic party is that it does not go far enough. While being willing to work toward symptoms of the Kindom of God, it refuses to actualize the Kindom structure itself. The democratic party sticks to a kingdom, where it is more concerned about its own survival than the least of these. This is the truly radical side of the Kindom of Heaven. It never aims for its own survival, but rather aims for the higher things of love, being uninterested whether the lower things shall be added to it.  If there truly is no greater love than that one would lay down his life for his friends, then the true Kindom of God will be willing to allow its own removal for the sake of the least of these.

With all of this taken into account, I hope it is clear that neither the democratic party nor the republican party can truly claim to be fulfilling the will of God. While the democratic party seems to be more aligned with the Kindom symptoms, neither party places primacy on care for the least of these. Both parties operate under the mindset that they will do justice to a reasonable amount. While the democratic party seems to seek justice further than the republicans, it is really determined by the location of the boundary of reason.  Both parties act out justice based on reason, but the difference is found in what is defined as reasonable.  A true Kindom ethics however, will say “To hell with reason; Let love be our guide.”  This sentiment will be unlikely to ever exist in an earthly political structure, but it is the role of the church as a whole, to begin to abandon belief and reason, and instead enact a Kindom politics of self-sacrificial love.

The Democratic Party of God

Ignorance is Bliss… And Sometimes Violent

There is a question that has plagued me for the past two years, and I think that I am not alone in holding that question.  How do I contribute to the forces of darkness and hate which both threaten to and actively destroy peace? While I speak of peace, of hope, of justice, do I perhaps realize that I may be contributing to the very forces that I am trying to oppose?  This is a question that haunts me, keeps me up at night, and has me questioning whether I am in any place to speak positively in the world about the “good, true, and beautiful.”

Not only do I see this tension realized in my own life, but I often see it unrealized in those I know. From schoolmates, to college peers, to old coworkers, there is a clear participation in structures of oppression. This participation, however, often seems to go unrealized by both myself and many whom I know.  While some people may at least acknowledge their involvement in injustice yet, like myself, are unaware of some of the specific ways in which they participate, there are many other people who seem entirely unaware of their implicit support of unjust power structures.  Yet why is this?

Henri Nouwen, in his posthumously published book Peacework, writes of the needs and wounds which are present with us from early childhood, which according to Peter Rollins, are due to the development of consciousness and subsequent separation and detachment from our mother.  This separation creates a lack, a set of needs, and these needs, according to an old professor of mine, boil down to the need for significance and security.  Nouwen speaks in countless of his works, of the need to confront our loneliness, anguish, and pain through prayer and the acceptance of the love of God within us, no matter what race, worldview, religion, belief, or social status we hold.  In Peacework Nouwen takes this a step further by connecting our primal need with our capacity for destruction, violence, and participation in power structures.  

“The vicious repetition of wounds and needs creates the milieu of ‘those who hate peace.’ It is the dwelling place of demons. And it is a place that lures us precisely because we all are wounded and needy.”

Our fanatical attempts and desires to fill our infinite need for love and acceptance create an economy in which we do good in order to get something back, namely, a fulfillment of our needs.  John Caputo speaks of an economy in What Would Jesus Deconstruct as a system in which there is no such thing as a pure gift. Everything we do, offer, or give, creates a debt, even if all that is owed is a “thank you.”  The gift creates a demand, and thus, we can never give a pure gift with absolutely no demand or debt created.  But as we seek to fill our infinite pain through finite human interaction, we will always fail.  According to Nouwen, this failure and desperation lead to violent systems and economies in our own hearts.  It is these systems which grow from our heart into our actions and world.

“If we cannot see the dark wounds of conflict and war in our own daily lives, we will never fully understand the cruelty, torture, and mass murder that fill the pages of our newspapers day after day.”

So if Nouwen offers a way of understanding our participation in unjust power structures even at a base level, why is it that we fail to acknowledge our participation in these structures? Why does our own evil and fallibility go unrecognized?  Nouwen offers a reason in one of his previous works, titled Reaching Out.  The book focuses on 3 polarities in our lives: loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, and finally illusion and prayer.  It is Nouwen’s writing on the polarity of loneliness and solitude which I believe offers an explanation for our ignorance.

“Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well…  …we panic when we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again…”

As a society, we have become focused on relieving our pain and avoiding loneliness.  From entertainment, to food, to many religious practices, many of the things we participate in are designed to let us escape from facing the reality that we are broken and needy people. This lack of facing our needs leads us into economy, and this economy leads to our participation in power structures. It is our failure to look at ourselves, both good and bad, which prevents us from acknowledgement of our violence.  It cannot be beneficial to us that these distractions now include social media. Perhaps the greatest issue with this medium is not only that it distracts us from ourselves, but that it actively points away from us as the reason for violence and injustice in our world.  Can anyone log into social media without finding like-minded people blaming some other group for the problems of the world?  Not only has our society taught us to look away from our own evil, but it has taught us to communally look elsewhere for the root of the issues.  Add this to our personal distractions and it becomes clear that something must be done.

Perhaps the first step we can take is simply to date ourselves. To spend an evening cooking and eating with no music, books, television, people, or screens.  To have time looking at the vast pit of needs and desires that resides in our own souls.  Perhaps we need to go on a hike, a retreat, or a bike ride. Or disc golf.  But until we can begin to look at ourselves and realize the pain and evils in our hearts, we will surely fail to recognize our part in injustice.

Sources:

John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, Baker Academic, 2007

Henri Nouwen, Peacework, Orbis Books, 2005

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, Doubleday, 1975

Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician, Howard Books, 2015

Ignorance is Bliss… And Sometimes Violent

Finding God and Racism in the Badlands

A few years ago, for spring break, I traveled with some friends to a Lakota Tribe reservation in South Dakota. Originally we had been planning on helping build a house for a member of the community, as one of our fellow travelers had worked in the reservation before. But as there were only four of us, and a large group was coming the following week, we were invited to take the time as a sabbath, and an opportunity to learn and experience the Lakota culture.

Amidst hiking through the badlands, being charged by bulls, participating in the sweat lodge, and hearing many old stories and legends, it was a trip that changed the way that we understood racism, injustice, and man’s knowledge of God.

On one of our first days, we were invited to participate in a sacred religious ceremony known as the sweat lodge.  But as the coals were heating, I listened to our host for the sweat lodge, whose name if I remember correctly was Willard, recall his family’s first encounter with Christian missionaries. “They came and told us we had to know Jesus. Who is Jesus, we asked. They told us he was the creator and saviour.  We chuckled and told them, yes we already know him.”

The Lakota pray to Tagoshola, which is translated to “The Creator.”  During the sweat, we had a chance to pray and Willard told us to pray how we felt comfortable. While my friends prayed to “our father” and the Lakota prayed to Tagoshola, I simply prayed to Tagoshola YHWH.  I knew that we all knew the creator, we just had different words to speak of him. I understood that we worshiped the same being, and that we were not that different after in our beliefs.

 

But today our brothers and sisters are in crisis. They are attacked, they are thrown down for the sake of energy and capitalism. They are bitten by dogs, they are sprayed with mace, and their sacred grounds are destroyed. While some may say that this is not an account of racism, or even worse that the energy companies are well within their rights and that Native Americans fighting to save their homes, water sources, and burial sites are mere “anti-energy protestors,” there are a few other things I learned while with my brothers and sisters in the badlands of South Dakota.

  1. On the entire reservation there was only 1 store.  It was owned by white capitalists who could jack up prices due to the immutable laws of supply and demand.
  2. The nearest city with actual stores was 2 hours away in Rapid City, SD. This was a trip which we made with our hosts so they could simply get groceries and toiletries at the Walmart in Rapid City.
  3. 20 minutes outside of the reservation was a town run by KKK members. As we drove past, we could see signs on the buildings saying “Whites Only” and our host, Jerome, told us that members of his community had been trailed by cars from this town for miles when driving past. So why drive past? Because it was directly on the way to the aforementioned Rapid City.
  4. A doctor at the hospital in Rapid City had been charged for carving the letters “KKK” into the arm of a Native American patient he treated, during an operation on the legs. The charges were ignored by the justice system of the city.
  5. The custodian of a small church in the reservation told us about how as a younger man he had moved to a city in order to get a job and make a life in the city. He told us, with tears in his eyes, about how companies told him he was unhirable due to his heritage, how he was kicked out of restaurants for not being white, and even how he was spat on a few times while walking down the street.

 

My point here is that racism exists toward Native Americans. Native Americans who, by all logic, are Christians, and even if aren’t “christians,” are still our fellow brothers and sisters on this earth. When we deny the injustice toward them, and towards many others, we are like those the prophet speaks out against in Jeremiah 6:14-15.

 

“They have bound the wounds of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed injustice? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.”

Finding God and Racism in the Badlands

Matthew 21:28-31 Retold

On our second day in Jerusalem the teacher asked the priests and elders what they thought of a man with two sons. The man asked his first son to work the vineyard, and while the son said no, he went and worked the field. The man also went to his second son who agreed to work the vineyard, but did not go. ‘Which of these,’ the teacher asked the priests, ‘did the will of his father?”
At this point I realized that while I had agreed to obey the great commands to love the Lord and my neighbor, I had done these things in word alone.
But when the native people of my land were attacked by dogs, and their graves were desecrated, I worshiped the idol of the market.
When the families of police officers wept for their loved ones, I worshiped the idol of retribution.
When Africans Americans called out for justice for their children, I refused to hear their pain, and worshiped the idol of apathy.
And when refugees begged for a safe home, I worshiped the idol comfort.
The teacher, knowing my heart, turned to me. ‘Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before you. And until you can love your neighbor, have compassion, and listen to them even when you are doubtful, you shall not know my kingdom.’

Matthew 21:28-31 Retold

The Capitalist Spirit: Why Evangelicals Support Trump

Donald Trump would have no negative effect on me as president.  I have nothing to lose through Trump. As a white, middle class, Christian male, I can only be hurt by a Trump presidency if I put myself in a specific position to be hurt. So why am I opposed to him as president? Because it is not all about me.

Now there are two camps of Donald Trump supporters within evangelical Christianity. On one hand, we have those who have very quickly assumed that that Donald Trump is the candidate who Jesus has sent in order to be a savior to american ideals. This post does not concern them.

The other camp is that which is less impassioned toward some of Trump’s moments, sayings, and claims, but still is curious about what a Trump presidency would look like. These are the people who say that “at least Trump will shake things up,” or “I am excited to see what things will at least look like under Trump.”

It is these followers of Christ who I speak too, who, while not confusing Trump for Jesus, support him because they have nothing to lose with Trump.  Those who are in the same position as I, yet come to very different conclusions.

So I ask, why this difference in opinion? Why would a Christian be willing to support Donald Trump when the violence and policies he supports fly in the face of the teachings of Jesus? I would argue that they have been tricked by the capitalist spirit.

According to the late Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich, the capitalist spirit is that which seeks fulfillment in finitude. The “other” does not give serious significance to the self, whether that “other” is God, or man as interpreted by Jacques Derrida or Emmanuel Levinas.  While the Christian always takes significance from the love of the other rather than the love of the self, as shown by St. Augustine, the capitalist spirit has not only told man that meaning is found in the finite self, it has also said that this self-made meaning is beneficial to others. The capitalist spirit has taught that whatever is best for us, is thus best for all others. This trickle-down sense of goodness has destroyed our ability to take on other perspectives. But in this election, we cannot look at what will benefit ourselves, for in this election, it will likely not benefit others.

So I speak out to my Christian brothers and sisters, and beg of you to think of the effects that what is best for you will do to others. Not only my republican friends, but also my democrat friends need to think of this as well. As Christians, we cannot base our decisions on what will help us, but rather what will help our neighbor. Cast of the capitalist spirit, for the Spirit sets us free.

The Capitalist Spirit: Why Evangelicals Support Trump

I’m a Heretic, If There is Such a Thing Part 1

For most of 2016 I haven’t considered myself a Christian. Due to my issues with most Christian beliefs, or at least with those of the Christians surrounding me, I had to deem myself not as a Christian, but as an agnostic who hopes in the Christian Tradition.

However I have realized that I cannot claim that title for myself, though being a bit of a mystic, I will always be a bit agnostic.  But I realized that I am indeed a Christian, though I have fairly unusual beliefs. Unusual at least to the reformed/evangelical West Michigan that I call home.

But I realized after an awkward situation with some evangelical college students that what I really am is a heretic.  However this led me to the question, what is heresy? Who determines what is and is not heretical. In this series of blog posts, I hope to show that heresy and orthodoxy are not objective categories of truth, but rather in-group/out-group systems based off of tribal identity and scapegoat theory.  Finally I seek to show that the solution to the inherent violence of these structures is a courage born of love.

 

In order to understand the violent structure of orthodoxy, we must take a look at the concept of tribal identities.  A tribe is the group with which we identify.  It is the people who are like us, hold the same beliefs and worldview as us, and have the same understanding of truth as us.  Essentially the tribe involves our primary identity.

So how does this interact with heresy? Every tribe has a set of beliefs which help form and shape the tribal identity. A tribe may even have a spectrum of beliefs, held by different clans within the tribe.  A good example of this is the protestant church (tribe) holding a common set of beliefs, while also holding certain divisions within specific denominations (clans). What is this overarching set of beliefs called? Orthodoxy.  In Christianity, orthodoxy is the set of beliefs by which you are judged to be within or outside of a community.  It determines what beliefs and actions are acceptable.

However orthodoxy is not an objective set of truths. Rather it is a subjective set of beliefs, which we use to “make our way” through the world. We see this subjectivity through the interactions of different clans and tribes, especially through the fear and hostility toward the other. Orthodoxy always shifts from tribe to tribe and clan to clan. Due to these shifts, there is division in the essence of orthodoxy.  This division leads to fear, anger, and hate. In this, orthodoxy changes from an objective set of truths, to a violent and subjective set of beliefs. Those who find themselves to be orthodox always split themselves and even look down upon those who are not orthodox, a.k.a the heretics.

In the next post in this series, I hope to connect this violence toward the heretical other with Rene Girard’s theory of scapegoating. Until then, all I can say is that I am indeed a heretic. The awkward situation which led me to that realization involved a trip to the beach to stargaze. After I had spent some time in contemplative prayer, experiencing the love of the divine and enjoying the soothing lapping of the Lake Michigan waves, a time of communal prayer was requested before we went home.  I was with the members of a specific church and a few other friends. The groups set of orthodox beliefs was, if not identical, incredibly similar and stemming from the reformed tradition.  There was nothing wrong with that, and I have no qualms with those who believe that way. The issue arose when I realized that I could not pray with the group, for fear of receiving backlash for my experience and understanding of God which was far different from the tribe’s.  I knew that any prayer I could truly offer would at best be received with confusion, and at worst, with anger, a result I have seen played out with particular members of the group. My experience of the true, good, and beautiful was not welcome. Orthodoxy was determined by the tribe, and I was the heretic.

I’m a Heretic, If There is Such a Thing Part 1