What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.

Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

It’s not that “ISIL is not Islamic;” it’s that ISIL shouldn’t be called ISIL at all

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the social media world surrounding Obama’s statement that “ISIL is not Islamic.” If they’re called the “Islamic State,” the argument goes, doesn’t that make them “Islamic”? But that logic seems a bit absurd. Is West Boro Baptist Church a church? Is it Baptist? Baptists are, generally-speaking, Christians. Are the members of West Boro Christian? After all, they’re technically using the same holy book as Christians. And they are steeped in much of the same language Evangelical Christians use. But most Christians would distance themselves from a “church” that protests at military funerals. Some might even argue that Christians don’t share the same holy text with West Boro, since the passages that are most important to West Boro focus solely on wrath and vengeance. It’s as if they’re working with a different “canon within a canon” that everyone else is using.

Of course, if we decide that West Boro is Christian, just an extremist version of Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that West Boro isn’t cutting off anyone’s heads or surrounding anyone’s towns until they starve. If they were, would they still be Christian extremists? At what point does an extremist view of an ideology become a separate ideology altogether? Moreover, who decides when that line has been crossed? To confess an ideology in name only, while simultaneously doing the opposite of what most people come to expect from that ideology, seems a good reason to call it something else.

And in fact, if I have a beef with Obama saying “ISIL is not Islamic,” the beef is that we shouldn’t allow “ISIL” to call themselves “the Islamic State” in the first place. I’ve written about this before when pointing out the dangers of letting extremist groups like the “Taliban,” or the “students,” or the “Shabaab,” or “the youth,” hijack language without a fight that counters their use of that language. George Bush was actually good at this when he employed terms like “evildoers.” So, why not call them something else – something that more accurately depicts what they’re doing? We’ve gone from “ISIS” to “ISIL” to “IS” anyway and all in deference to what the extremists are choosing to call themselves.

And just as we have the power to call them what we want to call them, I think it’s worth noting whose responsibility it is to deal with them. That is, while I reject the notion that West Boro Baptist is a Christian church, it’s very much a Christian problem. And an American problem. Because those are the cultural contexts that birthed West Boro. If a child in a family does something terrible, the family has two choices: either disown the child or bring the child into line. In the case of West Boro, I’d argue they’re already disowned in that most Christians would not associate themselves as being “brothers and sisters” to the members of West Boro unless those members indicated a desire to change their ideology. So, too, if a group is extremist enough, sometimes you have to go beyond merely disowning them in name and find a way to remove them from society or from harming others, as well. Similarly, the “Islamic State” is, to me, both an Islamic problem and a Western problem. Because those are the cultures that birthed this form of extremism. To say “ISIL is not Islamic,” is the clarification – in case anyone needed it – that they have been disowned. Now comes the harder task of removing them from society so they can harm no more. And maybe it’s best to begin this task by disempowering them from the very language they might use to describe themselves, especially when that language is the opposite of who they really are.