The Ambiguous Love of God

Have you ever imagined what it would be like, to be God? Not what you would do, but how it must feel? The question is far beyond me,  but I keep trying to imagine it so I can try to explain what I mean when I say “God”:

Every thought and feeling I have is part of my experience of what it is to be myself. Every day, if I am paying attention, I learn more of the bundle of psychological mess and contradiction that is me. This includes the understanding that I am myself while others are not, the ways I dissociate from my own actions and body, the ways I project my feelings and experiences on what happens around me, etc. I assume you also share that experience, of “watching oneself”. Or maybe you just think your thoughts and feel your feelings without a lot of introspection, which is precisely the point: we are different. What I imagine when I say “God” includes all perspectives, all consciousness: mine, yours, everyone’s. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts. I do not picture God as an outsider who can be sympathetic to your experience but does not quite know it, but rather an insider, someone who really knows because they were there and they felt everything you felt, literally.

Imagine being able to fully experience both sides of a conversation: every feeling, unspoken thoughts, impressions, intents, thought processes or impulses behind every nuanced word and gesture. Imagine being on both sides of a kiss. On both sides of every kiss. Knowing, beyond words, the experience of living every life as part of your own. Do we even know where that stops? Include animal consciousness. What if everything is alive? What is it like to be the sun? The moon? The Earth? How does it feel to be one of the microbes inside your stomach, killed in mass by an antibiotic? God is born and God dies every day, yet God remains, being One who is greater than the sum of all parts.

I find this imagination exercise convulsive. I think of the word schizophrenia: “fractured voices”. Yet the voices are true, real, present, colorful. This is what I think of when I hear “we are God/the universe experiencing itself”. This is where my mind goes when I read “In Him we live and have our being”.

What would you feel, feeling everything? Knowing the fears, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, desires, disappointments, hopes, expectations, pride, guilt, love, courage, anger, sadness, joy and sorrow, of everyone? If you saw every point of contradiction, ignorance and misunderstanding, looking through others’ eyes into your selves? Would you try to avoid these feelings and thoughts, to blank them out and preserve your own sanity and sense of individuality? Would you love the voices that please you and hate the ones you dislike, wishing them to end, treating some as more “human” than the others? Would you cry at the weight of all pain, would you celebrate the ecstasy of all joy? Would you clear your mind and become unmoving, stoic, removed, or would you dance with rage and fury as Creator and Destroyer? I get exhausted of handling my own feelings sometimes, let alone everyone’s.

This fascinating thought is an essential part of mysticism: If we are united to the One, to God, and experience some sort of bliss, then God must also be united to all things and experience our not-so-blissful reality.

Christian traditions make this tangible in the way the Apostles and Evangelists wrote about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a subversive Jewish rabbi who taught God will lead a world revolution, telling us to celebrate the fact with feasts, starting with marginalized communities in a Jewish society under Roman imperial control. The authors of John spoke of him as the Life and Light of the whole world (cosmos), the Way, the Truth, the Logos (“word”, or “reason”, from which we have the word “logic”) which brought everything into existence, without which nothing could exist. The disciples wrote: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it […]the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— […] that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” They believed Jesus when he said he was one with God, whom he called Father, turning their world upside down. They experienced something, which they saw and touched, and that was the best way they made sense of it.

Jesus taught us to call God affectionately, “Father”, as he did. He told his disciples the Father loved them just as the Father loved Jesus. He told them that in loving one another like Jesus loved them, they would be One with God, as he himself is One with the Father. I invite you to ponder for yourself, and wonder, about what that means and whether or not the Christian creeds and the inter-religious debates about the divinity or non-divinity of Jesus get the point of his teaching.

I understand Jesus to be inviting me, and you, to consciously and willingly participate in God by loving each other, the same way Jesus participates in God by loving his own neighbors.

God loves us. The same authors of the quote above, when explaining their experience, say “God is love”. Not “God is loving”, which would be an adjective like good, holy, righteous, etc, but an actual substantive, something essential. God also gets called Light, Truth, Life, and Logos, but these nouns do not quite give us a sense of personality, of intention, of emotion. Nothing we can quite relate to in our humanity. Love, however, is essential to us as relational, social beings.

Love is the something-more that makes God more than the ensemble of the universe, more than the Oneness of everything, not just a cosmic Thing or Power, but One who is Someone, a Relational Subject, who we can relate to, cooperate with or fight against, be friends or enemies of. On the two sides of a conversation, of a kiss, of sex. On the two sides of a disagreement, of an argument, of violence. The mother in pain giving birth, the stressed doctor assisting her, the newborn entering a confusion of light and sound. The old man dying, the wife holding his hand. The prisoner and the law enforcer. The torturer and the tortured. The murderer and the victim. The beggar and the one who ignores. The beggar and the one who refuses to ignore. The king, the peasant. The worker, the boss. The friend, the enemy. The trusting, the betrayer. All in All, God is deep, intimate, cosmic love.

I think adding love to this picture makes it even more convulsing, schizophrenic, maddening. I cannot make sense of God’s love when I think of all the good and all the evil and I try to put it together. Yet I am invited to believe God loves me, and I am told to love my neighbor even if my neighbor hates me, not just in word but in action. I cannot handle the universe: my neighbor is simpler. Simpler, but still complicated, still ambiguous, because love is always about people, and people are complicated.

Christ loved Peter, James, John. Christ also loved Mary Magdalene, and a nameless prostitute, and his own mother. Christ also loved Judas. Christ loved ambiguously, in Truth and in Grace.

This is not a love that says all sides are equal and makes no choice, making false equivalences without commitment. Christ, loving both sides, still picked one, and stood for it at the cost of his own life. Christ stood for compassion and against indifference, for a kingdom where the poor and homeless are welcome to every feast, and against a kingdom that rewards the greedy and the proud at the exclusion of the humble. Christ stood for the kind of truth where we are compassionate with each others’ moral failures, against the appearance of “truth” that allows for religious authorities to stone someone, as if they were not sinners themselves. Christ stood for a kingdom where both sins and debts are forgiven, where slaves are freed, against all condemnation and bondage. Christ stood for a kingdom where God can walk among us and feast with sinners, who can be one with God, against a kingdom that holds God at a distance, captive to dogmas, ready to crucify a heretic who dares to threaten the rules.

What does it mean to love like Christ? There are no easy answers in the New Testament. There is no prayer you can pray and be fine for the rest of your life, no ticket to heaven, no approved stamp. There is you, your neighbor, a mad God who loves both, decisions to make, and an invitation: love as I love, die as I died, live as I live. One day after the other.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a Brazilian theology student in Montreal, QC. He is an agnostic Christian existentialist who wishes to make progressive theology accessible.

Illustration: The Kiss of Judas, by Giotto di Bondone

A Madman’s Theodicy

…[the ancient inventors of names] would never have connected prophecy (mantike), which foretells the future and is the noblest of arts, with madness (manike), or called them both by the same name, if they had deemed madness to be a disgrace or dishonour; they must have thought that there was an inspired madness which was a noble thing; for the two words, mantike and manike, are really the same, and the letter t is only a modern and tasteless insertion. – Plato, Phaedrus 244c (circa 370 BC)

 

The blind will not gain their sight by opening their eyes

Not for the sins of the fathers

nor of previous generations

Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous cries out?

Like lambs sent to the slaughter

hopeful, faithful

through love

for salvation

What is this upside-down glory

of a murdered God?

How do you live

knowing

one day

on the third day

(just like that)

 

life still lives

 

and even death dies?

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a Brazilian theology student in Montreal, QC. He is an agnostic Christian existentialist who wishes to make progressive theology accessible.

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

 

Call Center Existentialist

At my job I receive at least ten calls every day regarding people’s estates: the distribution of someone’s property after they die. The company I work for is entrusted with a lot of people’s financial assets; when a “client” dies someone needs to call us to inform us, and it is my job to guide them through the legal procedure to transfer the assets. Usually the caller is a close family member. My first duty is to provide the best possible customer service, which often feels like pastoral care, in the sense that first I need to exercise a lot of active listening skills, then the person expects me to tell them what to do next.

A lot is communicated in between the lines: a middle-aged lady calls because her father passed away last week, and she already has the documentation ready: I can tell her family was diligent and they have been facing the father’s imminent death for a while. Her voice is not shaken, so either she is holding it up, or she mourned his death before it happened. Old age is harsh. Plenty of other people only manage to call a year or two later, and I prefer to believe they needed time to deal with it, rather than assume they were lazy or neglectful. I often speak to old widows who have not touched their husband’s assets for ten years, but are calling now because they are preparing their own estate for the near future.

Every month I spend a few hours at the hospital receiving a dose of antibodies, donated by other people, so my body is able to function and not crumble under whatever disease comes my way. I am grateful and indebted to the kindness of everyone who put a system in place that has allowed me to live past 23 without driving me into bottomless debt. I know that in other places, not far from where I live, my condition would not only make my life difficult but also drive me into increasing debt and poverty, making it even harder to want to keep going yet another month. When I think about it, receiving antibodies is not too different from receiving food, clean water, and shelter, thanks to everything people around us have done and built. Most of us would not survive long if thrown into the wild: I would just die faster. In the end, we all die. Yet the time we do live is meaningful, to ourselves and to those who love us. We have this time to live thanks to one another. Every person has received so much not just from nature or from God, but from humanity, from every neighbor, from our collective ancestors. Much for honor and gratitude, but also much to be ashamed and to regret. We have much to learn from each other, but also much to unlearn. In all this ambiguity, we are living life together and we need each other if we want to keep doing it.

Yet this is all so easy to forget every day. When I receive calls, all I have is a voice coming from a machine, without a face, without a past or a future aside from whatever concerns our business. A voice that can be angry, kind, or simply collected, without eyes to look into, without skin, without wrinkles or laugh marks. Myself, I become an excellent customer service agent, asking precise questions, reformulating them if they are not understood, saying thank you for everything and using words that communicate utmost respect. Most people ask my name, but I only give my first name. I do not really exist in their world, I am simply the voice of the company I work for. My personality, attentiveness and clever quirks are reduced to the great service by Corporation Inc.; I am paid to do that thirty five hours of my week.

It takes a lot of effort to remain conscious of the human being across the line, someone whom I just met, even if impersonally, who needs my help to get something important done: if anything, something important to them. I have done this all day for the past few months, while they are often calling for the first time. I know every detail of what they need to do next, but they have no idea, and I need to discover what they do not know before I explain it to them. It takes a lot of effort to not let that experience be soiled by remembering that even though I am the only contact many people have with Corporation Inc., being crucial to its functioning, I am expendable. I am paid its lowest wage since it is an “entry-level job”, and there are plenty of people receiving the surplus of the value I generate, through profit distributions where those who have most receive the most, accumulating all the wealth with those already wealthy. It takes maybe even more effort to not grow mad knowing that none of this would be in place if we just stopped taking it seriously; that we are inflicting this on ourselves and each other by believing it is the only way; justifying lay-offs, wage stagnation and exploitative measures that exploit poverty in the name of “corporate needs”, even though Corporation Inc. does not even exist, much less have needs. Like the ancients who sacrificed their own children to idols they built from wood and stone, we serve imaginary entities we created with paper and pen.

So I focus on my experience, in the now, at least until my shift is over. Here is someone calling who needs my help. It is up to me to decide if I will acknowledge them as persons or reduce them to just a “client” or an obstacle to get over with. The other day a man called for his father’s account, and when I asked his legal authority to deal with his father’s business, he answered “I am his son”. Of course, being a son is no legal authority, specially in the financial market, so I insisted until he reluctantly said: “dad passed away; I am the estate administrator”. It was up to me to be annoyed at how he made me waste time instead of being to the point, or instead, choose to acknowledge how hard it must have been for that human being to voice that painful fact out loud. It was up to me to drift through the call and just get things done, or remember there was a divine human on the other side, with feelings and hardship, whether he also acknowledged me there or not. As for telling them what to do, all I could do was explain their situation and their options. I cannot decide for them.

I need to believe life and human relationships as I know them are not as good as it gets. That helping others is a better motivation than greed. I need to believe life can be better, that it is possible to serve God and not Mammon.  Even just serving my neighbor is already good enough. I know my neighbor needs it, because I need it. I need to believe this to face next month, even as I am reminded, at least ten times a day, that plenty of people won’t.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Who has the right to theologize?

All theology is sexual, said Marcella Althaus-Reid. Theologian-men are afraid of sexuality, afraid of the body. In the words of Rubem Alves: the body cries out! Then all run in fear, dreading what the body can do to theology.

The body tears the veil between us and the Divine. In the body we are the Divine, we penetrate and we are penetrated by God’s sensuality, we become one flesh, we grab God’s butt-cheeks and we enjoy the mystical pleasure of christhood.

Can the body speak? The subaltern body? The body that is sexuality? The body that comes with pleasure? Does that body have the right to do theology? Or is theology this dry thing, without the lubrication of affect, love, and pleasure?

We go round and round and end up in the same errors! A Christianity called progressive putting bodies and desires in closets. I am really sorry, Marcella, if your work seems to have been in vain. Rubem Alves, I also apologize to you, for they have eyes but do not see, they have ears but do not hear!

The body cries for liberty! Yet they insist that bodies and the plurality of sexuality do not have the right to “influence theology”. The body dies for liberty! Yet they insist in reducing the body to a biological experience, denying the multiplicity of experiences and possibilities of the body, discourses that testify the deaths of trans  -men and -women, — “god made a man and a woman”, that theology is “very clear when stating there are only two genders” — discourses that deny a whole life to anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, non-binary, trans, or intersex. The body lives liberty! The body will no longer be shackled by non-libertarian theological categories. Our body transgresses, rebels and theologizes without panties, without underwear or bras. Our bodies do theology naked before the queer Divine, honoring corporeality and sexuality!

The body is sexual, it is sensual, it desires! Bodies that are oppressed by a capitalist system also desire! To exclude sexuality, my dear, is far from having the title of progressive. “Revolutionizing” while denying the body is yet another way to perpetuate a theology of violence. To say who can and who cannot do theology is a colonizing, excluding, conservative attitude. All bodies can and should mess with this dry, un-lubricated theology, which kills, excludes, and abuses marginalized bodies.

Deus não rejeita a obra de suas mãos

God does not reject their handwork

É inutil o batismo para o corpo

It is useless to baptize the body

O esforço da doutrina para ungir-nos,

Doctrine’s effort to anoint us,

Não coma, não beba, mantenha os quadris imóveis,

Do not eat, do not drink, do not move your hips,

Porque estes não são pecados do corpo.

Because these are not sins for the body.

A alma, sim, a ela batizai, crismai.

The soul, indeed, baptize her, chrism her.

Escrevei para ela a imitação de Cristo.

Write her the imitation of Christ.

O corpo não tem desvãos,

The body has no lack,

Só inocência e beleza,

Only innocence and beauty,

Tanta que Deus imita

Such that God will imitate it

E quer casar com sua igreja

wanting to marry his church

E declara que os peitos da sua amada

declaring the breasts of his lover

São como filhotes gêmeos de gazela.

the twin pups of a gazelle.

É inútil o batismo para o corpo.

It is useless to baptize the body.

O que tem suas leis as cumprirá.

The one with laws will fulfill them.

Os olhos verão a Deus

The eyes will see God.

(Adélia Prado)


The Author: Angelica Tostes is a Latin-American Feminist theologian with a master’s degree in Religious Studies (UMESP). She is part of the Ecumenical Youth Network (REJU) and collaborates with the Collective for Libertarian Spirituality, in Brazil. She writes on her blog Angeliquisses (Theology, Art and Poetry), dedicating herself to the themes of feminist theology, body, and interfaith dialogue. //Original Post in Portuguese

 

Confiteor

Confiteor vobis…

pushing and screaming, the lifeless city races by and pulls me along. i didn’t ask, but said nothing; a willing victim, a passive accomplice.

quia peccavi nimis ommisione…

“Something wrong?  Oh, don’t be surprised, it’s just the pandemic: No one is alive because we’ve forgotten how to die.  I see you’re surprised?  It’s simple really; let me explain: evolution, being what it is…well, we don’t need death anymore.  We’ve moved on.  Immortalization is where it’s at (so I’ve been told).”

ideo precor vos, fratres…

what is wrong with me?  just shake it off.

the day is glaring, here is the bus. arrives gleaming, doors glide to receive us; entered:

a split second:

beyond the open doors, i look and see:

the sky, shining bright, burning blue; it rushes through my eyes, pierces my mind,

and stabs my heart.  the pain; i would fall but there is no room in this

crowding mass of bodies.

the dull doors slam shut, and so do i.

orare pro me ad…?

 


The Author: “A few years ago, Catherine was pretty sure she knew what she believed. Now she’s pretty sure she doesn’t know what she believes, but she’s decided that living and experiencing are good ways to spend time as she tries to figure out what life is about. Also, she’s a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering; as such, she has no official qualifications to speak on anything regarding theology or religion.”

 

The Sound of Jesus Clapping One Hand

This is a transcript of the sermon preached by Ashely Crouch during the evening service at Christ Church Cathedral, in Montreal, QC, on January 21st 2018.
The readings referenced are 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 and Mark 1:16-20.

Imagine you are out getting groceries on a Saturday, and a man who you may or may not know approaches you and says “drop this grocery basket, and we will shop for people.” You immediately think “this is a great idea! I will do that!” Then, your roommate, standing next to you, also decides it is a good idea. So off the three of you go, leaving your roommate’s poor confused father in aisle five no longer sure how much pasta to buy or really what to do. This passage from Mark, written without much detail, gives us one of the simplest, slightly perplexing, and yet poignant passages in the Bible. Drop everything and follow Jesus on a mission. We have no time for meandering. But, of course.

Following Jesus in many parts of the Gospel is almost like following your favorite social media account. You get the exciting highlights of a life and a curated image of Christ. Historical biographers from Jesus’ era did not write biographies as we know them today, with ample detail into the most minute moments, interests, quirks and sometimes useless tidbits of personal information packed into a large volume. Instead they wrote the story that highlighted what they perceived to be the most important parts of the person’s life, and often they highlighted a message. Thus here we are left with a rather thin volume; four short Gospels and an array of letters on what Jesus did and what it means to follow him.

Though the lectionary passages of the day are not always a perfect match for giving a sermon, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians adds depth to Mark’s short and sweet gospel. In Corinthians we encounter Paul writing paradoxically, years later, about what it means to follow Jesus. As Paul had been known as one of the most vocal objectors of Jesus before his conversion, and having lived a life that was entirely contrary to his post-Baptismal life, he is in a perfect position to describe the significance in what Jesus means when he asks us to drop everything and follow him. According to Paul, we must live in a dualistic manner to the life we had before, but we must also keep living that same life. Be as if you are not married, but still be married. Deal with the world as if you had no dealings with it, but keep dealing in this world because you still need to eat, sleep, and do important work. Paul here reminds me of the popular Zen koan asking what is the sound of one hand clapping. Only this has tremendous effect on the lives of the people around us, the institutions in place, and the planet on which we inhabit.

Another note of importance stringing these messages together is the audience to whom they are addressed. Jesus calls out to ordinary fishermen. Throughout the gospel he calls out to numerous other ordinary, and at times, even socially shunned people. Paul writes to the ordinary people of Corinth, who have come to believe in the message of this man named Jesus. These people were not the wealthiest or most powerful people in their society. Nor were they necessarily the most pious, wise, and holy. We can note this from the very well-known example of Judas’ betrayal. We note this because the people to whom Paul wrote were ordinary people with practical problems needing practical solutions. Jesus’ message was for anyone and everyone; and it was especially for the ordinary, outcast, or oppressed person. He had a message for the whole of a person: there is another way to see the world, and there is another way to act in the world. This is how we can transform ourselves and the world around us.

In both scriptures we are given a sense of urgency, a sense that we are called to take part in something much greater than ourselves. Over 2000 years later and the words still have the ability to leap off of the page, inspiring millions of people around the world into a transformation of thought and action. These men did not drop their nets to have a brief conversation before returning to their ordinary lives; they dropped their nets to embark upon a journey. They knew it would not be easy, but their belief in his message and his deeds led them to follow him. The people of Corinth wrote to Paul because they continued to live their ordinary lives in the world, years after the passing of Jesus, and they struggled to know how to be in the world but not of the world, quite like Jesus himself.

When we consciously choose to follow the example Jesus has laid out for us, we are choosing a journey that is not always easy, happy, or simple. Life is messy, we only need turn on the news to see that the injustices relevant in Jesus’ time are still relevant today. There is still poverty, corruption, inequality, violence and greed. At times it feels as if the injustices in the world are as eternal as God. But Jesus proclaims that these human struggles are not eternal: we inherited these problems but we do not have to accept them. Paul notes this in his letter to the Corinthians when he says that the present world is slipping away. When we shift our sights to the challenge and path of following Jesus’ example, we enter a new way of being in the world. Its present form slips away in light of new truths, new faith, and actions that move beyond the individual self. The perplexing statements Paul makes display an urgency similar to Jesus… drop your net, drop your worldly commitments, drop your sorrow; the present world is slipping away and you are being called to follow a new life.

If a baptism is a rebirth, then it should follow that the world you lived in, has, even if metaphorically, faded away. Though we think of the big moments when we are called to be brave, to help others, to give shelter, to make tough decisions, or to discern vocation, we skip over the fact that every facet, every tiny facet, of our lives should be different. In stories of many historical Christian heroes and saints, we hear about the big, incredible acts and miracles they achieved. Just like Mark, they waste little time describing the daily, mundane details of their lives. We are treated to a fast and moving narrative of the power of belief in the message of Jesus. We know that we should be toppling systems of oppression, helping the poor, and performing great acts of love in the name of Jesus. We most often think and speak about following Jesus in broad terms, as if we each have a way to follow him that will in turn come to describe our lives in a fast and moving narrative with a clear purpose. We think about becoming priests, doctors, scientists curing cancer, teachers of a new generation of children, or creating powerful and moving music. But following Jesus is a constant choice and a constant re-orientation to everything in our daily lives.

When Jesus commands us to follow him, he calls us to follow him in a capacity that is feasible and practical, even if at times difficult. Though his faith was strong and important, he was a man of action. Being made human, he shared our world so that he may show us the perfect example of how to be in the world but not of the world. Over 2000 years later, we are called to the same large and urgent matters, but we still have to eat, sleep, shower, clothe ourselves, go to work, get groceries, and do our laundry. Following Jesus is a mentality, part of the reason we take communion, and the reason we remember our baptism each Easter.

If we are baptized, and if, as he asks of us here, we have chosen to repent and choose to live as we have never lived before, then each thought, each moment, and each act is to be an affirmation of that faith. Sometimes we see our impact on others and the world when we do tangible things like volunteer at a soup kitchen or tutor a struggling student, but we never know how our most minute actions, interactions and choices may be profoundly impacting the world around us, or indeed, even ourselves. Our daily choices and thoughts shape our character, and in turn this shapes our life’s path.

Can we live each moment presently? Can we live each moment conscientiously? Can we find beauty and gratitude in the most minute details and moments? Can we stop before we speak and think about our chosen words? Can we pause before our quick trip to the grocery store and remember a reusable bag? Can we stop when we make judgements or assumptions about groups of people and challenge those beliefs? Can we slow down and observe the small ways in which we can be of service throughout our day? We cannot be perfectly mindful and perfectly of service all the time, but we are called to try, to do our best.

We are not Jesus, we are not perfect, and that is why Christians throughout the centuries have given confession, or prayed forgiveness, and why as Christians we continue to read the Bible and study its messages throughout our lives. We need those daily reminders, daily renewal, and daily opportunities to continue that journey.

Nor are we called to be Jesus; we are called to follow his way. We cannot, individually, bring about peace on earth, save the environment, eradicate poverty and hunger, eliminate racism, sexism, classism, or any of the seemingly endless –isms that affect our social sphere. Yet, when we each individually live our daily lives as if the present world is slipping away and we become centered on Jesus’ path, those small thoughts, moments and actions add up.

Many monastics live in a monastery because it is easier to focus on living a righteous life where there are less distractions. Our great challenge as lay people, and as ordinary people, is continuing to follow Jesus each day in an increasingly fast-paced world filled with distractions and competing worldly needs that seem never-ending. But just like the fishermen that dropped their nets, and just like the people of Corinth, if we believe in the message of Jesus, we can let passages like these be our guide. Instead of rushing through tasks and our day to find time for prayer or focus, we can discover the path of Christ in each moment and every act of our day. We, too, can watch the present world slip away a little bit more each day as we learn how to live in Paul’s paradox of dealing with the world as if we had no dealings in it. In order to “fish for people” as Christ says, we must first look within and see that our own nets have been dropped and grow ever more present and conscious to the continuing call of a life inspired by Christ.

Amen.

The Author: Ashely Crouch is a Canadian queer Christian feminist. She works as an interfaith facilitator at the Concordia Multi-faith & Spirituality Centre. Ashely holds undergraduate and masters degrees in Religious Studies, and comes from an interfaith background.

Peace, War, and Thoughts “On Killing”

I recently read “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a former American army Ranger and psychology professor, and is currently the director of the Killology Research Group. His work pioneers a realm often left uncharted by academics: the intimate experience of war and killing. His methods fluctuate between reviewing war statistics and drawing psychological evaluations from a series of letters and interviews done with soldiers and veterans, doing his best to build on previous literature on military history. Academic research in history and psychology would be the appropriate means to test many of his claims which, as it is often common in new areas of psychology, escape the limits of rigorous scientific research and thread the blurred line between historical journalism, research, and opinion; researchers are bound to find exciting questions in his book. Given his military experience, I do think his opinion is one worth listening to, and given the pioneering nature of his work, I do not expect it to have the scientific and historical rigor found in already established areas of psychology. Nevertheless, he shows enough scientific rigor to distinguish himself from the early psychoanalytic works that set modern psychology in motion.

Theologians naturally escape rigorous scientific and historical methods: we often begin with personal and communal experiences, myths, and symbols. It is then that we enter in dialogue with the grounded thinking of rigorous sciences and a philosophical critical spirit, to then return to the personal realm and inform people’s experience of life. This is the mindset that led me to read “On Killing”: I know I am an outsider to both the military experience and the overall experience of war. I have lived in peace my whole life and I want to be a pacifist, but I am interested in understanding those who are not, and maybe even change my mind.

Over a century ago, Tolstoy wrote against the military in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, ending the fifth chapter of his book with poignant comments against the state of the European Christian nations of his time. My impression reading his book descriptions is that already in 1894 he saw Europe preparing itself for the Great War, and in many ways wrote in the hopes to avoid it, although he also had just enough cynicism I do not think he would be surprised at the 20th century bloodshed. The argument he proposes is that military service is a contradiction of the Christian doctrine of the brotherhood of all men: first we teach boys to love their enemies and give the other cheek, but later we train them to be ready to kill and butcher their enemies at the command of their authorities. Countless poor men who have no reason to hate poor men in another land, because one powerful ruler decides he has something against another powerful ruler, are made to wear a uniform, forget their individuality,  and become tools of murder, despite believing that all men are a brotherhood under God according to Christ. This contradiction, to Tolstoy, is what explains the abuse of alcohol and opium, among a list of toxic behaviors, among the military and veterans: military life demands that men live against their conscience and reason, and  they need these things in order to avoid thinking about it. Tolstoy believed that realizing this contradiction is what leads so many soldiers to suicide and madness (p. 126-132).

Dave Grossman makes a similar argument to Tolstoy’s, using modern psychology and a record of military history and experiences, without the theology. He argues that humans have a natural resistance to killing other humans, and when exposed to human suffering we have a natural tendency for sympathy. Military progress, therefore, has been a history of learning to undermine the resistance to killing and dehumanizing enemies through aggressive ideology, propaganda, training, conditioning, sharing responsibility, establishing rituals of affirmation, dissociation, avoiding to look at the enemy’s eyes, denying any form of empathy, and maybe above all, developing manners of speech and terminology of war that avoids the use of any words that imply a soldier actually kills other human beings. He understands that bypassing the human resistance to killing is very traumatic, and according to his research, only about 2% of the population, those we consider sociopaths, do not have the natural aversion to killing (p.44, 180). This characteristic is a desired trait in combat, therefore this 2% is naturally successful in the military, if only they manage to submit to authority .

Both Grossman and Tolstoy were soldiers: Grossman had twenty-four years of service by the time he wrote the book (p.xxxii), but never killed anyone. Tolstoy served in a few battles as an artillery soldier, and, from what I can gather, did kill. His direct experience of war and the military in 19th century Russia was surely different than Grossman’s experience and concerns with modern warfare, and maybe this difference can help explain the different conclusions they draw from very similar observations.

Tolstoy’s reading of the gospels reject orthodox Christianity and any sort of “mystical” interpretation, believing Jesus’ teaching was clear, meaning we really need to actually love our actual enemies. Therefore, Tolstoy rejects military service and war, and with it every authority built on violence; to him, acceptance of violence in elaborate theologies that justify war is the evidence of historical Christianity’s deviance from Jesus’ radical but simple teaching.

Grossman does not share the theological concerns of Tolstoy. He speaks of war as a problem to be overcome, yet sometimes a necessary price to pay for freedom. He spends most of his book dissecting the ways armies desensitize and dissociate future soldiers in order to kill other men and women (and children if necessary), highlighting how highly traumatic this process can be, but never really denouncing the authorities’ decision to make war or not. As a well-trained soldier, he trusts his superiors even in the light of the atrocities of war and the numerous PTSD stories he collected; he does not try to convince the reader that war is good, being as neutral as he can while concerning himself only with the soldier’s experience. The rationale behind his efforts is summed in these words: “Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the result and its repercussions upon the soldier and the society” (p. 287). His driving concern is the effect of killing on soldiers and on the society responsible for these soldiers.

The main focus of his discussion is a comparison between the American Military experience in WWII and their experience in Vietnam: foot soldiers in WWII of every side were largely ineffective, it being evident when observing the amount of ammunition spent and shots fired compared to the number of enemy soldiers killed. Most kills were actually done by artillery, which is far less personal; when they returned, victorious, the allies were celebrated as heroes. Years later under new training using conditioning techniques (like Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s rats), American soldiers in Vietnam were astoundingly lethal, killing women and child soldiers when necessary; when they returned, defeated, they were condemned by their society. Now Vietnam veterans suffer the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, homelessness and suicide, while a WWII veteran “may tend to medicate himself pretty regularly down at the bar at the American Legion, but like most veterans he will probably continue to function and lead a perfectly healthy life” (p.287). Grossman acknowledges and makes sure to mention the suffering of victims of war whenever it sounds like it is not emphasized enough: the receiving end of the trigger always has it worse regardless of the killer’s own trauma and suffering. Still, as a soldier, his concern rises largely out of empathy towards his brothers-in-arms and veterans. This seems consistent with his mentions throughout the book of how military life creates bonds among soldiers that are often stronger than their bonds with their very wives; several of the soldiers he interviewed told him war stories they had never told their families since they returned home.

Tolstoy shows little sympathy for soldiers, even having been a soldier himself, largely due to his somewhat existentialist view of personal responsibility: reflecting his own experience, he believes one can – and should – reject military service and all forms of violent authority, remaining unstained from the world, dying if necessary. He believes the gospel of the Jesus who was crucified as a political agitator is clear about this. Grossman on the other hand shows a lot of compassion towards soldiers: he sees them as adolescents who sign up to protect their nation but find themselves turned into killing machines ready for command, but that is not a fundamental problem with war, and he thinks it could just be done better. As for the victims, he does not speak for them, silently showing a strong faith in his superior’s decisions.

Until reading this book, I shared Tolstoy’s lack of compassion towards the military. I remember arguing with friends who said the military are the people who make the greatest sacrifice in the name of freedom, to which I would answer that a good soldier is not the one who dies, but the one who kills. Grossman confirms this without question. However, having read “On Killing“, now I see things less black-and-white. On one hand, Grossman does not deal with the theological problems that Tolstoy does. On the other, Tolstoy does not deal with the intricate human ambiguity of choice and circumstance, such that even if his language is surprisingly clear and simple when he points out our social and theological contradictions, he is not inviting, and can often sound accusing.

Grossman’s exposition of military language as systematically dissociating from the act of killing is not exclusive to the military. I cannot recall any discourse on theories of Just War that uses the verb “to kill”, let alone speak of murder, butchering, rape, burning alive, scalping, impaling, maiming, etc. How often are philosophers, theologians, intellectuals and politicians justifying war with hygienized hands, proclaiming military service is good and virtuous, defending values of authority and obedience to an abstract “nation”, without daring to talk about what the word War really means? How many young persons’ lives are lost due to such discourse? Could it be that our weekly drinking of wine that we call blood made us forget that real people’s blood is still shed for human sins whenever we declare and justify war? Is our glorifying of Christ’s suffering purely romantic, detached, unfamiliar with the agony of an actual naked man bleeding out at the city’s gates? Quoting the title of the first chapter of Grossman’s book, are we virgins talking about sex? Ironically, yes; historically that is precisely what most Christian theologians and clergy have done. Still, the question is metaphorical: how can theologians (and this also applies to philosophers) talk about justifying war without openly speaking about its reality and effects in people’s lives? Would honest words make our theologies much harder to swallow?

Much of Grossman’s research validates Tolstoy’s description of how a young man becomes a soldier and the psychological consequences of that process. Tolstoy understood that this is pertinent not only for war but also for the maintenance of authority, through police and other violent forms of law enforcement. Indeed, he affirms that law can only exist by being enforced, and that force is always violent. However, Grossman’s book reminds me that soldiers and policemen are human, too. In their circumstances, in a lot of ways, they do the best they can with what they have. Our churches and politicians, with hygienized hands, bless them in order to ease their consciences. Still, they suffer through their choices – even through their illusion of no choice.

The moral fight against violence would liberate soldiers and the people who embody authority, too, from a life of moral contradiction and psychological suffering. The gun trigger harms both ways, and the way to resist it is by resisting the urge for desensitization. The path of love towards peace must not be a simple opposition against the people who wear the uniforms and wave the banners of authority and violence. It must be the compassionate love that forgives and extends grace while speaking the truth, embracing all the ambiguity of choice, circumstance, responsibility, and mercy.

“For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against every authority and power in the high places of this present time.”


Bibliography

Grossman, D. (2009). On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Tolstoy, L. & Garnett, C. (1984). The kingdom of God is within you : Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Photo: After receiving a fresh supply of ammunition and water flown in by helicopter, men of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade continue on a jungle ‘Search and Destroy’ patrol in Phuc Tuy Province, Vietnam, June 1966. An armored personnel carrier provides security on the landing zone in the background. (by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.