Thanos: The Apocalypse of Unprocessed Grief

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Thanos’s Core Grief

From the very beginning, Thanos’s plan seemed ridiculous to me. It was a significant hurdle for me to get over to get into the story of Avengers: Infinity War. Ultimately I did, of course, because it’s an amazing movie, and you have to get over logical problems to enjoy any superhero movie. I thought, OK, fine. They can’t just have Thanos want to kill trillions to impress Death, so I guess this is another reason. Balance in the universe. Whatever. Still a great movie.

Something struck me, though, when on Vormir Thanos said this: “I have ignored my destiny once. I will not do it again, even for you,” right before he murders his child for power. Then, it sealed the deal when Thanos explains what happened to Titan to Doctor Strange. His half-genocidal plan wasn’t listened to, and then somehow having a lack of food completely destroyed his planet and…killed everyone there? Ruined gravity? Again, don’t look too closely.

What struck me was that Thanos’s irrational plan was a lot like a lot of our irrational actions – it was rooted in unaddressed grief.

Thanos’s Grandiose, Idiotic Plan

Thanos’s plan is stupid. It’s the kind of stupid that is very human – he is fully able to rationalize it, but is unable to realize how irrational it actually is. Significant time is given, in Infinity War, to rationalizing Thanos’s plan. Apparently murdering half of the poeple on Gamora’s homeworld turned it into a paradise where everything is great. (I take this to be Thanos deluding himself, but it’s presented as a fact) After all, he’s been doing this to planets for what seems to be years. He has a whole system – the Maw even has a monologue.

In Endgame, we see a much more accurate depiction of the aftermath of such a horrific act. A whole planet, traumatized. That’s what Thanos’s plan does – it spreads trauma throughout the universe, multiplies his grief by Infinity. Thanos’s most human attribute is that he is so able to rationalize what he is doing, despite the pointless suffering it inflicts on others, and the fact that his grand plan will solve precisely zero of the problems he says he wants to solve.

Thanos Inflicting His Grief on the Universe

Thanos, driven by his own grief, is trapped in a cycle of inflicting grief on everyone around him. Whether it is his tortured “children” like Gamora or Nebula, or…every living thing in the universe.

“Hurt people hurt people”, and because Thanos refuses to have his hurt end with him, he ends up inflicting that hurt on everyone around him one way or another – mostly through genocide and torture, since he’s a supervillain, but in all of his relationships, in all of his plans, this hurt will be reiterated. On a smaller scale, this is something anyone could fall into, Mad Titan or no. Whatever hurt we don’t deal with on our own, we export. What we don’t come to terms with, we inflict on others, intentionally or not.

As a way to solve problems and achieve cosmic balance, Thanos’s plan is terrible. But as a very human character inflicting his pain on others, Thanos isn’t even unusual.

Don’t Be Thanos

I’m not an expert on grief – find a therapist. Talk to people you trust. Just commit to processing your own grief. Figure out the cycles that repeat in your life and change them. I’m saying as a geek who thinks that we can look to Thanos as an emblematic example of how, in Jung’s words,

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Or, in Thanos’s case, “I am inevitable.” He’s right, but not for the cosmic reasons he thinks. He’s inevitable because he is failing to take responsibility for himself, and ends up inevitably inflicting his grief on everyone else.

This Christmas, Baby Jesus Is Being Raped In A U.S. Concentration Camp

Matthew 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

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Mathew 25:31-33;41-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Let’s Be Clear

This Christmas, Jesus is being raped in a United States concentration camp. His parents came to the Untied States’ southern border, seeking asylum as protected by US and international law. They were captured, their child taken from them, and they were locked in cages in separate concentration camps. Presently in that concentration camp, held in cages with 15,000 other children taken from their parents, Jesus is being sexually abused by concentration camp staff. Mary and Joseph, panicked and sobbing and despairing of ever seeing their child again, are locked in cages a thousand miles away. There is no plan to release them, and there is no plan to reunite them with their traumatized son. He was taken as a baby, and does not speak English, and there are no careful records being kept, so it is unlikely he will ever see his parents again.

This. Is. WhoWe. Are. Now.

If you take the Bible seriously, then this is the conclusion you must come to. Why? For the first reason, which is that the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking asylum when their lives were in danger, and for the second reason, which is that Jesus says very clearly that how we treat the least among us is how we treat him. There are complex interpretive challenges when reading the Bible, but this is not one of them. This one is simple.

As I write this, filled with rage and disgust that has grown beyond words, I find that I have nothing else to say.

Merry Christmas.

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Prayer (Goodbye Zu-zu)

Tonight our hamster died, so I decided to tell a story about prayer.

When we first got our hamster, Zu-zu, my daughter was so excited. She was 6 at the time (now 7) and was just enamored with this little creature. We had seen her at the pet store that afternoon and gotten her on an impulse, as we tend to do. We go to the pet store because it cheers us up, and is something we can do for free, but sometimes we come home with a creature.

Not long after, Zu-zu escaped her cage in my daughter’s room right around bedtime (Zu-zu turned out to be an elite escape artist). We went through the entire upstairs part of our house, but to no avail – the hamster was nowhere to be found. My daughter was really upset at the loss of her new pet. Eventually, hours after bedtime, she fell asleep, still tearful. I felt a lot of sympathy, and also had my own situation to feel bad about – I had stood up two wonderful women from my church with whom I had a lunch date.

I tried all I could think of to contact the two of them and apologize, and try to find a way to make amends, but they weren’t responding. I felt miserable about it because these were two genuinely good people whom I had just failed. They were the kind of people who would be really hurt by this kind of thing, as well.

That night, upset on my daughter’s behalf, and on my own behalf, I prayed. Now, I have a well-documented ambivalence with regard to prayer. Suffering from depression and anxiety, I’d been told many times that I could just pray these things away. They were all in my mind, after all. If it wasn’t working, it was because I was a failure – not faithful enough, secretly evil, too full of doubt, whatever. And working in a hospital as a chaplain, I had seen plenty of good people pray and still suffer for no discernible moral or theological reason. Balance that with the many stories of answered prayers I’ve heard as a pastor and a Christian in general, as well as the painful stories of unanswered prayers.

But, anyway, I prayed. I prayed that we would find Zu-zu, and that my two friends from church would forgive me. I didn’t know what else to do, and even I pray when I’m desperate.

That night, my daughter had a dream. She woke my spouse and I up to tell us about it. In her dream, she found Zu-zu in her room, standing on her hind legs and cleaning her face and smiling at her. So I thought, OK. I went into her room, looked around for a while by the light of my cellphone, and there was Zu-zu, standing on her hind legs, cleaning her face with her little paws.

The next day, my two friends let me know that they forgave me, and we made new lunch plans.

Prayer is weird and doesn’t make any sense. When put to a rigorous test, it tends to fail, yet billions of people believe in its efficacy. I wrote a whole book about not praying, but there it is. I prayed, and that’s what happened.

I remember the flood of thankfulness that I felt, the wonder that things had turned out OK after all. And my 6 year old having a predictive dream about finding her hamster – that was genuinely weird. Yes, sure, she could have just seen her hamster while half-asleep, thought she dreamed what she had, and told us about it. The hamster was in the dark and behind a dresser, but sure. That’s what could have happened. And my two friends might have just chosen that day to let me know that they forgave me. Just a coincidence.

Prayer is like that. It’s frustrating.

Goodbye Zu-zu.

Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source? 

What is “Biblical” at the Border?

Here’s what I wrote for the church newsletter on the topic of what would be “Biblical” at our southern border. If you suddenly see a lot more blog posts in the near future, it’s because they ran me out on a rail, as my church includes plenty of Trump voters. We’ll see.

In our ongoing national argument over our borders and how to maintain them, there is a periodic claim on one side or another that a particular view is “Biblical.” This is often confusing or frustrating for me, because the Bible is a library, and contains dozens of different voices that we know about, spanning at least 1500 years of texts. To simplify a claim down to “Biblical” or “not Biblical” is possible, but difficult, and requires a lot more work than pop culture and cable news programs allow. More work, in fact, than this Perspective article allows, but I wanted to say something – to put my own thoughts in the mix, so to speak.

Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of those who followed after him included a great deal of boundary-crossing. He crossed geographical boundaries and social boundaries as well, naming enemies as neighbors worthy of giving and receiving love, and listening to those who were silenced by the people around them. At the same time, the Hebrew scriptures in particular have a lot to say about boundaries, borders, and their maintenance. In particular throughout Joshua, with references in Exodus and Proverbs and Ezekiel, there is the idea of the Promised Land, a land in which, within certain borders, God’s chosen people would be able to flourish.

I don’t want to focus on the boundaries themselves, however. In the Bible there are a number of texts, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that seem to say that God ordains and draws boundaries for the various peoples of the time. On the other hand, the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament have a large number of passages calling on people to cross boundaries and knock down walls – sometimes literal walls, usually metaphorical ones. One very consistent message of the Bible, however, from cover to cover, is how we are to treat people who cross our borders.

The Hebrew term that the Bible uses to describe people who cross borders is most often ger, a word that is translated into English as sojourner, alien, resident alien, refugee, immigrant, indigent person, wanderer, migrant, and stranger. The idea, put simply, is that of someone who is not from around here. In my reading, the overwhelming message of the Bible is that we are called by God to treat ger as neighbors, with every consideration we would have for someone we know well, who comes from where we come from. Just a few of many examples to consider:

  • Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 both say “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21 adds “You know the heart of the sojourner”)
  • Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “He (God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
  • Psalms 146:9: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
  • Matthew 25:27-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
  • Hebrews 13:1-2: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

These are just the briefest sampling of dozens of passages that have the same message, over and over again. We called to treat ger, sojourners, as we would treat a neighbor, with compassion. The most common reasons given for this call is either that God’s people are sojourners in this world, and have been from the very beginning (Adam and Eve were driven out of their homeland to wander; Abraham wandered; Moses wandered), or that God’s nature is to call sojourners, and watch over them, and when necessary execute justice on their behalf. Frequently the command to respect and care for ger, for sojourners, simply ends with the reminder: I am the Lord your God. In the Gospels, we have Jesus’s insistence that however we treat the least among us is how we treat him, and that we will be judged based on that treatment.

In recent weeks it has been widely reported that thousands of children have been taken from their parents and placed in camps, prisons, and other places like abandoned office buildings. These children range from less than a year old to adolescence, and include children of asylum-seekers who entered our country legally, and others who entered our country illegally (which is a misdemeanor). This policy of family separation is expressly undertaken as a punishment, and there is clearly no sufficient plan in place to reunite these children with their families. In many cases, there is no record or paper trail for these families, and the children have been relocated multiple states away. (One local example: dozens of asylum-seeking fathers, who entered the country legally, are currently incarcerated with their children in Berks County, PA, and have been for a few years now). These children, including infants and toddlers, will now need to go to court alone, without any family, while immigration courts try to determine their status and, we hope, seek to reunite them with their families when this policy ends. Even that will be a monumental task, given the lack of care and documentation. There is no question that some of these families will have lost their children forever, which is an unimaginable heartbreak. There is also no question that some of these children have been trafficked, abused, and mistreated.

I know that among those of you who read this perspective of mine, there will be some who disagree with me about immigration, and refugees, and asylum-seekers, and others who agree, and some in-between. I hope that we can agree, however, that not only is this policy of family separation inhumane, it is also entirely against the message we find in scripture as to how we should treat sojourners. We are forgetting that our ancestors in faith were refugees and asylum-seekers, who crossed borders seeking safety; we are forgetting that our Lord and Savior and his family crossed borders seeking asylum when he was a small child. We certainly don’t have to abolish borders, or make them un-secure, in order to treat people humanely.

The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.

 

(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.

Alienating Atonement and the Theater of Hell

Sinner, This Is Your Life

This is an image I have heard innumerable times: You have died. You are greeted by an angel, and told that you will be shown your life. You are seated in a movie theater, and are shown your entire life, from birth – every good and bad thing you ever did. Every secret thing, including every secret thought. Maybe the other people in your life are there too, in the movie theater, watching.

The idea is that you will be horrified, and humiliated, and embarrassed. You will feel intense shame and guilt for all you have ever done. You will understand how awful you truly are, in that moment – how unworthy and utterly in need of salvation you are, miserable worm.

Then you are judged based on what the movie showed. If you died without Jesus in your life, you are sentenced to Hell, and in this imaginary situation, it is well-deserved. You nod your head, tearful, understanding God’s transcendent justice in sentencing you to an eternity of torment.

Theologian, Here Is My Finger

The above is a horrifying view of the atonement. It is an expression of one of the worst threads of Christian theology – the idea that shaming and guilt-tripping, teaching people how awful and irredeemable they are, is the best way to bring them to God. As an inheritor of the Reformation, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I realize that this criticism is squarely pointed at my own tradition, such as it is. Luther and Calvin and many who came after went to great lengths to describe what miserable worms we all are.

The basic message is that the at-one-ment with God is achieved because God pinches His Divine Nose and grudgingly accepts your miserable soul, solely because he was first able to contrive a situation where his own self could be tortured to death on a cross as compensation for the whole affair.

What if God Isn’t a Vindictive Jerk?

When I think about being in the audience in this humiliating theater, watching someone singled out and shamed by a bullying God, I feel deep sympathy. What a horrible situation to be in. Anyone who has ever been mocked, or bullied, or singled out for abuse, or humiliated can surely empathize with this situation.

I was recently listening to a sermon that described just this scene, the one referenced in the pages from a Chick tract above. I felt not only sympathy for the person afflicted by this view of God, but anger at the God who would do this. This would be despicable behavior from a human being – from God it is categorically irredemptive.

Imagine, rather than the terror of being truly known by God and others that haunts some of us (maybe many of us?), there was a similar scene. You are lovingly invited to a theater where your life is shown on the screen – in all of its mess and beauty, loss and triumph. It is the great story told by your time in the world, with all the laughs and cheers and tears and even regret. And through it all, there is the loving presence of those who love you, of a God who loves you, who see you for who you are and love all of you. What you went through life fearing, and protecting yourself from, happens, and it is a time of joy and radical acceptance. You are where you are meant to be, and you are who you were meant to be all along.

One might even go so far as to call that atonement.