Suzanne Ross is an author, Montessori pre-school directress, Christian educator, and specialist in the mimetic theory of René Girard. She and her husband Keith founded The Raven Foundation in 2007 to increase awareness of the power of mimetic theory to illuminate the essential role played by religion in human culture since our origins. Suzanne writes from her own surprise at discovering the connection between the Montessori method for early childhood education and the hope for peace diagnosed by mimetic theory.
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Resurrection: Calculating the Probabilities
The end of the Gospel of Mark is, shall we say, indecisive. Mark’s account of the resurrection begins with the women going to anoint Jesus’ body and discovering the stone rolled away, Jesus’ body gone missing, and “a young man, dressed in a white robe” sitting in the tomb. This man tells them not to be alarmed, as if that’s possible under the circumstances, and announces that Jesus “has been raised.” The young man instructs them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Really? Our dead friend is arranging a meet-up via an angel-gram? I think I’d react the same way the women do in verse 8: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Here is the note that appears in my NRSV Bible at the end of verse 8, which is followed by one more verse, the so-called “shorter ending of Mark:”
Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.
I’m doubtful, too, but not because no one seems to know how the Gospel writer wanted to end his Gospel. But because doubt seems to be the reaction du jour. In the longer ending, we find out that the women break their silence, but those who are “mourning and weeping” for Jesus “would not believe it.” Mark tells us Jesus appeared to “two of them, as they were walking in the country.” But when they “told the rest,” again “they did not believe them.” This is completely understandable because resurrection cannot be considered part of normal experience, no matter what century you are living in. And yet the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection want us to believe in the reality of it, that Jesus appeared to them and they could experience his dead-yet-aliveness, normal human beings though they were.
Surprising Insights on Ukraine in the New York Times
The news coverage of international conflicts can be very disappointing from a mimetic perspective. When conflicts escalate into violence as in Syria or the Ukraine, news outlets rush to cover the hostilities. They give us the facts on the ground, or rumors thereof, accompanied by an almost mindless report of what each side is saying by way of self-justification. However, if you listen to their rhetoric with mimetically tuned ears, which happens after spending time here at Raven, you realize that their rhetoric is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Unfortunately, it is this “nothing” that usually makes the headlines.
Major outlets like the New York Times rarely give as good an analysis as my colleague Adam Ericksen did last week. Speaking of the crisis in Ukraine, Adam said that we often think conflict is the result of differences. But the truth is that rivals resemble each other in often surprising ways. They are in conflict because they share the same desires and so are locked in a competition for something that they cannot or will not share. In the case of the conflict over Crimea, the “thing” is not the region but power and prestige. Adam explains:
Russia’s desire for power is mimetic, or imitative, and modeled on its rival for power, the United States. Russia wants what the United States has — the prestige of being a global super power — and Russia is willing to use the same methods that the United States has used to gain and sustain that prestige — violence.
Attn SBNR: Biblical Violence Matters to Peace
It baffles me when people who are deeply concerned about peace and peacemaking define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In pursuit of personal and/ or global peace, they shun organized religion in favor of indigenous spirituality. Celtic music, eastern spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation, and the Native American relationship with nature all seem so attractive and obviously non-violent. I actually have nothing against any of those expressions of spirituality – allow me to offer as proof the trip my husband and I will be taking in July. We will be touring Northern Ireland to enjoy the “storytelling, music, art and peace” of Celtic culture “ancient and new. Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Normally this sort of description would not entice me. It sounds vaguely new age-y, all too “spiritual but not religious.” So why am I going? Because one of the tour leaders is my friend and brilliant cultural critic, the founder of the Wild Goose Festival, Gareth Higgins. Gareth understands that alternative forms of religiosity and spirituality are a necessary part of the revival of Christianity that is going on today, but he also understands that without “religion,” the pursuit of peace is at a serious disadvantage.
I am aware that such a claim runs counter to the primary reason many people give for being spiritual but not religious. They blame religion for violence and war, and there is no denying that many people have killed in the name of their beliefs. Somehow those who abandon organized religion believe that the cure for violence is to purge themselves of religious texts and doctrines that have any reference to violence in them. Why read the Old Testament or believe in a God who requires the death of an innocent victim to be reconciled to us? How could that possibly lead to a more peaceful world?
Why Arizona’s Anti-LGBTQ Law Was Religious But Not Christian
Arizona has been in the news because of an attempt to get a law on the books that would give Christian business owners the right to refuse products or services on religious grounds. Many commentators feared it would create a right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. A robust debate has ensued around the question of whether it is Christian to refuse service for any reason or more Christian to serve everyone without qualification. It’s a good debate and it has revolved around the interpretation of certain Biblical texts – the so-called “clobber texts” and whether they condemn homosexual behavior; the call to be neighborly and love our enemies and whether that includes a bit of tough love now and then. My view was well explained by Benjamin Corey – I’m on the love everyone, no exceptions side of this debate with Ben. To my way of thinking, the law was very un-Christian and I’m glad that Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign it .
But despite Ben Corey’s eloquence and my agreement with him, we didn’t really settle anything. These verbal jousting matches about whose interpretation of Christianity is more true, important as they are, don’t go deep enough. I’d like to introduce a historical element by looking closely at what religion is and how it has functioned in human history. The question I want to ask is not whether it’s Christian to exclude someone but whether it is religious. I’d like to make the case that the answer is yes, it is religious, and propose that Christianity, and any religion that emphasizes the unity of humanity over our differences, is therefore not a religion like other religions. Christianity is therefore more radical than most of its adherents realize.
NBC’s 'Parenthood:' When the Winning Strategy is Losing
The writers of Parenthood, the popular NBC family drama, use an interesting device to dramatize conflict. When two characters have a difference of opinion their exchange begins in measured, even tones. One person talks, while the other listens. Then the second person talks, while the first one listens. But as their disagreement heats up, the exchange gets faster and faster until no one is listening and both characters are talking over each other so loud and fast that it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are saying. This clip is typical. It’s an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend, Mark, over whether or not she will be able to keep her promise to attend a weekend getaway with him.
Sex and Violence Go to Church: Breaking the Habits of Machismo
Sojourners is offering an important opportunity for Christian churches to examine their attitudes towards women. Following up on an article by Michelle A. Gonzalez entitled “Breaking the Habits of Machismo,” Gonzalez and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, will conduct a live video discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 12 to “discuss what the Bible really says to encourage, affirm, and empower women and girls in their call to be leaders.”
Judging from Gonzalez’s article, this conversation will focus on what it means to affirm that both men and women are created in God’s image. She begins her article with the Common English Bible translation of Genesis 1:27: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Though she points to important changes taking place in Christianity today, Gonzalez traces the legacy of Christian thinking on womanhood that has elevated men and devalued women, instilling “habits of machismo” in our churches and our culture that are difficult to break.
But break them we must, Gonzalez argues, if we want to free both our theology and our practice from “male-oriented power structures.” Amen, sister. Because this is about more than equal employment opportunities for women in church administrative structures, of whether we are allowed to “preach, lead from the altar, celebrate communion, administer rites, pastor congregations, or teach.” What’s at stake in this conversation is whether Christians — and I think this is a call to American Christians in particular — whether American Christians are willing to dismantle a long-held justification for violence against women, not just in our country, but around the world. Gonzalez herself points out that patriarchal “attitudes can lead to greater violence against women, such as we see in the increasing exploitation and attacks on young women and how social media is used to perpetuate and document these horrific acts,” but this is her only nod to the issue of gender-based violence. Let’s add to the picture a look at the violence perpetrated by men against female bodies that has become to typify conflict zones around the world.
David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness
In his New York Times column, “ Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.
So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:
There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.
Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.
Watching Super Bowl Ads with the Little Prince: From Delusion to Freedom
There’s an absurd character in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who reveals more about our capacity for self-delusion than we might want to admit. He’s called the King and when it comes to desire, he is as deluded about his own power as we are about ours. The King’s delusion is this: he believes that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars are the result of his commands. That’s right – the sun rises and sets because the King commands it to be so. Our delusion is nearly identical: we believe that we are the source of our desires, that they arise and fall at our command. Because of our shared delusions, we and the King are quite out of touch with reality. Remarkably, the cure for us is also the same – spending some quality time with the Little Prince.
God, Santa, Gifts and a Story for Preschoolers
When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents hung our stockings up at the beginning of Advent. Each morning, my younger sister and I would run down to the rec room to see if Santa had left us anything during the night. Finding an empty stocking was a huge relief, because the only reason Santa would leave us anything before Christmas was if we had been bad. Bad children would get a warning, you see. An onion or turnip swelling the stocking’s toe meant we were on probation and we had better shape up before Christmas or we’d end up on the naughty list.
This put the fear of God, er, Santa in me, I can tell you! When it happened to me (and it happened a lot — I reigned over my younger sister with the zeal of a tyrant!), I would rack my brain to figure out what I had done the day before that had garnered Santa’s judgment. Sometimes I knew what it was and I’d apologize for it and promise to do better, but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d done wrong and that was the worst of all. How can you fix something when you don’t quite know what needs fixing? I would worry and fret until Christmas morning. My stocking filled with candy and the presents under the tree were a relief, tangible evidence that in Santa’s estimation, I was a good girl. At least good enough to stay off the naughty list!
A Very Cheney Thanksgiving
I sympathize with the Cheney family this Thanksgiving. Siblings arguing with each other and claiming that Dad is on their side — geez, sounds too familiar for comfort. I have four siblings and when we were kids we were a rough and tumble pack, openly vying for our parents’ approval. We relished ratting each other out. The fickle finger of accusation waving wildly, we’d shout things like “She started it!” “It was his idea!” or “I told her you’d be mad!” Oh, we had a million ways to stay in our parents’ good graces.
You’d think it all might have been about avoiding punishment, and I guess that was part of it. But even though our parents can’t ground us anymore, we tend to search their faces as if we were contestants awaiting our score on Dancing With the Stars. Now we tease each other about who is in the No. 1 spot at any given moment, and how it shifts with a good deed done or misstep in our duty as loving offspring. (FYI, I am taking my parents to see A Christmas Carol at the Drury Lane Theater near Chicago and making them a prime rib dinner afterwards. That should vault me to No. 1 for a week or two!)
The holidays are a perfect arena for this sort of combat and we can take some small comfort that even the Cheneys are not immune. But their problems are not quite like ours, because they are a public family and their disputes have political ramifications. Who wins the Cheney dinner table argument about marriage quality is not just about their family. It resonates through Republican politics and if Liz Cheney becomes their next senator, it may be about Wyoming families as well. But in another way, this family rivalry is like any other because it’s not just about politics. Mary Cheney and her wife, Heather Poe, who have two children together, feel betrayed by Liz. As Heather posted on Facebook: “Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 – she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us.”
In Search of the Real Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin was caught on video venting his rage against a photographer and using a homophobic slur. I actually don’t follow Alec on Twitter or keep up with celebrity news on TMZ, but apparently he’s put similar slurs in writing. In this case, however, he denies using a homophobic slur, saying he is being misquoted. And as proof that he is not homophobic, in fact just the opposite, he points to his work on behalf of marriage equality with GLAAD. In defense of his actions in the video, he insists he was only defending his family’s privacy — in the video we can clearly hear him shouting at the photographer to stay away from his wife and his baby. Here’s a brief excerpt from his blog post in which Baldwin expresses his desire to protect his family and neighbors from media harassment:
I am concerned for my family. In Bloomberg's New York, forty or fifty paparazzi are allowed to block streets, inconvenience homeowners, workers and shoppers, and make life miserable for my neighbors. Photographers have tripped and fallen on babies in strollers on my block. They have nearly struck my wife in the face with microphones. They provoke me, daily, by getting dangerously close to me with their cameras as weapons, hoping I will react. When I do, the weapon doubles as a device to record my reaction. And then, apparently, I lose every time.
And here’s what the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan had to say. He is among many who called for accountability from Baldwin, GLAAD and his current employer MSNBC. (At this writing MSNBC has suspended Baldwin’s show for two weeks.) Here’s what Sullivan said:
Look: Baldwin’s anger… was thoroughly merited. But he continually resorts to this kind of homophobic poison when he’s angry. Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is. (Emphasis in original)
So which is it? Is Baldwin a raging (literally) homophobe or is he a decent guy protecting his family and neighbors? Whenever I encounter an either/ or choice like this, I know I am in the presence of a possible scapegoating incident for three reasons.
Are Sinners 'Hellbound?'
This year we are presenting the Raven Award on Nov. 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:
Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how?
Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal suffering?
These questions have corollaries, of course:
Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how?
Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?
Drones and Terrorism: Is the U.S. Scapegoating Al Qaeda?
Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?
With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:
[continued at jump]
Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Nadia Bolz-Weber
One odd way that we all keep up with the Kardashians is in the extraordinary effort we put into maintaining our own personal “brand”. The reaction of Khloe to recent allegations of drug addiction against her husband, NBA player Lamar Odom, is a Kardashian case in point. In reporting on this newsworthy event (sarcastic sigh), Huff Post speculated as to why Khloe was continuing with business as usual, posting “booty shots” and making no reference to her husband’s problems. They asked, “Is the 29-year-old trying to avoid the harsh reality that her husband is struggling with drug abuse, or is she simply trying to keep up the family’s brand?”
Posturing like a Kardashian
We can all appreciate that Khloe might need some privacy from prying and judgmental eyes because you don’t have to be a Kardashian to want privacy when things go wrong. Who wants to be judged for our mistakes by gleeful critics and gloating rivals? When we err, we tend to hide our errors from others and all too often, from ourselves. We are as desperate to maintain our “brand” – our self-identities as flawless, perfectly good, failure-free paragons of virtue – as if we were the public face of a multi-million empire.
Advice on Syria from Gregory the Great
As I began my morning devotions on Tuesday this week, Syria was on my mind. No surprise, right? The debate about whether to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons is all over the news right now. Mostly folks are arguing about what actually happened and the larger geopolitical questions that a military strike involves, which are important and necessary issues. But here’s the question that was rattling around in my head as I turned to the day’s devotional readings on universalis.com: How does one respond to violence without becoming as guilty as the perpetrators you seek to punish?
Reza Aslan on Fox News: Punch, Counter-Punch
Are you feeling a bit smug about the way historian and author Reza Aslan out-debated Lauren Green on Fox News on Friday, July 26? The clip of the interview about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has become a YouTube sensation with almost 3 million views in four days and much of its popularity is due to liberals gloating over Lauren Green’s obvious embarrassment at being out maneuvered on her own show. From her opening question it was clear she was itching for a fight.
Here’s her opening salvo: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” This was less a question than an accusation. A Muslim, she seemed to be saying, who is writing about Christianity must have an agenda and we all know what that is – to destroy Christianity! She followed up for the first 5 minutes of the interview with questions that simply cited others making the same accusation, cynically pandering to her audience with what she hoped would be a knock-down, drag out boxing match in which she would put this arrogant Muslim masquerading as a “scholar” in his place. To her chagrin and the delight of liberals everywhere, Aslan came prepared for battle.
Aslan defended himself against her accusation of bias with a clever feint. He redirected her attack by agreeing that of course, he is a Muslim, but that is not the critical component of his biography. Here’s his answer to her opening question as I transcribed it: “To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament, fluency in biblical Greek who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades who also just happens to be a Muslim. It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” He mentions his credentials four more times during the interview. His point? How could you accuse me of having a hidden agenda when I am an academic scholar only interested in the facts? Historians, he wants Ms. Green and all of us to believe, are bias-free pursuers of the truth. The unspoken accusation is that Ms. Green is not interested in the truth and is in fact the one with the agenda, which is to destroy Islam and defend Christianity against any and all attacks.
The Forgiving Corpse: A Parable
How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.
Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!
July 4th and the Table of Demons
On July 4th I will be attending the annual party at my son and daughter-in-law’s home. They will be serving up smoked chicken and spare ribs while fireworks from neighboring towns inscribe a nearly 360° circle around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, one member of my family will not be with us: my sister the Jehovah’s Witness. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the trouble with patriotism is twofold: 1) it tempts us to equate God and nation, and 2) it provides a sacred cover for violence.
God and nation are not the same, my sister believes. When a government’s demands come into conflict with God’s, Witnesses obey God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service to others and that the early Christians refused to become soldiers and fight in wars. In emulation of that dedication to serve God and not governments, Witnesses not only refuse to celebrate national holidays but they are conscientious objectors to military service.
Paula Deen: Scapegoat du Jour?
The brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, the Food Network star accused of tolerating a racist atmosphere in the kitchen of one of her restaurants, has sent my scapegoat antennae vibrating. Folks are lining up on opposite sides of the issue, to either defend or condemn this Queen of a Southern cooking financial empire. Dropped by the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, and now Walmart, and with a Facebook page populated by supporters, Paula Deen’s accusers and defenders are facing off like battalions on a battlefield. Extreme polarization like this is a symptom that scapegoating is underway, so I suggest everyone take a deep breath and back away from the deep fat fryer while I offer a few scapegoating observations.
The Verdict is Already In
Polarization is not about a search for truth. Polarization indicates that each side believes it is in possession of the truth and is running on overdrive, panting with the effort of making their accusation stick. “Paula Deen is a racist!” shout her accusers. “Why do you hate Southerners?” counter her defenders. No matter which side you are on, you are steadfastly, undeniably certain that you are in the possession of the truth and on the side of good.
Brazilians and Football: From Passion to Protest
Brazil and the World Cup are in the news now, but not in the way that pleases the Brazilian government. Crowds are gathering in the streets around football (soccer) stadiums where Confederation Cup games are being played but not to buy tickets or get autographs of their sports idols. They are congregating to protest against the 2014 World Cup coming to Brazil. Brazilians protesting football? Upset about hosting the World Cup? Something has gone seriously wrong. This is like the French boycotting wine or Italians accusing pasta of undermining family values.
Even Americans, confused as we are about why the rest of world insists on calling soccer “football,” know that the outcome of a football match can launch an entire nation into elation or despair. But no matter the sport, fans around the world follow the same emotional pattern: they are up when their team is up and down when they are down. World Cup championships played out on a global stage provide the winning nation with an outsized cathartic event for the pent up frustrations that accumulate with the stress and strains of daily life. And even without streets clogged with protestors, if you are a football fan living in one of Brazil’s major cities, the typical daily grind is almost unbearable. Here’s an account from an Al Jazeera reporter who lives in Brazil:
It is 8am and a bunch of people line up to get on a bus on Faria Lima Avenue in Sao Paulo. This may be their third transfer in the daily ordeal of travelling to work from the outskirts of Sao Paulo. When the bus slows down, people start to nudge right or left, hoping not to be left behind. Once they get on, it is so full that finding a little space to stand is only for the truly crafty.
After a one-hour journey through the infamous Sao Paulo traffic and pothole-ridden roads, crammed in with 100-plus people, it feels more like a ride on a rodeo horse than a means of transportation — all at a cost of 3.20 Brazilian Reals ($1.50) and your dignity.