The scapegoat in Benghazi

cc photo “Goat” by Edwin IJsman

On news that the United States ambassador to Libya was murdered, many are questioning how and why such a terrible thing could happen. Various answers have been put forth, ranging from the religious to the political, but each attempt merely looks at a single aspect of the killing, not the whole. In trying to come to a better understanding of the situation, I believe René Girard can be of some help.

Girard’s most famous theory, that of mimetic desire, says that we do not desire things simply because we desire them, but because others desire the same thing. We mimic those around us, which leads to violent impulses and the war of “all against all”.1

“The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them”

In many cases this mimetic desire results in the formation of an angry mob. “Every time you add one,” Girard has said, “the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” As more people join, as the media reports on it, as more people are talking about it the mob gains momentum.

At this point the violent impulses must be suppressed. A victim must be found and punished, what Girard calls the scapegoat2, an accessible target of the mob’s violence whose death (or expulsion) restores balance to the community. The scapegoat is not referred to as such, in the eyes of the mob it is the actual source of the problems, because the larger object of violence is often unreachable.

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (chapter 12), Girard says:

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the
anger.

In the case of the riots in Libya, could we say the American embassy was the scapegoat? The rioters, angry over blasphemy against Muhammad, saw America as the enemy but could do little against a far away nation. The ambassador and embassy building represent America and are therefore suitable outlets for violence.

The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other

This seems to be at the root of the type of violence we see in Egypt and Libya. Sure, we can look at religious answers or we can look at the geo-political issues surrounding the violence, but neither of those go deep enough. The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other and restore harmony to our community.

Finally, I think it would be good to caution against creating a scapegoat of our own in our desire to understand this. We can look at someone like Terry Jones, who enjoys inciting religious violence, and label him a crazy. Because we only are interested in self-righteous condemnation, he and his small group of followers thus become our scapegoat. Ultimately, we haven’t actually moved forward.

Update: This post was written immediately after the attack, before all of the details were known. It is now clear this was an intentional attack, not a spontaneous one. The point still stands, I believe, no matter what the impetus for the attack.
 


[1]: I am indebted to John H.’s post at Curlew River here.

[2]: For the Christian, or anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the scapegoat is a familiar idea. See Leviticus 16.

Another Study in Contrasts: Thomas Merton and Tim Tebow

If you are an evangelical right now, you DESPERATELY want to be Tim Tebow.

Tim Tebow is currently the quarterback for the Denver Broncos (or rather–was the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  Now that the Broncos have signed Peyton Manning, it is yet to be determined which team Tebow will play for in the future).  He attracted lots of attention nationally when he stepped up as the starter this year and led Denver to several wins and a strong showing in the playoffs.

Tim Tebow played quarterback at Florida from 2006 to 2009.  He helped lead Florida to two national championships in those years, and he captured the hearts and imaginations of people throughout the Southeast–Florida fans or not–through his nice guy demeanor.

Evangelicals have fallen head over heels in love with Tim Tebow.  Why?  Because he is successful–and he is unabashedly one of us.  He is someone in the public eye whom we can point to and say, “Look!!!  It works!!!  We’re right!!!  We win!!!”

Evangelicals are completely and totally infatuated with this sort of celebrity–the more public the better, and the more outspoken about his faith, the better.  The current Jeremy Lin lovefest is a case in point.

I could say a lot of things about this sort of celebrity, the long and short of it would be to say that it is completely and totally overrated by evangelicals.  But I won’t.  Instead I will direct your attention to a different sort of Christian celebrity.  If you paid attention to the title of this post, you know where I am going here.

Thomas Merton was a Christian, just like Tim Tebow.  Like Tebow, he was very well-known and had tremendous influence both in Christian culture and in the outside world when he was at the peak of his fame.  Like Tebow, he was very public about his faith and how his faith informed his life.

But once you get past these things, you will see that there is a world of difference between Thomas Merton and Tim Tebow.

Merton was a writer.  He wrote voluminously and deeply on the inner life.  As a monk, he had tremendous amounts of time to mine the inner depths of his being.  He desired to see all believers become attuned to the inner depths of their beings and not settle for living life on the surface.  He raved constantly against the “false self” that so many live with, an illusory person who desires to exist outside the reach of God’s love–ergo, outside of reality and outside of life.

But so much of evangelicalism–and especially the celebrity culture that evangelicalism loves to look up to–exists on the surface.  So much of the hype about Tebow and Jeremy Lin has to do with external activities and external commitments.  Tebow may have a very rich inner life just like Thomas Merton.  But if he does we don’t know.  And in the present evangelical milieu, it just doesn’t matter.  All we care about is what this guy believes–or at least professes to believe, what he does on Sunday morning, and what he does during his summers.  And the fact that he is a successful NFL quarterback–AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And that’s really all we care about.  We don’t care to hear what he would say about the state of his soul, or the state of our own souls.  We don’t care to hear any critique Tim Tebow would make–if he were ever inclined to make such a critique–of our false selves and our propensity to live on the surface and idolize the superficial.  And that is only to our detriment.

Andrew’s Story: Could This Happen at Your Church?

UPDATE:  In light of comments that recently appeared on Pat Kyle’s blog, it appears there is more to Andrew’s story than meets the eye.  Oh well.  Good thing I gave the disclaimer that we were only getting one side of the story from the accounts of Andrew’s story that were in circulation when this first went up.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  The church in question has released two leaders in the wake of the media attention brought on by Andrew’s story.  According to their statement, the leaders had a pattern of overstepping their authority and were released because of matters unrelated to Andrew’s story.

Today we are going to hear Andrew’s story.

Andrew’s story has been all over the Christian blogosphere the past couple of days.  It is a heartbreaking, tragic tale of church discipline gone monumentally awry at a nationally known church.  A more descriptive version of Andrew’s story is presented in two installments at the blog of Matthew Paul Turner:  Part 1, and Part 2.  (I will not mention the name or location of the church in question.  You know this church.  You know where it is.  You know who the pastor is.  Bashing this church and/or its pastor is something of a sport in some parts of the Christian blogosphere, and I do not want to get into that here.  If you need to know, read the Matthew Paul Turner posts.)

This story will grab a hold of your heart and not let go.  At least, that is the effect it has had on me.  Partly because it leads me to wonder:  Could this happen at my church?  Could this happen to me?  Partly because it leads me to consider my own relational failings and the adverse effect they have had on people I loved very much.  But most of all, because my heart breaks for this poor soul who has suffered so much at the hands of the Church. Continue reading

Thomas Merton: Before We Can Become Gods We Must Be Men

I took up running a couple of years back.  My attitude toward running prior to this was, quite simply:  “If monsters are chasing me then I’ll run.”  But a couple of years ago I came to the realization that there are some pretty fast monsters out there, and so I had better start training or else I could very well end up as monster food.

I love to run because it gets me into the outside world.  There my experience of life and of the world is not mediated by a climate-controlled building or the windshield of my car.  For so many people, their experience of the outside world–the heat of summer or the cold of winter or the time in between–is limited to the time they are going from their house to their car or their car to their office or vice versa.

As a society, we have made the choice to throw ourselves upon the mercy of technology.  The technological advances of the past few centuries have made our lives much easier in many respects, but I believe that they have made us less human because they have cut us off from the world and from life.  Who needs to be mindful of the rhythms of day and night when we have lights by which to see at all hours of the night?  Who needs to be mindful of the rhythms of summer, fall, winter, spring when we live, work, and play in climate-controlled buildings and get to wherever we are going in climate-controlled vehicles?  Who needs to be mindful of the vast distance between one side of our country and the other when you can hop a plane and get from one side to the other in only a few hours?

But is this the life we were created for?  Somehow I have a hard time believing that it is.  I need to be in touch with the world, to know the streets of the city because I have felt them pounding beneath my feet, to know that it is summer, fall, winter, or spring because I have seen it and felt it on my skin.

In short, I run to feel human.  I run to be human.

Thomas Merton echoes more or less the same sentiment in the quote which I am about to share with you.  This quote is taken from Seasons of Celebration.

Merton laments the rise of a technology-based society, and its potential to cut us off from the rhythms of the natural world, of day and night and of the seasons.  He laments the fact that modern life is no longer aware of these seasonal cycles and patterns but is instead “a linear flight into nothingness”.  In order to progress in our spiritual development, the first thing that must happen is that we must recover our connection with the world through our connection with the cycles and patterns of nature.  In short, “before we can become gods we must first be men.”

The modern pagan, the child of technology or the “mass man,” does not even enjoy the anguish of dualism or the comfort of myth. His anxieties are no longer born of eternal aspiration, though they are certainly rooted in a consciousness of death. “Mass man” is something more than fallen. He lives not only below the level of grace, but below the level of nature—below his own humanity. No longer in contact with the created world or with himself, out of touch with the reality of nature, he lives in the world of collective obsessions, the world of systems and fictions with which modern man has surrounded himself. In such a world, man’s life is no longer even a seasonal cycle. It’s a linear flight into nothingness, a flight from reality and from God, without purpose and without objective, except to keep moving, to keep from having to face reality….

To live in Christ we must first break away from this linear flight into nothingness and recover the rhythm and order of man’s real nature. Before we can become gods we must first be men. For man in Christ, the cycle of the seasons is something entirely new. It has become a cycle of salvation. The year is not just another year, it is the year of the Lord—a year in which the passage of time itself brings us not only the natural renewal of spring and the fruitfulness of an earthly summer, but also the spiritual and interior fruitfulness of grace. The life of the flesh which ebbs and flows like the seasons and tends always to its last decline is elevated and supplanted by a life of the spirit which knows no decrease, which always grows in those who live with Christ in the liturgical year. “For though the outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. . . . For we know if our earthly house of this habitation be dissolved that we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” (II Cor. 4:16; 5:1)

God is in the Manger

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
(Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV)

There will likely be a Christmas party or get-together of some kind at your place of work.  Every church, Sunday School class and public school will have something to attend at this very special time of year.  There is family to visit and food to prepare.  I keep hearing “It’s the most stressful time of the year.”  Even if you’re keeping the Christ in Christmas there is so much to be distracted by.  There is peace and joy as the angels visit the shepherds.  The wise men brings precious gifts.  Our hearts go out to Joseph and especially Mary as they make their pilgrimage in faith to Bethlehem.  It is a tender, precious story of God’s love for mankind.  But don’t forget to look in the manger.

It’s not just a story of an unwed mother being particularly blessed.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of heaven touching earth.  Hebrews 1 is at the top of the page; take a look at Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  That’s not just a baby in the manger, that’s God.  Jesus said that he and the Father are one. Isaiah prophesied his name would be called “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Jesus is God, God is Jesus.  He left heaven to come here and do this.  When we could not come to God, he came looking for us.

If there is anything in your manger other than God himself, it’s time to re-evaluate.  He is not just bringing peace, he is our peace.  Emmanuel means God with us.  He is near; he is here.  God is in the manger.  This is good news for all people.

Two Ways to Celebrate Christmas

There are two ways to celebrate Christmas.

One is the world’s way.  This involves lights.  Lots of lights.  And music.  And decorations, usually red and green.  Many stores have had their Christmas decorations up for a while now.  Lenox Square, a mall located right in the heart of the Buckhead shopping district in Atlanta, GA, has had its Christmas decorations up ever since the first week of November.  Some stores are beginning to decorate for Christmas 2012.

Gifts are an essential part of the world’s celebration of Christmas.  You have to go out and buy lots of them.  Buy them for anyone and everyone who is of any acquaintance or relation to you whatsoever.  Why?  Because it’s what the stores want you to do.  It’s what keeps our economy afloat.

And don’t forget about parties.  The next few weeks are all going to be a blur of Christmas parties.  Friends, work, church, family, all having must-attend parties.  You will eat, drink, and be merry.  Your waistline will grow into something approximating the width of a large mountain.

With all the hustle and bustle and commotion of the season, you will work yourself up into a frenzy of anticipation.  And when Christmas finally does arrive, you will be all Christmas-ed out.  You will be left with nothing but a whopping pile of credit card debt from all the gifts you got, a whopping mound of weight to burn off in the new year from all the food you ate at all those Christmas parties, and a boatload of regret.  What is it that Christmas is supposed to be all about anyway?  Because whatever it is, you sure missed it.  Yet another Christmas has passed, and all you have to show for it is this boatload of gifts and decorations and credit card bills.

OR…..

You can celebrate Christmas the way the Church has historically celebrated it for the last several centuries.

For starters, they don’t even call it Christmas.  The Christmas season doesn’t even start until December 25.  It continues from there all the way through Epiphany, which falls on January 6.

The time prior to Christmas is called Advent.  This is a season of waiting.  We remember Israel as they waited for two-thousand-plus years for the coming of their Messiah, as we wait (for real) for Him to come again at the end of the age.

Advent puts us in a mood of anticipation.  We don’t celebrate Christmas prematurely like all the rest of the world.  We still go to all the parties and eat all the food and have all the fun.  We still do all the Christmas shopping and enjoy all the lights and decorations and other sights and sounds of the season.  But while we are doing all this, we give ourselves space to step back and quiet our souls.  To contemplate the darkness of our world, the darkness of a creation that awaits the coming of its Savior and Redeemer.  To anticipate the coming of our long-promised Savior, which we will celebrate in just a few weeks’ time.  And when Christmas does come, we are ready to start celebrating it, not all Christmas-ed out and wondering what the hell happened like the rest of the world.

Which way will you celebrate Christmas this year?

Happy Thanksgiving

"Cornucopia", CC photo by brownpau


Almighty God,
Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you
for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray,
give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages.
Amen

For All the Faithful Departed

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. –St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

For All The Saints

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

By William Walsham How.