Adam Ericksen is the Education Director for the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, pop culture. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary where he wrote his thesis “Love and Nonviolence in Christianity and Islam.” Adam is a youth pastor and chaplain. He is also a frequent speaker at conferences. Keep up with Adam by liking the Raven Foundation Facebook page and by following him on Twitter.
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Ted Cruz and God’s Political Subversion
Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare a presidential run for 2016. His formal announcement came yesterday at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.
Cruz’s announcement at Liberty University was an important political strategy. Cruz is the poster child of the Tea Party movement. He wants to spread his influence by appealing to evangelicals. There is no better place to garner the evangelical vote than the largest Christian university on the planet.
Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says that Cruz’s message at Liberty was essentially this, “I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign.”
Cruz put his religious faith at the center of his campaign by invoking God and American exceptionalism, while at the same time critiquing Democrats and Obamacare. Liberty students cheered as Cruz passionately claimed, “God bless Liberty University ... God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”
Cruz is the first serious candidate to officially throw his hat in the presidential ring. Because he quickly invoked God, it’s a safe bet that future Republican and Democratic candidates will also invoke the blessings of God the Almighty.
So, let’s talk God and politics.
Is God the Biggest Serial Killer of All Time? A Response to the Friendly Atheist
You may be surprised to read this, but I owe the Friendly Atheist a personal debt. My atheist brother invited me to officiate at his wedding ceremony with this condition, “As long as you don’t say anything about God.” I’m very close with my brother, so of course I agreed. I wrote the majority of the wedding ceremony with no problem. I easily secularized everything else, but was stymied by how to secularize the final blessing.
Since Google has all the answers, I typed the words “secular wedding ceremony blessing” into my search engine. The first link that appeared was the Friendly Atheist’s article “ A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish.” The entire transcript for the secular wedding is beautiful. As I spoke the words of the Friendly Atheist’s final blessing, I experienced a profound sense of awe:
May the glory which rests upon all who love you, bless you and keep you, fill you with happiness and a gracious spirit. Despite all changes of fortune and time, may that which is noble and lovely and true remain abundantly in your hearts, giving you strength for all that lies ahead.
My brother and his wife expressed their appreciation for those words. My dad, a devout Christian, said it was the perfect capstone to the wedding. And all I could think were words of gratitude. “Thank God for the Friendly Atheist,” I said to myself.
The Day She Came Out: Why Rob Bell Is Right and the Church Is Being Left Behind
She was one of the best students I’ve ever had in a youth group. She’s funny, smart, friendly, warm, and likeable. She exerted a quiet sense of confident leadership among her peers and she’s serious about following Jesus. She’s everything that a pastor would want in a member of a youth group.
And I’ll never forget the day she told our youth group that she’s a lesbian.
My God I love that girl.
And so did our youth group. Girls and boys listened attentively as she described her experience of “coming out” to her parents, siblings, friends, and now her youth group. Like so many other young women and men, her deeply personal experience was full of joy and pain.
“Thank you. That took a lot of courage," one girl said as she held back tears of inspiration.
“When did you know?” Another girl asked.
“Who did you come out to first?” Another asked.
It was a profound moment of vulnerability and acceptance. I was very proud of her and of the youth group.
“This,” I thought, “is what church is all about.”
That was years ago. Unfortunately, it still takes a lot of courage to come out of the closet. As elated as I was about that experience, today I read an article that made me continue to worry about LGBTQ kids in other churches. It’s titled, “Dear Rob Bell: The Church Isn’t Giving an Inch on Gay Marriage.”
Once again I begin to dread the message that awaits so many Christian kids who desperately want to come out of the closet but can’t for fear of being ostracized by their church.
When the Way of Jesus Doesn’t Work: Finding Peace with a Divided Self
It was a rough week at work. It got off to a bad start and didn’t improve much. Maybe you’ve had one of those weeks.
It all started when one of my supervisor decided to observe me talking with a client. In my view, the conversation went really great. In fact, in the middle of our discussion, I literally thought, “I’m so glad my supervisor is witnessing this! I’ve built great rapport with the client, I’ve elicited his story, and he’s talking about his emotions and his relationships!” I decided that the universe was clearly on my side, because as we left, the client said, “Thank you so much for this conversation. I feel much better. You really brightened my day.”
In other words, I nailed it.
Then my supervisor wanted to debrief and provide some “constructive criticism.” After asking what I thought was good about the conversation, he proceeded to “should on” me. Have you ever been “should on?” It’s no fun. He said things like, “You should have done this,” “You should have done that,” “You shouldn’t have pushed so much with this,” “You should have noticed when he said this.” He said nothing positive about the conversation. Except at the end when he claimed, “You’re doing fine.”
Then I started to get critical.
“I’m doing fine?!?” I thought. “What does ‘fine’ even mean? Is that some kind of backhanded compliment? Fine is bland. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s like the word ‘interesting.’ I hate that word. Tell me what you mean by ‘INTERESTING!’ Well, in the context of this “constructive criticism,” fine apparently means that I’m not good.
And that’s when the voices came. I’ve had them before. I’m sure you’ve had them, too. It’s the voice of doubt that says, “Do you really think that you can do this? Well, you can’t. You’re a joke. You’ve been studying this and practicing this for six months, and you’re still making rookie mistakes. Even when you think you are doing great, you fail.” Then comes the kicker, “You aren’t good enough and you will never be good enough.”
Don’t Tell Me that God Is In Control: On Tragedy, Sin, and Sovereignty
“God is in control.”
The statement comforts many people because deep down we know that we are not in control. We can do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families, but we know that despite our best efforts, tragedy can strike at any moment. And so it’s comforting to believe that if we aren’t in control, Someone else is.
But something inside of me recoils whenever I hear the phrase, “God is in control.” Many believe that God’s sovereignty means that God is behind everything that happens. But I find no comfort in that view of God. In fact, a God who micromanages and controls every event isn’t a God worthy of belief.
Bill O’Reilly, Brian Williams, and Jesus: On Goodness and Love
I’m cringing as I write this.
That tells you a lot about me. When it comes to politics and theology, I identify as liberal. I firmly believe that Jesus wanted everyone fed, wanted universal health care, and that the Kingdom of God is about politics. It’s about structuring our personal and communal lives in a nonviolent way that ensures everyone has food to eat, debts are forgiven, and healing is freely provided for everyone.
Bill O’Reilly symbolizes almost everything that I loathe about American Christianity. His hyper-conservative politics is reinforced by his hyper-conservative theology. Many of my family members love his show, but I cringe when I hear his voice.
Relaxing into Lent: Identity and Those Voices in Your Head
The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.
In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships — I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.
I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.
Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”
If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.
The Oscar Scandal: Sean Penn, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Responding to Racism
“Sean Penn’s ‘Green Card’ comment may have ruined the entire Oscars.”
That was the headline from the Huffington Post. I didn’t watch the Oscars, but I’m always curious about pop-culture scandals. What could Sean Penn have said that was so egregious that it threatened to ruin “the entire Oscars?”
Penn delivered the award for Best Picture, which went to Birdman. After Penn opened the card, he took an awkward moment to gather his thoughts about how he would introduce the winner, whose director happened to be his long-time friend Alejandro Iñárritu.
That’s when Penn delivered the scandalous introduction, “And the Oscar goes to … Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman.”
The Nonviolent Atonement: God’s Grace Upon Grace
She was 85 and nearing the end of her life. I’d never met her before. You might call her a “lapsed Christian,” or maybe she was one of the “nones.” She hadn’t been to church in decades. She called for a visit because she had anxiety about death. But what broke my heart was her anxiety about God.
“Hi,” I gently greeted her.
“Hello pastor,” she replied. She began telling me about her Catholic parents, her “fall” from Catholicism, and that she'd never felt “at home” in a Protestant church. She stated that she hadn’t stepped into a church in thirty years, and her relationship with God had suffered for it. And now, on her death bed, she felt the weight of guilt and anxiety of abandoning God.
“I’m not in a state of grace,” she said with spiritual and emotional pain.
That’s when my heart broke. She felt guilty because she believed she had abandoned God and so God had abandoned her. I began to think of all the damage many religious people have caused throughout the centuries by imposing guilt upon people. A religion that piles on the guilt isn’t worth following. A god who inflicts guilt upon us isn’t a god worthy of belief.
There is a pernicious theological claim that states God responds mimetically to us. That God imitates us. So, when we turn away from God, God turns away from us. When we abandon God, God abandons us.
That’s a lie. Don’t believe it.
The Subversive Peace of Christmas
Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, and family. But Christmas is much more than a sentimental holiday.
Christmas is subversive.
The Bible doesn’t tell us the specific date Jesus was born. Later Christians tradition gave us the date of December 25. It was chosen by Pope Julius around the year 350 and Christians have been celebrating Christ’s birth on that day ever since.
But Pope Julius didn’t just randomly pick December 25. He was deliberate. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim in their book The First Christmas, when Pope Julius declared December 25 as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, he integrated “it with a Roman solstice festival celebrating the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”
That last sentence isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. It symbolizes the subversive quality of Christmas.
Terrorists Win: 'The Interview,' North Korea, and the Tragic Irony of Christmas
Unfortunately, we will not be able to watch Kim Jong-un’s assassination on the big screen this Christmas. We will not be able to cheer as the brutal dictator’s helicopter explodes in the air “ while Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ plays on the soundtrack.” We will not be able to fulfill this Christmas Day fantasy by watching The Interview because the terrorists have won.
The FBI now claims that Kim Jong-un’s government is behind the act of terrorism. In retaliation for the movie, a state-sponsored North Korean cyber-terrorist group called “The Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Pictures and leaked sensitive information, including internal emails, future Sony films, and sensitive employee records. “The Guardians of Peace” also threatened movie goers with a “9/11 style attack” on every cinema that shows the movie.
After the threats were made and many theaters decided to pull the film, Sony Pictures canceled the release of The Interview. Sony said in a statement:
Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.
Washington and Hollywood are also in an uproar:
“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them,”tweeted Rob Lowe. Jimmy Kimmel claimed that pulling the movie was, “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Steve Carell said it was a, “Sad day for creative expression.” Sen. John McCain stated “yielding to aggressive cyber-terrorism by North Korea … sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.”
And White House officials are exploring retaliation, saying security leaders “would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response.”
The terrorists may have won the battle, but the United States will win the war!
Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell
So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.
Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.
Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.
Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”
God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”
Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.
Thanksgiving and a Theology of Despair
Are you feeling pressure to be thankful?
We are in the midst of the Thanksgiving season. I’m reminded everywhere I go to “Be thankful!”
Well, call me the Scrooge of Thanksgiving, but I’m just not feeling thankful. The more someone tells me to “Be thankful!” the more I feel a sense of despair.
Be thankful? In the midst of Ferguson, Mo.? Jim Wallis writes that, “Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America.” And what will white America do about it? Nothing new. One side will continue the status quo of racism by denying that it even exists and then they will blame the victims. I firmly stand in the other side that blames America’s deeply embedded structures of racism, economic injustice, and educational inequality. To make matters worse, America is sharply divided over the shooting in Ferguson. Each side of the division blames the other for tragic violence. Sunday’s heated debate on Meet the Press between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson is indicative of the deep racial tensions underlying not only Ferguson, but every city in the United States.
My Facebook news feed and the media are telling me how I’m supposed to feel about Ferguson. Outraged. Hurt. Anxious. Guilt. Anger. Bitter. But certainly not thankful.
Unlocking the Answer to School Shootings
Last week’s school shooting in Marysville, Wash., has us all asking the question again: Why did this happen?
Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary gave voice to the despair many are feeling as we search for answers. “The question everybody wants is ‘Why?’ I don’t know that the ‘why’ is something we can provide.”
Why did Jaylen Fryberg text his friends and family members to join him for lunch only to shoot them and then shoot himself? Whenever these tragedies occur we are tempted to blame the shooter by making him into a monster. We label the shooter “mentally ill,” claim that he was isolated from his peers, or was a generally troubled youth.
The answer to the question “Why?” has usually been to blame the shooter. We make the shooter into a monster because it allows us to make sense of senseless violence. Why did this tragedy happen? Because he was evil.
But Fryberg’s case won’t allow such easy answers. By all accounts, he was a popular and happy young man, seemingly incapable of causing such harm.
This horrific shooting is so scary because no one saw it coming. If a popular kid like could commit such a heinous act, anyone could do the same. Fryberg’s case deprives us of the easy out of blaming another. The only thing left is to face our own violence.
Islam and the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas: The Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck Debate
The West is going to exhaust itself in its fight against Islamic terrorism, which Western arrogance has undeniably kindled.
That Western arrogance was on display last weekend on Real Time with Bill Maher. The tense debate about Islam between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck has been shared multiple times over social media and provides a case study in Girard’s mimetic theory.
One element that mimetic theory illuminates in this discussion of Islam is the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is a non-conscious way of reinforcing a group’s relationship by blaming another group of people for our problems. The scapegoating mechanism is non-conscious because we always think that we are innocent and that our scapegoats are guilty. The video below shows a great example of the scapegoating mechanism when it comes to Islam. (Warning: It's an HBO show — there is some foul language.)
Why the NFL Is Better for Women than the U.S. Senate
The NFL has come under severe scrutiny for its handling of domestic violence during the last few months. Rodger Goodell has admitted to fumbling the Ray Rice case, has admitted that the NFL has a problem with abusing women, and he has committed himself to finding a solution.
There are many reasons to be cynical about Goodell. Maybe the only reason he’s attempting to implement changes is because of public pressure, the loss of public sponsorship, and the fact that his job is on the line. But at least Goodell cares enough about something that he will implement changes to in the NFL that will hopefully lead toward better treatment of women.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the U.S. Senate.
The Senate Republicans recently rejected a bill proposed by Senate Democrats aiming to reconcile the pay disparity between men and women. Census data shows that in the United States “women who are employed full time, year round in the United States are paid, on average, 78 cents for every dollar paid to men.” That pay disparity is affecting 15.2 million households that are headed by women and it’s affecting nearly every household supported by a working woman.
The bill is called “The Paycheck Fairness Act.” My Facebook feed was inundated with images and commentary lambasting Senate Republicans for rejecting the bill.
Really?!? I thought. Surely, there must be a good reason for Senate Republicans to reject this bill. After all, realizing that women get paid 78 cents per every dollar a man makes and doing nothing about it would be economic violence against women. They must have a good reason!
How Christians Reject Jesus: On Violence and ISIS
Here at Sojourners we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Personally, I take seriously the words of René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”
Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.
And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
A Theology of Labor
A theology of labor involves Genesis 2:15 – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Labor is fundamentally a good thing and a theology of labor includes responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources. The first chapter of Genesis is obsessed with telling us that the world is good. As such, God calls us to labor for it, to responsibly keep and care for it.
Of course, labor often involves hard, back breaking work that doesn’t always feel good. Genesis 3 puts forth an explanation that God cursed the earth because of human sin, making labor much more difficult. Whatever we think about that explanation, the Bible is much more interested in a different curse when it comes to labor — how we humans curse one another.
Like everything in this good world, the goodness of labor can be exploited. The prime biblical example of this comes from Exodus, which describes how the Hebrews were exploited as slaves in Egypt.
They were forced to labor.
Jesus Is at the Border
I am not a politician, so I’m not an expert on immigration policies.
I am not an economist, so I’m not an expert on the economic benefits or burdens of immigration.
But I am a public theologian. I try to understand how we can participate with God in setting things right, healing the world, and reconciling human beings with one another, with the world, and with God.
The Resurrection Effect: Guns, God's Sovereignty, and the Last Word
It seems like violence will never end. Portland. Seattle. Las Vegas. Isla Vista. Almost every day in Chicago. Not to mention Iraq, Boko Haram, the conflict in Ukraine, and the continued war in Afghanistan.
The Huffington Post just reported that “If it’s a school week in America, odds are there will be a shooting.” Since the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, the United States has averaged 1.37 school shootings per week.
And our culture is divided on how best to respond. One side declares we need to increase gun regulations. The other side insists we need more guns. The two sides are locked in a bitter political rivalry, using terms like “rights” and “responsibilities” and neither side will budge. One side will win the political battle concerning gun rights, but I fear that no matter who wins the battle it will only perpetuate the war.
I’m feeling despair, and from my Facebook feed, I know many others are feeling the same way. After all, this is so much bigger than guns; it’s about a culture of violence. But please, don’t fall into despair. We have too much work to do.