For his final State of the Union address, President Obama delivered a characteristically eloquent and passionate speech. He issued a heartfelt call for unity and cooperation in a country whose political climate is just a few notches short of civil war. He asked us to consider how we might move forward as one nation, affirming our highest ideals rather than the hateful rhetoric of would-be despots.
Obama’s final State of the Union was in many ways a masterpiece of American political theater. He reminded us of the best of our tradition, calling us to live up to our history of welcoming the outsider and being a land of opportunity for all people. Despite the fact that this canonical history is to a great degree aspirational rather than actual, I was at many points uplifted to hear the president invite us to live into the more beautiful aspects of the American Dream.
Semaj Clark is a determined young man. The Los Angeles teenager’s steadfastness helped him emerge from a childhood punctuated by a string of foster homes and arrests to become an ambassador to troubled youth. Now he’s determined to learn how to get around in his new wheelchair. And he’s resolute that his anti-violence campaign can take root anew in Savannah, Ga., where he’d taken that message of hope and transformation in October — only to find himself with a bullet in his spine.
There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine. Girard claimed that humans are mimetic — and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. Humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow. In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings.
Muhammad Ali aimed a powerful and impassioned message at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Dec. 9, saying that the recent global terrorism crisis has “perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
Ali became a Muslim and changed his name from Cassius Clay during the height of his career as one of the greatest boxers in history. His message came in a statement following a week in which Trump cast doubt on President Barack Obama’s assertion that several American “sporting heroes” practiced Islam.
“I am a Muslim, and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” Ali said.
Perhaps here is where we need John the Baptist most. He might turn to us and call us to ordinary acts of grace. He might call us to give what we have. He might call us to stay at our jobs and do them well. He might call us to the radical idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.
During this Christmas season, we expect to enjoy times of family and conviviality and joy. Such expectations have been shattered this year. We could throw our hands up in despair. We could lament over a shattered world. We could grieve those we have lost, the dreams that have been shattered. We could pray fervently for courage and hope. We could worship together and so resist the encroachments of death upon our lives. We could protest and march and demand change. We could call our representatives and demand action.
We should do all these things.
And as we do all these things, we should also live ordinary lives infused by the extraordinary call to love God and love neighbor.
John the Baptist is an irritant in the midst of Advent.
In the Gospel reading for this week in Luke 3:7-18, he is in the wilderness excoriating the crowds who came seeking baptism and repentance and deliverance.
“Who warned you…?,” John wants to know. Who told you to come out here? What did you think you would find? Who the crowds find is a fiery prophet of God, preaching judgment upon the injustice that permeates this world.
The British Parliament voted Dec. 2 to begin a bombing campaign in Syria in order to disrupt ISIS.
The vote took place after a contentious ten-hour debate in the House of Commons. Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments that those opposed to the bombing campaign are “terrorist sympathisers” hung in the background of the debate.
One of the most common criticisms of faith I have heard is this: if there is an all-powerful and loving God somewhere out there, why does this God allow horrible things to happen? In a world where there has always been war, sexual violence, starvation and murder, where is this omnipotent God? Why does he allow these things to happen? Where is she when people suffer injustice?
The Bible gives us plenty of examples of the abuses of the faithful, sometimes even at God's own hand (like in the book of Job). We read of the systemic oppression of the Jewish people and the early Christian church. Through this, God's people were always able to remain steadfast in their faith. Forming a defense of faith in God in the face of realized evil is known as theodicy.
So: In a nation where Blacks have been enslaved, lynched, and raped because of their race, and in time where people must declare that “black lives matter,” how do black Americans form their own theodicy to justify this violence, abuse, and systemic oppression?
And is it necessary to do so?
Given the terrorist attacks of the last few weeks, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit bleak about the human species, its frequent use of violence and its failure to negotiate solutions. We must be hard-wired for violence. Or perhaps “war is a force that gives us meaning,” as Chris Hedges put it in his 2002 book of the same title.
It turns out, however, that we’re evolutionarily wired not for violence but for cooperation.
"The vast majority of the people on the planet awake on a typical morning and live through a violence-free day — and this experience generally continues day after day after day," writes Douglas Fry.
"The real story should be the 13,748 gazillion times human beings default to cooperation and kindness!"
I’ve heard it said that you don’t know true love until you hold your baby for the first time. I hate that, for so many reasons. And I hate whoever has said it to me or anyone else. Hate it.
This may come as a shock, but I’ve got the slightest anger issue. It’s more accurate to say I didn’t know true anger until I became a mother.
There’s the daily anger, like slaving away in the kitchen for hours only to have people gag and demand crunchy toast and cookies to eat, while they scream and scratch their sister and slip on spilled water and cry for hours. There’s the hourly anger, like the struggle between wanting to check out and check e-mail in the face of little people wanting to play or needing to be disciplined.
On the morning of Oct. 26, a student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina was flipped out of her desk and tossed across the room by school resource officer Ben Fields.
Fields is already facing an outstanding lawsuit filed against him for "recklessly targeting African-American students with allegations of gang membership." But in 2014, Fields received a "Culture of Excellence" award for being "an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects."
The story of Job is one of the literary classics in the Bible. It is a story that tries to sort out why bad things happen to good people. It is a story that tries to make sense out of suffering. It is a story that concludes with an epic confrontation between Job and God. And it is a story that captures the isolation, the misunderstanding, and the feelings of abandonment.
Job’s friends and his wife are convinced that it is Job’s sin that has led to his misfortunes. That has a familiar ring to people trapped in violent and abusive relationships. “Why did you make him mad?” friends ask. “Why don’t you just leave?”
And inside the relationship, the abuser often threatens even greater harm if the victim tells anyone about what is happening. And if the victim decides to leave, the risk of violence increases, often with lethal consequences.
As Job said of God, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face!” (Job 23:8-9, 17)
Victims of domestic violence – both women and men as well as children – often feel isolated, abandoned by family and friends who are uncomfortable or afraid of the topic, trapped by religious traditions that stress male dominance and the indissolubility of marriage and feel forgotten by God. Job knew that feeling.
Displayed over a blurred image of Osama bin Laden, the headline on the cover of The New York Times Magazine for October 18 reads, “Do we really know the truth about his death? The mysteries of Attobad.”
Weirdly, the article is not an investigation of the truth about bin Laden’s death — it’s an investigation of other investigations. Jonathan Mahler decided to report on two competing narratives about the raid in Abbottabad. His article is a soul-searching reflection on how we can know which version of events is true, or if the truth about our government’s actions can ever be known at all.
After reading his article, it’s fair to wonder if we ever will. If our concern is to learn the facts of the raid, we may easily get lost in a tangle of facts and lies. But that is a truth in itself — a truth of how violence works to destroy the truth.
We need to state the obvious here: the subject of all this reporting is a death by violence. The subject of this story is not the truth. The subject is violence itself.
Three years ago, I was a U.S. State Department officer deployed to Turkey to work with the Syrian opposition. It was an amazing opportunity to support Syrian activists and civic leaders waging an improbable — yet remarkable — popular struggle, against a criminal regime that responded to peaceful protests with bullets and torture. For [the previous] eight months since the start of the revolution in March 2011, Syrian activists — Sunni, Christian, Kurdish, Druze, and Alawite — had used demonstrations, sit-ins, resistance music, colorful graffiti, online satire, and dozens of other nonviolent tactics to challenge the Assad regime. My task, along with that of my U.S. government and international colleagues, was to aid their efforts.
A year earlier, I co-wrote and published a book with Erica Chenoweth, called Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. In it, we tested the conventional wisdom that only violence works against formidable foes like dictatorships and foreign military occupations. In studying 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006, Erica and I found that nonviolent civil resistance was twice as successful as armed struggle — even against militarily superior opponents willing to use violence. We also found that nonviolent struggle helps consolidate democracy and civil peace.
Just as the Treaty of Versailles crushed the Germans after WWI to become the resentment stream [from which] the Nazis flowed, so the Sykes-Picot [Agreement] of the same time crushed the Muslim Middle East under colonialism, followed by dictatorships, then deepened by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We can all lament or question the necessary violence required to stop IS brutality. [But] many of our church traditions had blessed as “necessary” the waves of past violence that helped create the poisoned well [from which] the IS flows.
Turning to theology — Joseph, Elisha, and Jesus stood in similar rivers of death yet turned to life.
The emotional, physical, and spiritual violence that we inflict on one other is a sign that something is amiss in our world. A study from the World Health Organization paints the terrible truth that sex workers have a heightened risk of HIV. The sex and drug industry “tear up women and use them ‘til they throw them out" as Rev. Rebecca Stevens, Executive Director of Magdalene Ministries, says. Magdalene is a recovery program in Nashville, Tenn. for women who have histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Stevens has helped countless women get off the streets and put their lives back together. Yet there are so many more in need. It is clear that something is persistently bent on the annihilation of our bodies and souls. What can we say or do?
As Mariame Kaba of Project Nia notes, police violence is not simply just the killing of peoples. It includes the every day forms of harassment, surveillance, and profiling that support both gender and race hierarchies.
The campaign to #sayhername is not simply about remembering and organizing around black women and other women of color who have been killed by the police. It is about re-conceptualizing what police violence means. When we center women of color in our analysis, we see that police violence is much more than individual acts of police brutality. It is an entire system of harassment and surveillance that keeps oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place.
We are then left with the task of not just holding individual police officers to account, but re-conceptualizing what justice, safety, and accountability should be.
We have nurtured an enemy mentality that pits us against the world — even as we justify it by claiming to be a force for protection of the world. And the violence we export abroad is taking its toll on us. It’s been taking its toll on us for a long, long time — eroding our souls with every weapon made, let alone used, to destroy another child of God half a world away or right next door. How could a nation that spends more money than any other in the world on the military not be infected by a culture of violence? How can we spend billions on bombs and guns and drones and missiles while neglecting the necessary funds for education and housing and healthcare, and yet claim to respect life? How can our leaders instruct us to kill abroad and be surprised when we find no other way to handle our problems here at home? How can we demand respect for human dignity while we continually glorify violence that tears human beings apart? How can we respect life while waging death?
We live in a deadly world, and we keep making it deadlier. So we are afraid, and we cling to our guns, and when someone poisoned by the idolatry of violence fires one of those guns, fearful people cling ever more tightly to their guns. When our own government clings to its nuclear arsenal in the name of "deterrence," how can we expect anything less of citizens?
As long as we live in fear and glorify violence, we can’t be surprised that efforts for gun control go nowhere. Of course we need gun control, but we also need to control our addiction to the myth that peace can be waged through violence. I can’t think of any myth that has so thoroughly duped humanity as the satanic lie that peace can be bought from sacrifice — from murder and war. The notion of a war to end all wars, a permanent peace arising from the rubble of destruction and death, is so demonstrably false. The house divided against itself is our own world, and we cannot stand like this. Will we keep hurtling ourselves headfirst toward our own destruction, putting our faith in instruments of death?
Christians believe that Jesus definitively defeated the forces of evil. For Christians, faith is trusting that the way to defeat evil is the same way that Jesus defeated evil on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus was no Jedi. He didn’t use “good violence” to protect himself or others from the evil forces that converged against him. Nor did he run from evil. Rather, he defeated evil by entering into it, forgiving it on the cross, and offering peace to it in the resurrection.
Of course, many – even those who profess to follow him – think Jesus is absolutely crazy. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s true that following Jesus by responding to evil with nonviolent love is risky. After all, Christ was killed, as were his disciples. But fighting violence with violence is also risky and only perpetuates a mimetic cycle of violence.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by any civilized standards, represented one of the moral low-points in human history. After all, by very conservative estimates, 135,000 people died from the atomic blasts—most of them civilians, the victims of the intentional targeting of cities. Think about that—these weren’t military targets, but cities full of men, women, and children, going about their lives, destroyed in seconds by the most destructive weapons ever invented.
But the point of memorializing isn’t about the past. It’s about ensuring such things happen “never again.”
A gunman opened fire in a Lafayette, La., movie theater Thursday evening during a showing of Trainwreck, killing two and injuring nine, before turning the gun on himself, according to multiple news reports. Police say they know the identity of the shooter — described as a white, 58-year-old male — but are not yet releasing his name.