'Deflategate' and How Not to Scapegoat Tom Brady

Joseph Sohm /

Tom Brady playing with the New England Patriots against the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. Joseph Sohm /

This isn’t just about Tom Brady. As much as I may hate the guy, he and I have some things in common. Rhoden is pointing to a crisis that all humans face. No matter how successful we appear, we all face the same existential lack of being. I can have all the success and money in the world, but I will still feel an emptiness in my soul.

Why do we experience this lack of being? Because we are constantly comparing ourselves with others. This comparison leads us to believe that we aren’t enough, that we lack something within ourselves, and so we try to obtain something that will fill the void within our soul.

Rape Culture on College Campuses: Advice for Survivors

arindambanerjee /

2014 rally in remembrance of the 2012 gang rape in India. arindambanerjee /

Have you ever blamed yourself for some horrible thing that happened to you? When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, I immediately started to wonder what I had done to cause my body to betray me like that. Maybe I’d eaten the wrong foods or not taken good enough care of my health – I know it wasn’t exactly logical, but I needed to find a cause and “me, myself, and I” turned out to be a convenient target. Thank God that my pastor, now of blessed memory, responded forcefully. “Don’t even go there,” he said, shutting me down before I’d gotten more than a few words out of my mouth. “You are not to blame.” He told me that bad things happen sometimes for no good reason and I should focus on my healing and not waste energy blaming myself. That was that for me. I trusted him so much that I stopped blaming myself right then and there.

A Culture of Victim Blaming

What does this have to do with victims of rape on college campuses? Rape is a really, really bad thing and rape victims desperately want to understand why this awful thing happened to them. The news coming out of college campuses seems full of accusations and rumors of college women being victimized by their classmates. Just as I did after my cancer diagnosis, victims can make the same mistake I did and blame themselves. It doesn’t help that too often the response they get from the culture around them blames them too. The term “rape culture” is being used because it conveys that the problem of rape is compounded after the assault when victim suffering is denied and perpetrators excused. What rape victims need – especially young, vulnerable college-age women – is a response as forceful and believable to them as my pastor’s was for me. To their credit, college campuses are wrestling with finding the right combination of policies and responses to convey loud and clear, “You are not to blame.”

Counseling services and the formation of student support groups on campus have gone a long way toward removing the stigma of blame from victims. And many campuses have for years honored the risk of post-traumatic responses by including so-called “trigger warnings” on syllabuses. These warnings alert students to reading assignments, movies, or discussions that might trigger a post-traumatic response. Students can choose to opt out of those classes and/or assignments, which goes a long way toward honoring their stories and demonstrating concern for their wounds. Survivor groups have also reacted strongly when other types of triggers are not acknowledged appropriately by the university. For example, a debate on the Brown University campus about the term “rape culture” included one panelist who was likely to criticize the term, which ignited protests from a student group seeking to make the campus a safe place for rape victims. The university agreed to create a safe place on campus for victims to recover from the trauma of having their viewpoints “invalidated.”

When the Way of Jesus Doesn’t Work: Finding Peace with a Divided Self

eyeretina /

eyeretina /

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.”

4 Things You Need to Know About Terrorism and Religion

Cycle of violence, marekuliasz /

Cycle of violence, marekuliasz /

After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence. What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:

1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble, or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats, and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.

Thanksgiving and a Theology of Despair

tomertu /

tomertu /

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.

In Search of the Real Alec Baldwin

Photo courtesy of TMZ

Alec Baldwin chases down a photographer. Photo courtesy of TMZ

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.

Strange Fire: John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, the Holy Spirit, and the Satan

Illustration of the Holy Spirit flame, AridOcean /

Illustration of the Holy Spirit flame, AridOcean /

I first heard about the Strange Fire controversy when my Twitter feed started tweeting up a storm on Monday. The drama centered on a confrontation between two conservative mega church pastors, John MacArthur and Mark Driscoll. Most of my Twitter friends are theological liberals, and we liberals love it when our conservative brethren get in fights.

Woo-hoo! A scandal! 

This scandal, like most scandals, was overblown. Driscoll says that MacArthur and his people were “gracious that they let me on campus at all.” What was Driscoll doing “on campus?” He crashed MacArthur’s conference on the Holy Spirit called Strange Fire to meet with people and hand out free copies of his upcoming book, A Call to Resurgence, which has a chapter on the Holy Spirit. Conference officials told Driscoll he had to stop, and so he did. Driscoll’s books ended up in the hands of conference officials. The drama between the two has to do with whether Driscoll gave the books as a gift to the conference or if conference officials confiscated them.

Like all scandals, the drama distracts us from what really matters, which is the conference theme. The work of the Holy Spirit is vitally important for Christians, yet the Holy Spirit is usually treated like the ugly stepchild of Christian doctrine. (No offense to ugly stepchildren.) I think MacArthur radically misunderstands the Holy Spirit. The conference website provides an overview of its mission, which will help me explain his misunderstanding:

Paula Deen: Scapegoat du Jour?

photo by Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway,

Paula Deen at Bristol Motor Speedway, photo by Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway,

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.

Justin Bieber at the Anne Frank House: Our Addiction to Scandal

Justin Bieber performs on the Today Show at Rockefeller Plaza. Photo courtesy Debby Wong/

On Saturday, the pop culture icon Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam while on a world tour. At the end of his visit to the museum, Bieber wrote a message in the guest book.

His three-sentence message has become Big News. Sunday afternoon I checked my Huffington Post app and discovered this headline on the homepage, “Fury Erupts over Bieber’s Obnoxious Anne Frank Comment.” On Monday morning, the scandal was front page news on, “Justin Bieber Gets Blasted for Anne Frank Comment.” The New York Times reports that Bieber’s comment “set off a maelstrom of criticism.”

What did Bieber write in the guestbook?