Loving In The Loser’s Club: The Gospel According To Stephen King’s IT

“A frightening possibility suddenly occurred to him: maybe sometimes things didn’t just go wrong and then stop; maybe sometimes they just kept going wronger and wronger until everything was totally fucked up.”

“OH SHIT! I BELIEVE IN ALL OF THOSE THINGS!” he shouted, and it was true: even at eleven he had observed that things turned out right a ridiculous amount of the time.”

“There was power in that music, a power which seemed to most rightfully belong to all the skinny kids, fat kids, ugly kids, shy kids—the world’s losers, in short.”

One of my favorite things about Autumn is October because, well, Halloween. I mean, Hallowen. HALLO-FREAKING-WEEN. As I wrote elsewhere, I believe Halloween can be observed in a very Christocentric manner, all month long.

My main way to observe this sacred time has been to reread through Stephen King’s masterpiece, IT, once again. I cannot rave about this book enough. If you are even vaguely interested in reading it, please for the love of everything holy and uholy, read it. Haha, get it? IT. What’s that? Puns are evil? Nah.. oh.. okay..

If you haven’t read IT and are still interested in reading this post, please check out this brief plot summary so as to make sense of this gibberish I’m conveying. However, if you’ve seen the original film adaptation, that should be sufficient. If you’ve only seen the first part of the recent remake, be aware there are spoilers ahead.

There are many themes I would love to draw out, but for the sake of brevity let’s tie some random threads together and hope we acquire something sensible! Seriously, though, this book conveys many beautiful truths: the Christocentric gospel, mimetic theory, death anxiety,  and the centrality of love (here I mean agape, not eros) in living a satisfactory life. To name a few.

The first thing I’d like to point out about this book is that Stephen King manipulates the ‘haunted house’ horror trope. He expands this common microcosm from haunted house to haunted town (ie: Derry). Pennywise doesn’t live in a house, It lives in Derry.  Pennywise appears to be an almost omnipresent being in Derry. It can appear just about anytime and anywhere. Derry is Its town – one could say It owns Derry. It influences people and events. In this way, Pennywise is symbolic of the zeitgeist of a town. Now, the dictionary definition of zeitgeist reads as such:

the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time

and while I am using it in this way, I’d like to expand a bit. The zeitgeist is not simply covering a particular period of history, although it certainly embodies that. It can also mean the cultural atmosphere of any place, period of time, or group of people . For example, here are some questions that can get at the zeitgeist of one’s workplace: how casual is one permitted to dress, what goals does one’s workplace have and how does it seek to implement them, and what are the policies for showing up early or late? In relatively simple terms, I’m referring to culture. On a smaller scale this means the culture of a house, a workplace, a family, a person (ie: one’s psyche and way of thinking). On a larger scale, this could look like a county, a state, a nation, a non-geographically connected group of people.

The thing about culture is it is very real, and many ways even tangible, but it is often overlooked. People live in it, and often follow its mandates, without consciously thinking, “I’m obeying the rules of my culture.” Those who don’t obey get punished whether most explicitly via prison, mental asylums, or social stigmatization. Most people do not go through life self-examining themselves to choose what they want to consciously absorb and meld into and what they don’t. People just go with the flow.

Some, though, consciously follow the rules for fear of being cast out. They may theoretically disagree with an aspect of their culture, but we live in the postmodern age, and who knows what the hell is right…right? Let’s just do this thing, or go with this motion – why stir the pot and be looked down upon?

This is Pennywise. It manipulates Derry through apathetic ignorance and fear, just like the zeitgeist. Pennywise is simultaneously Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. It is in-your-face evil, but It is also the type of evil that apathetically pushes papers and blindly follows orders, irregardless of compassion and empathy.  It is not mere malice, it is willful ignorance, which, I would argue, is just as heinous.

“I started after him…and the clown looked back. I saw Its eyes, and all at
once I understood who It was.”
“Who was it, Don?” Harold Gardner asked softly.
It was Derry,” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town.”

See, almost all of the residents of Derry ignore Its presence. It is implied they are all very well aware of It, but they refuse to really acknowledge It, think about It, talk about It. They quite literally just live with It. But they can’t just ignore the mass murder of children. They have to put the blame on someone or something, even if that blame is not directly or consciously related to the initial problem. In other words, the people of Derry conjure up some form of scapegoat.

This sort of thing plays out everyday in a multitude of ways. On a microcosmic scale, imagine a father having a terribly stressful day at work, not dealing with the problem directly and consciously, but instead taking out his frustrations on his unassuming child. The child becomes the scapegoat for something unrelated to him, and the father’s stress may be relieved (sort of…not to speak of the guilt that should come from within). On a macrocosmic scale, one need only look at the current state of American politics – we have two generalized political bodies blaming the other for seemingly every problem in the nation state. It’s scapegoating on a broader scale.

More specifically I am referring to the Mimetic Theory proposed by Rene Girard. If you are unfamiliar, please read here. Briefly, the scapegoat functions as the guilty person/party, whether directly involved with the issue at hand or not. The scapegoat may be a person of blemish, embarrassment, quirkiness, etc… they just have to be an easy target which the larger body of people can unify against. In Christian theology, the scapegoat is Jesus Christ. On a practical, socio-politic-historical level, the political powers of His day (ie: Caesar) and the religious authorities (ie: the Pharisees, Sadducees, etc…) used Jesus’ crucifixion as a means to unify the people in the midst of political and religious crisis. On a theological metanarrative level, the Trinitarian God lets humanity kill Him in order that His love may be known, and the absurdity of violence and vengeance is shown. In other words, Jesus Christ functions as the scapegoat for humanity’s own self-inflicted harm. However, unlike other scapegoats, the victimization of Jesus Christ leads to the eventual end of violence and the absolution of sin, therefore ending the need for a scapegoat mechanism.

Now, in Stephen King It, the scapegoat just happens to be The Loser’s Club. As stated above, this scapegoat process is hardly conscious. There isn’t the clear and coherent thought: “We have to ignore Pennywise, but deal with this problem. Let’s indirectly take out our frustrations and qualms with the inhumane aspects of our zeitgeist (personified in Pennywise) on these weird kids.” I’d like to point out, as well, that The Loser’s Club may not be the only scapegoats. Because the narrative is centralized around this group of people, they are the scapegoats given, but that does not mean they are the only people of blemish in Derry. For example, King writes that Derry is extremely hostile to the LGBTQ+ population. This group of people are also scapegoats in Derry’s zeitgeist.

The Loser’s Club consists of a ragtag band of outcast kids who all have some sort of turmoil or social abnormality that makes them just not quite…right. These social quirks make them easy targets. Many would consider them to be a curse – but it is these very oddities that bring The Loser’s Club together in the first place. They bond over them, gain the strength to face Pennywise, and learn to love themselves and each other in the process. (Blessed are the persecuted.) The Loser’s Club comes together over their own insecurities and abnormalities to form a community. This community is guided by the gentle voice of the Turtle. The Turtle appears to be an omniscient Being of benevolence. The Turtle occasionally steps in to guide and assist The Loser’s Club toward agape love and victory of evil personified. The Turtle represents the Trinity, especially the Holy Spirit.

In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit guides humanity toward truth, holiness, and love. The Turtle in It does the same, and while I think this comparison is the biggest stretch I provide in this analysis, I still think it works. Some Christians may argue it is a bit blasphemous because the emphasis in the narrative is obviously on the power of love as found in The Loser’s Club and the Turtle is only in the background helping out. The kid’s do not explicitly worship the Turtle, and care far more about loving those around them. But that’s just it – Christ himself calls the Church his body, and therefore any true agape love found in the Church is also the love of Christ manifested on Earth.

Which leads me to my next point: The Loser’s Club is the Church. Now, you may be thinking, “hold on a minute. You’re comparing the scapegoat, outcast, loser group with one of the most powerful religions in the history of mankind?” but just bear with me a second. I do not in any way mean the powerful church, lower case c. I mean the Church, capital C.

Okay, that probably doesn’t clear things up all that much. I’m sorry. What I mean is that I believe the Church is always powerless. If the Church has political power or privilege, it is not the Church, just some piece-o-shit sham. In fact, that church is Pennywise. A modern day example: Pennywise embodies many aspects of the American Evangelical Church movement. This movement, culture, zeitgeist, is full of middle/upper class, white privileged, cisgender, powerful men and blindly submissive women that knowingly (or often more common: willfully and blindly) use their power to oppress many groups of people and spit in the face of Christ. Now, I’m not saying that if you or someone you know considers themselves to be an Evangelical in America that they (or you) are equivalent with Pennywise. But I’m definitely saying there is some truth to the claim that, by and large, American Evangelicalism is heinous, blasphemous, and evil.

Before you flip and get pissed at my statement, I’m not saying that other forms of Christianity aren’t evil, either. I’m pinpointing a group of people I myself am a part of. I’m not singling it out to, well.. scapegoat it. I’m using American Evangelicalism as an example because I am well acquainted with it, and feel more comfortable critiquing my own circle than another’s.

But what does this mean for the real Church? The real Church is, according to the precepts of the ‘world,’ powerless. It is all those Christians who consciously attempt non-conformance to the evils found in the institution of Christianity. It is those who refuse to simply go through the motions to make themselves feel better – to numb themselves with the opiate of the masses, as Marx so eloquently put it. Those actively working against the principalities and powers of the zeitgeist – they are Its explicit enemies. But they don’t work against people, they work for people, all people, seeking the reconciliation of everyone.

The real Church is often oppressed, sometimes willfully so. Oppressed not by “happy holidays,” or some non-existent Islamic overlord, but by choosing to live with the oppressed. The real Church works to end the oppression of peoples everywhere, all the while taking residence with them, if the oppressed are so willing to accept them into their community. The real Church gives up its power to become one with the powerless. The real Church is a co-suffering Loser’s Club. And just like the Loser’s Club, the real Church flips the principalities and powers on their head to reveal it holds true Power, thanks to the co-suffering love given by the Trinity.

The Loser’s Club overcomes the evil of Pennywise twice. The first time is while the members are children. During this period they defeat It, but don’t kill It. However, they hope it is over and finished. They promise each other if It ever comes back, they will reunite and fight It again. Almost 30 years pass, and It resurfaces as strong as ever. They reunite and fight It, of course succeeding because, c’mon, all you need is (co-suffering) love.

All this is sweet and thematic, but the thing I’d really like to point out here is the 30 year gap. King tells us that The Loser’s Club almost completely forget about It as they ‘mature’ into adulthood. Only one original member stays in Derry, and while he does his best to remember and stay vigilant, he eventually forgets. The perspectives of all members as adults are shown to us one by one. Some of them appear content while others appear discontent. All of them are comfortable though – even those in abusive relationships. They are comfortable in what they know, or refuse to admit. But none of them remember any of the others, and life has completely moved on.

Until Pennywise’s activity is made aware to Mike by the Turtle. Once Mike remembers he reluctantly phones each of them. The individual club members are forced out of apathy to confront the zeitgeist, to confront the true way the world works. It wrecks one of them, driving him to the point of suicide. He simply couldn’t deal with the difficult journey of non-conformity.  The rest forcibly move out of the comfort of their blind stagnant lives, and decide to face the current.

But for about 30 freaking years they conformed. They grew into the adults society told them they should be. Self-absorbed, afraid, loveless (agape-less). Despite a very explicit face-to-face victory against evil incarnate, they succumbed to blind ignorance. They assumed one battle, one victory was enough. But that’s not how the zeitgeist works. Evil is paradoxically constant and malleable. As soon as it is conquered (if it ever truly is this side of life), it manifests itself anew. This is why political revolutions just never work. The Church always trips up here. It justifiably stops to celebrate a victory, but quickly gets lost in said victory and loses focus. It quickly conforms to the status quo and trots forward.

Herein lies one of the most important lessons of King’s masterpiece: as a unified group, we are able to maintain our focus. We are able to encourage each other to keep moving, to stay the course. Separated, we become weaker, the temptation toward apathy grows stronger, and we lose sight of everything we once strove for. Agape becomes impossible if we are isolated – there is no one to love.

The other important bit we cannot forget lest our undoing ensue is found in a simple quote from It:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

The point is we are all, always, a little bit apathetic, a little bit compassionate. A little bit evil, a little bit good. One may outweigh the other at a given point in time, but we are ever-moving creatures, always growing, always changing. We are nuanced and beautiful, even at our worst. The person you have demonized as evil is still a person, there is still some good in there somewhere. The person you have glorified as divine is still a person, there is still some evil in there somewhere.

In the novel, people are not the problem that must be overcome. The evil is Pennywise. As stated above, Pennywise is the zeitgeist incarnate. Evil manifested. One must work to lovingly change and challenge the cultural zeitgeist of one’s place. One must fight those things, not people. Love people. Our enemies are institutions, principalities, cultures. Our enemy is Pennywise. Not the people It manipulates. People are always precious. No nuance about that.

While King himself may not agree with this interpretation, and while I have taken some liberties, this shows only a fraction of why I love this piece of literature so friggin’ much.  It’s the gospel in horror narrative form. Many Christians I know find it to be abhorrent, find horror and Halloween to be abhorrent. They’re missing out.

Perhaps they’re too blind to see that

“…God favors drunks, small children, and the cataclysmically stoned…”

 

Peace be unto you this spooky season. May you learn to overcome the ego and the fear of death so as to truly live a life in and for Love. ❤

Halloween: A Holy Holiday

As far as I am aware, Halloween is an ambivalent subject among Christians. Some dislike it for the ‘demonic’ activity it inspires. While I don’t deny Halloween does bring out devious behavior in some, I believe it also manifests saintly behavior in others – whether the actor be aware or not.

What do I mean?

First of all, we need to explore one of the most explicit themes of Halloween: death. Death is an ever-present moral power in the lives of humanity. All human action is motivated by the fear and/or knowledge of death. For example: why do we go to work? To be given money. Why do we need money? To buy shelter and food. Why do we need those amenities? So we don’t die.

Another example, which is a bit more cryptic: we seek self-esteem so that we can convince ourselves we are worth more than simple mortal beings destined for death. If our self-esteem falters, we feel bad. We sometimes feel worthless. Why are worth and meaning so important to us? Because, with such a fragile existence, we have to convince ourselves there is more to this life than a measly 70 years of life. Self-esteem helps us cope with the immense amount of anxiety that comes with being a mortal.

Almost all, if not all, human activity is spurred on by physical or psychological survival. And these things are motivated by a fear/knowledge of death.

This is why I think Halloween offers such a beautiful way to interact with the thing that subconsciously motivates and scares us. Halloween deals explicitly with death – it brings it out of our subconscious and forces us to face it. Usually, this manifests by wearing costumes and making a fool of it, by watching scaring movies, by going through simulated haunted houses. As a collective society, we poke fun at death, we show that death doesn’t have ultimate power – we can still find joy amidst decay. We realize, for a night, that death, albeit powerful, doesn’t have the final say. It is a mockery of death, similar to Christ’s resurrection. This is why I consider Halloween a “Christian” holiday in the same vein as Christmas or Easter.

You may be thinking: Halloween? A “Christian” holiday? But what about all the criminal activity? My first response is: criminal activity occurs during the Christmas season, too. It is generally known that armed robberies increase around the Christmas and New Years season, although crime rates for all three holidays show no discernible pattern statistically speaking.

That said, don’t participate in the criminal activity. Not all ways to celebrate a holiday are equal. To assume so is like saying one will not go to church because they are all like Westboro Baptist Church. And don’t let the criminal activity dissuade you. The possibility of being robbed while you go visit grandmother’s house generally doesn’t prevent you from traveling for the Christmas holidays – often for days on end. So why let it dissuade you for one night?

I know many Christians who are frustrated that Christmas has become so commercialized and taken captive by the consumer spirit. They loathe it while still celebrating and observing many of its ritualistic and cultural imperatives – many of which don’t even stem from a Christian root. Yet these same people will not partake in the joy of Halloween due to similar reasoning. I suppose commercialized death isn’t as appealing as commercialized salvation.

Regardless, Halloween speaks to our physio-psychological need to know that death holds no ultimate power. While it may be the ruling principality of this day and age, its victory is an illusion – it deserves to be mocked. It is a sign of the coming Eschaton – where the dead are permanently given life. It is a conflagration of the already and the not yet – the time between our Lord’s resurrection and the Second Coming. I mean, it is the night where the dead walk among the living after all – and that is precisely why I like it.

A Perfect Cocktail of Disgusting Lies!: Matthew Distefano’s “Heretic!”

What Distefano shares with us in his new book, out April 1, is not heretical – it is, on the contrary, welcoming. Welcoming to those Evangelical Christianity has often shunned.

Attending a Conservative Christian university while visiting about one hundred urban churches after having grown up in the conservative Midwest, I have been well acquainted with the dominant manifestations of North American Evangelical Christianity.

I have found it wanting.

My relationship with it still exists, largely due to my introvert personality and general lack of verbally sharing what I truly believe with my conservative peers which make up a significant portion of my circle. One must pick their battles.

That said, Matthew Distefano’s newest book, Heretic! An LGBTQ-Affirming, Diving-Violence Denying, Christian Universalist’s Response to Some of Evangelical Christianity’s Most Pressing Concerns, resonates with me, as I believe it does an ever-increasing number of, for lack of better term, Post-Evangelicals. As the mouthful-of-a-title makes clear, it tackles some of the most heated topics among Evangelical Christians in the North American context with some tongue-in-cheek humor and signature Distefano wit to boot. Also, take the Parental Advisory warning seriously – Distefano uses some, ahem, colorful language.

Now, if you’re an Evangelical Christian, you may be thinking, “Universalism?? LGBTQ?? God as totally and wholistically nonviolent? Are you on pot? (A topic which Distefano has covered elsewhere) Of course he’s a heretic!” Except you’d be wrong, at least according to Christian tradition. Distefano still adheres to the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds (which were largely influenced by theologians who believe a variety of things that Distefano proposes in his book). The term heretic, historically, is less referring to what someone believes within the Christian tradition, and more about being divisive – someone who tears a community apart, often intentionally so.

For example, when an Evangelical church shuns a practicing homosexual – that congregation is being heretical, according to historical definition. When churches separate over minute doctrinal differences such as full or partial immersive baptism. Protestantism is about the most heretical manifestation of Christianity in the 2,000 year history of the religion – it just can’t agree on anything.

What Distefano shares with us in his new book, out April 1, is not heretical – it is, on the contrary, welcoming. Welcoming to those Evangelical Christianity has often shunned: those who refuse to believe that God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is an abusive father who wants to torment 99% of the human population forever, to those who don’t maintain heterosexual relations or feelings, to those who believe violence is a never-ending self-perpetuating cycle. It seeks to cultivate community, not divide it. As far as I can tell, Distefano is even inviting those whom disagree with him to participate – if they can do so without themselves being divisive.

If you’re interested, Distefano’s book officially releases April 1, 2018. For the entire month of April, the Kindle edition will be 99 cents and all proceeds will go to the Preemptive Love Coalition. Check it out!

Distefano was kind enough to send a signed copy of Heretic! to me himself. Of course, I gave a donation to him in return. Being a shunned theologian certainly does not pay the bills very well!

Visit Matthew Distefano’s website!

We’re Neurotic: Nonviolent Reflections on Memorial Day – Year 2

The solutions are very straightforward. For a fraction of the expense that the U.S. taxpayer put into destroying Laos, you could clear the unexploded ordnance. So the first step would be to do what we claim the Japanese can’t do: take responsibility. Maybe that would be a start. So let’s overcome this strange defect and accept responsibility. That defect is not in the American public. It’s in American educated elites. They [have the ability] to find this out. If they don’t know it already, they can easily find out. It’s not like learning quantum physics. It takes no time to find out. They can use their position to make sure everybody knows about it.

When the editors of the New York Times and the rest take responsibility – which they condemn the Japanese for not taking – that will be step one. Step two will be to put in the resources that are required to overcome this U.S. atrocity and stop killing Laotian children. It’s not a big step. It’s not like bombing somebody. It would cost a lot less than bombing Iraq or Sudan. So there are some easy answers. Very easy answers.

~ Noam Chomsky in an interview with David Barsamian about how to deal with the undetonated ordnance issue in Laos, 1999

Last year I wrote a post called Let Us Remember: Nonviolent Reflections on Memorial Day. In it, I compared Fascist Nazi Germany to the United States. I wrote,

America’s military cause is no more justified than Nazi Germany’s. Both were/are fueled by ideological assumptions, paradigms, and worldviews that seek world domination through whatever means necessary. This is, of course, not to downplay the horrors of the Nazi regime. I am still highlighting those. However, I am also highlighting the horrors of the American empire. Both are Satanic: both treated their own (white male) people well, but the rest of the world as a rag doll.

But let’s stop a moment. Today is Memorial Day. A day off work dedicated to honor those veterans who lived, and possibly died, for our “freedom.” This generally means the “freedom” and “liberties” of the citizens of the United States. As we well know, however, in actuality, it simply means the “liberties” of middle/upper class straight white men (and whomever they choose to share their almighty ‘liberty’ with). (Let’s not get into how a country cannot truly be ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ if other countries live in poverty and bondage. *ahem*) Yet, somehow, we gather the whole country to celebrate (half-heartedly) the mass murder of other nations (in the name of God), viewing it as honorable and as if it were the right thing to do.

People get upset about the commercialization of Christmas as a holiday. They get upset that Jesus has been turned into a commodity by capitalism and consumerism – that the spirit of Christmas goes from one to giving to one of consumption. I feel similarly about Memorial Day – a day about honoring those before us is actually a day gripped tightly by the military industrial complex to inundate U.S. citizens to reality and how the world views us. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am an advocate of nonviolence. I believe any type of killing is murder. So, while I can respect veterans for doing what they think is right, especially when it is a difficult choice, I still think they were wrong.  Especially on a day like Memorial Day.

This ‘holiday’ is used as propaganda to romanticize the horrors men, women, and children experienced (both in the U.S. and other countries) so that the general populace doesn’t really question what the heck was going on. Rather than mourn the deaths of all humans involved in armed conflict, we celebrate and honor those who come from the U.S. Rather than talk about and remember the unjust horrors the U.S. inflicted (and still inflicts) in many countries around the world with its military industrial complex and innumerable coups, we pretend we’re the savior of the world (when in actuality most of the world hates us, even if they obey us out of fear). Whereas Germany mourns what it did in The Good War, we exalt ourselves for any war we’re involved in – or just don’t talk about it if it went terribly. We repress, we forget, we hush hush. As Carl Jung said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” In this case, neurosis is a substitute for admitting we are wrong, we are not the heroes. We feed ourselves lies of glory and create within our collective psyche a savior-complex.

In other words, we’re neurotic.

So, today, I want to remember some of the terrible things the United States has done. Specifically, two key incidents during the period historians refer to as The Long Sixties (1950-1970s). This is not to say the sacrifice U.S. veterans made is not worthy of remembrance, but to say that the innumerable foreign citizens, soldiers, and societal institutions the United States has destroyed and ruined are worth remembering just as much, if not more so, on a day such as Memorial Day. It is, put concisely, trying to add nuance to a society which likes it’s ‘facts’ in black and white.

1) Cambodian Bombing and Genocide

Between the years 1965 and 1973, the United States dropped, at the very least, 500,000 tons of bombs on the country of Cambodia. Some historians argue far more. Either way, that is equal to the amount the United States used in the entire Pacific theater during World War II – I believe this is counting the atomic bombs.

Why the massive amount of bombing on such a small, neutral country? Viet Cong troops, and eventually Khmer Rouge rebels were stationed there, even if against Cambodia’s wishes. Thus, the US took this as justification for the bombing – even if there was intentional disregard for civilian life.

Intentional. Richard Nixon told Henry Kissenger (who somehow won a Nobel ‘Peace’ Prize…), “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in. I don’t want the gunships, I want the helicopter ships. I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?” This was all a part of Nixon’s “Madman” Theory of War: be as crazy and violent as possible so that your enemy doesn’t want to mess with you. Basically like deterrence but super violent either way. Kissenger then relayed to Alexander Haig, “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” These bombing raids were kept secret from the general public. The US doesn’t like its evil to be known.

unitedstatesbombingpointsincambodia
Area of Cambodia bombed by US – almost half the country.

Ben Kiernan, leading Cambodian Genocide scholar, estimates civilian casualties caused by US bombing to be 150,000.

On top of the bombing, the US was involved in a coup in 1970 to remove Sihanouk from power. The coup in conjunction with the bombing obliterated an already destabilized government. The US, China, Vietnam, and various political groups within Cambodia kept pulling the leading government officials (the prominent leader being Sihanouk) in multiple directions. After the removal of Sihanouk with right-wing replacement Lon Nol, Cambodia quickly became polarized.

The bombings created enough turmoil that the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which is what became the infamous Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot as its primary leader, gained prominence. The Samluat Rebellion, a peasant uprising in Cambodia, helped pave the way to give Pol Pot power. Peasants were basically forced to give their rice to government workers (technically they ‘sold’ it, but it was so cheap they might as well have given it away for free). To make sure this continued, armed soldiers were placed near peasant farms and in villages. Peasants, being pissed off, killed two soldiers in rebellion to show they wouldn’t be treated as less-than-human any longer.

Pol Pot jumped on this opportunity to organize the frustrated peasants and gathered them into the Khmer Rouge movement. The Khmer Rouge began attacking military outposts and taking over Cambodia.

It wasn’t until the coup that Cambodia began associating with Vietnam’s Communist movement. From that point on, the two began collaborating, frustrated that the US played god. The Vietnamese viewed Sihanouk as the true leader of Cambodia, and offered their full support while Sihanouk and Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge joined forces against the US-backed government.

What began as a country which tried desperately to remain neutral (and arguably democratic) ended up as opposing and hating the US and pursuing communism.

The irony of the situation is that Pol Pot probably would not have been able to gain power in Cambodia if it weren’t for the illegal and covert US bombing/coup.

As a 1973 Intelligence Information Cable from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations explained:

Khmer insurgent (KI) [Khmer Rouge] cadre have begun an intensified proselyting campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents . . . in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organizations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.

The narrative goes on and on with more and more destruction: the US puts its hand in something, screws it up, then has to kill more people to clean up its mess and make sure it still comes out looking like the hero rather than the villain. If you want to read a fuller narrative about the US involvement with Cambodia and how we ended up supporting the people we had, a decade before, tried killing, please refer to the many sources I provided below.

Before I continue, I’d like to share a quote from one of my main sources for this section, in which he parallels the Cambodian coup with the Iraq coup.

Any lessons to be drawn about the consequences of US intervention in Cambodia do not appear to have been learned: as the journalist John Pilger has pointed out, just as the massive destruction of Cambodia by the US bombing campaign helped create the conditions for the KR’s ascension, the US invasion of Iraq similarly destroyed a society and set the stage for the rise of ISIS. And just as the United States supported its former enemies in Cambodia against Vietnam throughout the 1980s, Washington entered into a tacit alliance with jihadist groups in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Indeed, if we can expect anything from US foreign policy, it’s atrocities and complicity, cloaked in the language of democracy and human rights.

2) Laos

We’ve briefly discussed Cambodia. We’re going to even more briefly discuss Laos. If you want more in depth information, I will provide plenty of sources, and you can obviously do more research as needed. I’d love to provide fuller narratives, but alas, I don’t get paid to do this, and unfortunately just don’t have the time.

“From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.”*

laosbombing
Total area of Laos bombed by US.

The US was trying to wipe out the Pathet Lao and pro-communist/socialist Vietnamese forces in Laos. While trying to do so, they murdered countless civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands. Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped – 80 million did not immediately detonate. They were intentionally manufactured so that all would not detonate upon first impact. To this day, Laotian people are still murdered by hidden bombs dropped many decades ago. The legacy of the US-backed murder of Laotian civilians continues on our day of relaxation/celebration: Memorial Day. For us, we eat hamburgers and potato chips. For the Laotians, they lose a few limbs and a child to bombs, since it happens almost, if not, everyday.

In fact, over 20,000 people have been killed in Laos from the undetonated US-dropped bombs. “Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.”

“The first group to try to do something about this issue was the Mennonites. The Mennonite Central Committee has had volunteers working in Laos since 1977 and has been trying to publicize the problem and get people interested in it…there is a British volunteer mine-detection group – composed of professionals, but not the British government…They have some Laotians working with them. The Americans are notable by their absence, as the British press puts it.” – Chomsky in Propaganda and the Public Mind by David Barsamian, 1999

“Furthermore, according to the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, the British mine-clearance group claims that the Pentagon will not even give them technical information that would allow them to defuse the bombs. There’s some technique you can use to make sure they don’t go off, but they won’t give them that information. So the British mine clearers themselves are at risk because this is secret information. The U.S. is not there clearing the bomblets and won’t give the British who are doing it information about how to do it safely.” – Chomsky

Despite this being our fault, we have generally refused to help clean up the mess. For example, “between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.” We spent $13.3 million a day (in 2013 dollars) to bomb Laos for nine years straight. We can’t even manage to spend half that per year to help clean up the mess. We’re too busy making other messes! “In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).” So much for being savior of the world.

3) 20-30 Million Murders…and then some: Are we the terrorists?

Cambodia. Laos. East Timor. Syria. Guatemala. Nicaragua. Afghanistan. Iraq. Angola. Bolivia. Argentina. Brazil. Vietnam. Chad. Colombia. Chile. Korea. China. Cuba. Democratic Republic of Congo. Dominican Republic. El Salvador. Grenada. Haiti. Honduras. Hungary. Iran. Indonesia. Palestine. Nepal. Pakistan. Paraguay. Panama. Philippines. Sudan. Uruguay. Yugoslavia.   The list goes on and on. The US has made quite a mess of the world. Don’t get me wrong, its not the only perpetrator. But it is a perpetrator that refuses to take responsibility. Instead, it wears a facade of heroism.

You may still be thinking, “this isn’t as bad as Nazi Germany.” Well, first of all, comparing death tolls and statistics feels so…inhumane. The murder of a single human should affect us, let alone a million or ten. But, it helps to do so…thus, the United States has murdered more than 20 million people in 37 “Victim Nations” since the end of WWII. The linked article begs a very important question: “how many September 11ths has the United States caused in other nations since WWII?” The answer is far too many, and leads me to a state of surprise that the US has only experienced one 9/11 itself – and that its own confrontation with terrorism didn’t lead it to empathy but rather more destruction. Not that it should experience more. As I’ve said, I advocate nonviolence both in the personal and political spectrum. War, murder, terrorism, and the like will get us no where.

Is this what we had in mind? Take down Hitler so we can do what he wanted to do – but a lot more covert and under the radar, stretched over a couple generations so it looked less wrong?

Either way, let that sink in. The beloved savior of the world, the United States, has been responsible for the unjust murder of at least, but probably more, than 20 million people – not counting WWII. Depending on how you look at the numbers, that’s more than Nazi Germany.

God bless America.

 

Sources:

Cambodia:

I borrowed a lot from this jacobinmag source. It was my primary go-to for the Cambodian part of this article. Credit goes to that writer for the information and chronological order of mine.
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/khmer-rouge-cambodian-genocide-united-states/

http://johnpilger.com/videos/year-zero-the-silent-death-of-cambodia

http://gsp.yale.edu/case-studies/cambodian-genocide-program/us-involvement-cambodian-war-and-genocide

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/refugee/war_cambodia.html

Killing Hope by William Blum

Laos:

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21714972-how-unremitting-decade-long-bombing-campaign-affected-small-southeast-asian

http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/30/512449534/how-the-u-s-war-in-laos-was-key-to-the-birth-of-a-military-cia

http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/

http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/laos-during-vietnam-war/

Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky Interviews by David Barsamian

Other:

http://www.globalresearch.ca/us-has-killed-more-than-20-million-people-in-37-victim-nations-since-world-war-ii/5492051

Death is Dead

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22

Death, in other words, is what all men truly have in common with each other and with the whole of creation. Death is what you have essentially in common with me and the only reality, it seems, that we have in common with everyone else and everything else in this world.

~ William Stringfellow

I’m a busy man these days. No busier than others, I suppose. I like to blame my illness and many life transitions for my lack of writing and rigorous intellectual thought as of late. But I am without excuse. Regardless, I want to write something, anything, about this Easter weekend. What better to write about than death? The greater meaning associated with this arbitrary weekend is that death is truly the only lifeless creature in this reality.

Yet death pervades all aspects of our lives. From desiring the next and greatest technological gadget, to watching television, to spending quality time with those we cherish – to live is to live with, avoid, or fight against death. It is the ever-present moral problem, the shadow behind us on a sunny day, the clouds above us on a rainy day – it is, in a sense, as omnipresent as the Greeks like to think of God.

You may be wondering what exactly death has to do with every facet of your life. Take a basic example: work. You go to work to make money. Why do you make money? To pay for housing, food, transportation, and all the other amenities that keep the cycle of your life flowing – work, pay, leisure, work, pay, leisure. Why do you do these? In essence, so you do not die. If you stopped working, there is a good chance you would die in many forms: you might become homeless and lack proper shelter, food, and healthcare. You could physically die. If you don’t physically die, your social life might pass away – it is hard to keep up with the Jones’s if you don’t have a job or a home. Eventually, then, your self-esteem will probably die.

What about all the little things at work? Promotions, getting along with co-workers, enjoying the job. Why are these important and how are they related to death? Well, if you get a promotion, you make more money. Physically, you may be better off and more able to avoid death. Socially, your status may go up and you may acquire more social power, thus feeding the ego and preventing a death of the self-esteem. What of relationships? Faring well with co-workers could lead to a promotion, it could feed the self-esteem/ego, and help one’s life feel meaningful. Rewind. Why is meaning important? And how is it related to death? Well, we are mortal beings. More specifically, we are mortal beings who are aware that we are mortal beings. Unlike most, if not all, other animals, we know we are eventually going to die. Yet, we also have the ability to see beauty, to consciously love, to make moral decisions. With this kind of power, coupled with our mortality, we begin to want to make our lives matter – otherwise it appears all for naught. Why have these abilities if we eventually die? The question is agonizing – it produces in us our anxieties. Thus, we seek to give meaning to our lives, however fragile – regardless of culture we find ourselves in. This does not mean that for our lives to have “meaning” we must continue to live on physically – for example, certain cultures, such as the Japanese, have found a certain kind of meaning and honor in suicide. The search for meaning drives humans to do much of what they do. At its root, then, avoiding or fighting death drives humanity.

This is not necessarily bad. All aspects of culture are not inherently ugly, or disdainful, or terrible. There is much beauty and wonder created in the name of death. That said, much of it, at root, comes out of a spirit of fear.

But there is no fear in love, as we are told by Jesus’ disciple John.

And this is precisely where Jesus and his resurrection becomes intrinsic to us as human beings.

Jesus’ resurrection shows us that there is no more to fear. He has conquered death. He has made it so we no longer have anything to fear – we are free to give up our lives to sacrifice for another, because in reality, we are not really losing our life. We are free to love fearlessly and selflessly, without secretly trying to feed our ego. We are free to be rid of need from another human, from idolizing each other, so that we can more accurately and lovingly care for one another.

This does not mean, of course, we will be successful. Some people who have foolishly believed they have conquered the fear of death may commit themselves to suicide so they can simply skip to the coming eschaton. This however, is not truly freedom from the fear of death – what drives a person to such impatience or theatrical measures? Either feeding the ego (“look at me and how I’ve conquered death!!”) or unconscious fear of not maintaining fearlessness in the face of death (“I must prove I’ve conquered death by physically killing myself!”). Both are illusions of fearlessness – both motivated by the fear of death. In other words, to live in Christ is not intentionally killing oneself for selfish sake (because that is still fearing death), but to lay down one’s life for the betterment of others, without fearing what may come of one’s own well being.

And we can do this, because “[Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14b-15) 

Christus victor.

Grace and peace.

 

 

 

That Holy Anarchist: 5 Insights from Mark van Steenwyk

I just finished reading fellow MennoNerd, Mark van Steenwyk’s book, That Holy Anarchist. It was a quick, informative read that I wish was longer. Not many people in my circles are familiar with anarchism (or frankly Anabaptism), so while I will probably not be adding any new information that cannot be found in Mark’s book, I hope to share five insights that stood out to me, using my own flavour. Mark’s book is roughly 70 pages in length, but I will be interacting with only a few pages. This is in hopes of helping those unfamiliar with the relationship between Christianity and anarchism understand it more clearly. I also hope this whets your appetite to read his whole work.

I think the first thing worth noting is that anarchism is not monolithic. Mark points out that anarchism is stereotypically associated with a nihilistic high school student who just wants to see the world burn. In other words, think of The Joker from the film Batman: The Dark Knight. However, Steenwyk suggests that association with anarchism is not fair, because while sometimes true, it is not always true, and most certainly not true of traditional anarchism. In other words, just as Christianity, with its plethora of traditions and manifestations, is not monolithic, neither is anarchism. Both offer ‘good’ and ‘bad’ features. To reiterate: anarchism is not monolithic.

While anarchism is not monolithic, it does have an anchoring point. As Mark writes, ” ‘An-arch’ means contrary to authority or without ruler. So ‘anarchism’ is the name given to the principle under which a collectivity – a group of people – may be conceived without rule. Specifically, anarchism is traditionally understood to be a critique of the ‘state’ while promoting a stateless society.” To be contrary to authority. To be without a ruler. This is the focal point for the various streams of anarchism. Whether the anarchism critiques sexism, racism, classism, empire, or any combination of oppressive isms, anarchism at root is about living contrary to oppression and attempting to not participate in it. Succinctly, anarchism is resistance to oppression.

Although implied in the above paragraph, I want to explicitly bring to light that while anarchism is resistance to oppression, it does something else of great importance. As anarcho-primitivism shows, “oppression and domination go much deeper than a critique of the State or of corporations or of any powerful elite. Rather, it goes deeper into the fabric of our social structures.” While Mark doesn’t think anarcho-primitivism has gone far enough with this sentiment, he does believe that it is headed in the right direction. Anarcho-primitivism, and anarchism in general, needs to learn to address the interdependency of the various forces of oppression if it is to successfully resist them. He continues,

“’empire’ [is] a manifestation of inter-related oppressions. Empire is, in our context, that social reality (or unreality, depending upon how you look at it) that globally reaches out to manage all of creation (including humanity) into a system of exploitation wherein only the elite ultimately benefit.”

Anarchism works to reveal hidden forms of oppression and create novel ways to resist them.

Because oppression manifests itself differently in different eras and social contexts, anarchism should be considered more a posture and an attitude than a body of theory or doctrines. It is a general stance toward authority, power, and the corruption that very often comes with them. For this reason it “tends to be praxis-oriented, rather than theoretically oriented…at its best, anarchism isn’t theoretical, with all its abstract-thought-ducks lined up in a row, but rather an evolving endeavor where thought flows out of experiment and practice.” To reiterate, anarchism is generally more about practices than about theoryMark refers to this as the “anarchic impulse.”

Finally, anarchism, according to Mark’s representation, is not only compatible with various manifestations of Christianity, but has shown itself in many Christian traditions throughout Christian history. Mark provides a list of examples for his readers. For our purposes I will point out two, which I think are rather obvious.

The first is the early church. Mark writes,

The Jerusalem group, as described in Acts, shared their money and labor equally and fairly among members. There are also indications of consensus decision making (Acts 15). Within Pauline Christianity, we see glimpses of mutual submission rather than hierarchy (Ephesians 5), a charismatic understanding of authority and power wherein spiritual authority isn’t located within any one person but, instead, any person could manifest the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12-14), and a fundamental egalitarianism (Galatians 3 and Colossians 3).

Many theologians and denominations claim that the early church lived out or practiced their version of Christianity, so appealing to the early church is not always the most powerful argument. That said, I think Mark makes many good points.

The other instance I want to share is Mark’s reference to the Anabaptists. Apparently, according to Mark, Peter Kropotkin, in his essay on anarchism for the Encyclopedia Britannica, “traces the birth of anarchist thought in Europe to early Anabaptist communities. This makes sense, since traditional Anabaptists separated themselves from the functions and practices of the State. In addition, Anabaptists past and present have generally embraced pacifism and some groups have held property in common.” In other words, those ‘radical reformers’ during the Reformation, the ones so despised by the Protestants and Catholics alike, were prototypes (albeit not the earliest ones) for anarchism defined.

The point here, if not clear, is that anarchism and Christianity are compatible.

From here Mark suggest ways anarchism manifests itself in Scripture, and the fact that “Jesus is calling for a loving anarchy. An unkingdom. Of which he is the unking.”

In other words:

Grace and peace.

(Go read Mark’s book!)

10 Reasons to Read Jacques Ellul

  1. He was a polymath, able to think in a deep interdisciplinary manner.Working with a variety of disciplines such as theology, sociology, ethics, media ecology, politics, and urban thought, he wrote upwards of 50 books and thousands of academic articles. Rather than make his work shallow and stretched too thin, he made it all interconnected and impossible to understand without a thorough reading of a variety of his pieces to understand what lay at the groundwork of his thought and intentions. Much like creation itself, his work and thought is inextricably interdependent and interconnected.In fact, his works are highly dialectic, and interact with one another. Ellul himself said that you cannot read one without reading others. “I have not actually written a wide variety of books, but rather one long book in which each ‘individual book’ constitutes a chapter (Ellul on Religion, Technology, and Politics).”
  2. Influenced by some of the greats, he didn’t simply follow, he dissected and took what he thought was good, leaving the rest to rot.He was influenced greatly by Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.He influenced the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and William Stringfellow.
  3. He criticizes equally and in a balanced way.In other words, none of the main political/economic options are viable for him: democracy, capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism. They’re all equally absurd. (Although he tended to have a greater disdain for fascism.)Similarly, Ellul did not like to associate with a single Christian denomination (and ironically was generally more well-liked by non-Reformed Christians than the Reformed Christians whom who ministered with), thinking the institutionalization of the Church always ended terribly, but on the flip side realized no organization was not possible either. He continually sought a middle ground, a balanced walk on a tight rope, a narrow way, that neither secular nor religious people could really grasp or manage to walk without the hope of the Gospel.
  4. He realized urban migration is a phenomenon not going away any time soon (if ever), and while he criticized it, he encouraged Christians to move to urban environments.

    Many critics of Ellul have only read his socio-political works related to the city, while ignoring his theological works. This is self-harm, as the socio-political works are only half his thought. While they show major criticisms and negative thoughts toward the city, seemingly offering no hope, the theological works look to the New Jerusalem as being the end point, or telos, of history.
  5. He was an outsider.Class: unlike many intellectuals of the twentieth century, Ellul grew up in poverty. This gave him a different perspective than many wealthy scholars.Geographically:  Although a French citizen and national, he lived outside of Paris, which was the heart of French intellectual life and scholarship. An intellectual not living in Paris was unheard of and taboo.

    Linguistically: Although he was most well known in the United States via his translated works, he was only able to write in French and spoke broken English.

    Politically: He rejected all mainstream political options, considering them all to be intellectually shallow and petty.

    Religiously: He was raised in a non-Christian home, but became a diehard disciple of Christ. French intellectual circles in the twentieth century were primarily secular, and being an academic Christian was nearly unheard of – even somewhat looked down upon.
    France was primarily Roman Catholic in populace, but Ellul identified with the Protestant Reformed Church. Despite being a member of the Reformed tradition, he held great disdain for John Calvin and considered Calvinism to be intellectually shallow. Instead, he held the minority viewpoint of neo-orthodoxy found in the writings of Karl Barth.

    He wrote of himself, “it is obvious that I have always found myself alone and out of place (Ellul on Religion, Technology, and Politics).”

    Frequently misunderstood, Ellul didn’t enter the conversation from the same angle as his contemporaries. He rarely wrote about just one topic at a time in a linear manner. The authors of the book, Understanding Jacques Ellul, who appear to be dear fans of Ellul, refer to him as a “fool,” in the most endearing way possible. They refer to a passage out of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucalt’s Pendulum in which he defines the nature of foolishness:

    “‘Being a fool…is complicated. It’s a form of social behavior. A fool is one who always talks outside his glass.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘Like this.’ He pointed at the counter near his glass. ‘He wants to talk about what’s in the glass, but somehow or other he misses. He’s the guy who puts his foot in his mouth. For example, he says how’s your lovely wife to someone whose wife has just left him.’
    ‘Yes, I know a few of those.’
    ‘Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone, but provide material for conversation. In their positive form they become diplomats. Talking outside the glass when someone else blunders helps to change the subject. But fools don’t interest us, either. They’re never creative, their talent is all second-hand, so they don’t submit manuscripts to publishers. Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation…’ ”

    Ellul looked at issues of his time from a different angle than others..and while he wasn’t necessarily ‘wrong’, and in fact, possibly ‘right’, no one wanted to pay much attention because he seemed to be talking about something else entirely.

  6. He wrote many critiques of technology, or what he called “technique,” but instead of being “for” or “against” something, he argued Christians follow their consciences and do what they find to be profitable, all while maintaining their freedom and not being in bondage to the technology. This gets at the heart of another issue he felt and thought passionately about: Christian freedom and liberty. He refused to write systematic theology or ethics, telling Christians what to do or not to do. Rather, he encouraged Christians, and all people, to think for themselves.
  7. He stood by his convictions and lived out his beliefs.Even though France is well documented to have aided in giving Jews over to the Germans during WWII, Ellul was a part of the small resistance in France to seek to save the lives of Jews by hiding them. While he despised the Spanish Civil War and the war against fascism, he refused to take up arms, although he was tempted to many times. Although he strongly criticized politics, he thought the most powerful politic a person could become involved in is local politics, and while he vested little to no hope in even local politics, he was involved for much of his life. He was involved with the mindset that at best, his involvement would make things a little bit better for people, but only in a temporal sense. He held onto politics loosely, and was partially involved solely to get to know his community more intimately.
    He was deeply committed to his wife throughout their long marriage, and greatly influenced and encouraged by her. For being an extremely busy scholar, teacher, and politician, he remained loyal to his wife and still found her to be a major priority. This echoes the previous sentiment that he sticks by his convictions – relationships are the most important thing in the life of a Christian.
  8. He revived the theological method of exegesis long before anyone else (and arguably introduced Karl Barth to French intellectual circles).Not only that, but he consistently made sure it was Christocentric. While his commentaries are in a league of their own, not entirely systematic, but also more complex and scholarly than a sermon, they offer a sort of “empirical theology.” Just enough systematics that they are rational, but just enough situational and empirical application that they are down to earth and livable. He argued vehemently against wholly abstract theology, considering it to be of the devil, as it rarely, if ever, truly helped people to live according to the life of Christ as represented in the Gospels.
  9.  He sought to offer a holistic critique of modern society in a similar vein as Marx.Not of just capital, but a critique that covered everything a modern human would involve herself in. He critiqued technology/technique and secularism in the same way Marx critiqued capital and religion.
  10. He is fun (and edifying) to read.With over 50 books and thousands of articles, reading Ellul is an adventure that takes all sorts of twists and turns (sort of like reading Karl Barth). To even begin to grasp him, one must read a few of his books on a related topic, and generally a couple of introductions by reputable Ellul scholars. He was paradoxically simple and complex. If one can get through the strain of grasping his intent after reading a few topics, one may be able to traverse the rest of his works with a bit more ease.

Sources:

Ellul on Religion, Technology, and Politics

Understanding Jacques Ellul

Introducing Jacques Ellul

Works by Ellul:
Money & Power, The Technological Society, The Technological Bluff, The Political Illusion, Anarchy & Christianity, Violence, Propaganda, The New Demons, Perspectives on Our Age, The Presence of the Kingdom, The Ethics of Freedom

Devil’s Food

In my previous article, I showed that monsters are sometimes Christ-figures. In this post, I want to show that one of the sweetest facets of Halloween, chocolate, is actually one of the most bitter.

First, I have to ask – do you know where your chocolate comes from? Probably not. Americans (and many nations) are so far removed from our food that some of us are taken aback (and disgusted) when we realize that meat used to breathe. Some people get unsettled when they think their hamburger once had life. Imagine what people must feel, or should feel, when they eat chocolate that isn’t fair trade. Not sure what I mean? Let’s take a look at some of the research.

With a bit of research, one finds that as of 2014, 48% of the world’s chocolate supply comes from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. We have this information thanks to journalists who were supposedly killed by the Ivorian government for reporting on the cacao farms in 2004. The information leaked also shows us that Ivorian chocolate businesses commonly use both child and slave labor as a means of producing their chocolate. In fact, as of 2014, the Ivory Coast is reported as having used at least 15,000 child slaves to produce their chocolate. That’s not counting the paid child workers.

So what’s the difference between a slave and a child worker? The slaves are frequently trafficked into the country, and are paid absolutely nothing for their work. They are fed the cheapest of food: corn paste and bananas. Slaves can be either child or adult, but are commonly children, as most slaves are not in the education system, and the children can be kept in the system for most, if not all, of their lives. Slaves are beaten frequently for not working quickly enough, and if they try to escape, are severely punished. Drissa, a slave who escaped a cacao farm, said, “when people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.”

Child workers, on the other hand, are generally not beaten. Rather, they get most of their scarring and physical damages from having to use machetes to pry open the cacao beans unskillfully. These children usually range from age 12-16, but there are reports of children as low as 5 being used as workers. Most of these child workers, who live on the business property, will not see their family again for years upon their arrival. Many will never see them again at all.

Most of these children are given a 6 month “breaking in” period in which they are stripped naked and severely beaten everyday so they can “learn their place.”

This is where a lot of our chocolate comes from. At least 48% of it. And that is without tracking the other 52%. I the point that the three major chocolate producers of the U.S. candy business do not willingly divulge where their supply comes from, and many sources trace them back to the Ivory Coast.

Many major chocolate producers in the United States made promises to remove child and slave labor by the year 2005.

Over ten years later, and this promise currently rings hollow.

Don’t get me wrong, many companies are using the “fair trade” logo on their products to show they are transparent with their sourcing and refuse to participate in any form of slave labor, child or no.

But don’t think that buying fair trade saves you from this moral dilemma, either. According to foodispower.org, the Rainforest Alliance (one of the organizations responsible for regulating fair trade certification) cannot guarantee that the fair trade chocolate is free from the disgusting blemish of slave and child labor. In 2009 many farms had to be dropped due to the realization they were intentionally and sneakily using unethical means to manage their farm. In 2011 a journalist filmed illegal child labor on a cacoa farm certified as fair trade by the Rainforest Alliance.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at how much Americans spend on chocolate per year. According to dailyfinance.com, in 2013, America spent roughly $4 billion on chocolate alone. Every $3 out of $4 spent on Halloween candy was spent on chocolate. The five most popular chocolate brands purchased? M&M’s, Snickers, Kit Kat, Reese’s, and Hershey bars, all of which are produced by one of the three major companies previously mentioned.

Is there a solution? Many governmental programs have been initiated to prevent this heinous institutional and systematic sin, but the success will depend on the commitment of both chocolate consumer and chocolate producer alike. What can the chocolate consumer do? Whether you enjoy 90% Lindt, or Hershey’s Cookies & Cream (yes, white chocolate, although not always considered “true” chocolate, still contains cacoa butter), I cannot help but urge discussion on this matter amongst my fellow chocolate lovers. There must be more, you may think. Well, for now, my conscience is urging me to avoid chocolate in all its forms, whether I pay for it or not. The task is much more difficult than it sounds. Chocolate is intrinsic to American culture. It takes a retraining of the mind.

But that’s not the end of the story. I cannot comprehend what consequences would occur if chocolate was boycotted. While I do not foresee a boycott large enough to get the attention of the chocolate industry, if it transpired, it could ruin the economies of various nations whose main export, and means of earning money, is the cacao bean. Other implications may follow suit, on the individual and corporate level. This is why I reiterate the need for discussion and research. For now, on the individual level, I think I’m going to avoid chocolate products. And in regard to Halloween? Spare the neighborhood kids some cavities.

For more information regarding chocolate and slave labor, follow the links in the below.

Sources:

http://www.dailyfinance.com/on/chocoholics-spend-big-halloween-facebooks-teenage-angst/

http://www.foodispower.org/slavery-chocolate/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/cotedivoire/1317006/The-child-slaves-of-the-Ivory-Coast-bought-and-sold-for-as-little-as-40.html

http://vision.ucsd.edu/~kbranson/stopchocolateslavery/atasteofslavery.html#exists

http://worldcocoafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/Cocoa-Market-Update-as-of-3.20.2012.pdf

Lessons from Kurt Vonnegut: On Not Taking Ourselves Seriously, or Dawoop shawoop dadadada boing! (The Sirens of Titan)

To me, reading literature is like eating a bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans. One eats all the good flavours, and throws the rest away. In other words, in reading a novel, a number of people may come away with a number of different themes and messages, often emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain events and characters to highlight their theme. Is it literary critcism? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? Not really. I’m most certainly going to do it either way. Why? I’m not writing to craft an academically  thorough examination of what Kurt Vonnegut may or may not have meant. I’m writing to myself, to a generally neo-Anabaptist/post-Evangelical audience, and to whomever else occasionally reads this blog (hi, mom!). And, frankly, I just really like Kurt Vonnegut. I want to bring his works into the post-Evangelical conversation. Partly because there doesn’t seem to be much conversation about literature among us; partly because I believe Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to say to the amorphous culture of post-evangelicalism.

*ahem*

Now.

A tale of good luck and self-deluded religion and science.

This is Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.

Unfortunately, this tale is lesser known than Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. Don’t get me wrong, Cat’s Cradle is very good (notice I left out Slaughterhouse Five?). I just think this is one of Vonnegut’s best. It’s a bit before Vonnegut achieves his signature short chapter segment division scheme, so it also stands out a bit from the rest of his repertoire.

Although it is Vonnegut’s second major work, he actually started, and left unfinished, Cat’s Cradle about 4 years prior to even thinking about Titans. In fact, Titans was written during a financial, personal, and literary funk for Vonnegut. While it took Vonnegut a number of years to complete Cradle, it took him only a few months to finish the entire manuscript of Titans on a whim of necessity.

The book went on to be nominated for a Hugo Award the same year of its release. Although not considered his best work by most, it has acquired a cult following, and a major motion picture has been attempted a variety of times, most notably by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead who bought the rights to the film (what didn’t he purchase?). Titans has also influenced major Scifi writers, such as Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who cites Titans as one of his chief novels of inspiration.

If you have not read the book, I recommend reading a brief plot summary either here or here. I would type one up myself, but much ink (pixels) has been spilled to write the same plot summary over and so on and so on.

Vonnegut offers a plethora of important themes and messages to us, whether intentional or no.

What is, in my opinion, one of the most, if not the most, apparent theme in the novel: we (ie: humanity) shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. The novel deals with the overall purpose of human history…and that individual and corporate humanity really has little to no sway over how our grand narrative ends. That does not mean, however, humans cannot influence the minute details of the greater story. I mean, we’re kind of a big part of it. So, on one hand, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, because to be honest, we can’t save the world. We can do our best to love and care for it, but we can’t save it. On the other, we should have some solemness in our lives, because while we cannot necessarily “save” the world (whatever that even means), we most certainly can destroy it in a matter of seconds, if a select few people were so inclined. The end of the human epoch of history may not change because of our activity, but individual human lives may. To frame it another way: our influence on a grand scale is generally small, but our influence on a small scale can be grand. Notice the caveat. Influence on a grand scale is more often than not small, but our influence on a small scale can be grand. Small scale influence can still be, well…small. That’s still a bit depressing. Yet Vonnegut, in his signature fashion, instills hope within our solemn souls nonetheless!

Although it may appear by all intents and purposes we cannot impact the world for the better (who’s ‘better’ do we mean?) in the long term, there are glimpses of what we may do without even knowing it. For example, it is arguable the very idea of “individual human rights” wouldn’t exist without some of the world’s major religions (most emphatically the Judeo-Christian tradition). Religion has done a lot of harm throughout history, but so have irreligious (or to become totally binary: scientific) people groups. People have done a lot of harm throughout history. But religious groups, (ie: people) have also done a lot of good. People will continue to do both, often without knowing the outcome of their ideas and actions. Which brings us to our next theme.

Dos! Much religious activity is completely fruitless, pointless, and meaningless. Even that which is well intentioned and pursued passionately can fall completely flat. Rumfoord’s creatively crafted new religion for Earth, while seemingly beautiful, shows itself to be meaningless by the end of the book. Okay, so using this analogous to all religion (maybe) isn’t fair. Let’s make it simultaneously more broad and narrow: most, if not all, human activity is fruitless, pointless and meaningless. Or at the very least, in regard to what people try to accomplish. Our abstract ideals, when put into action, could produce effects that render the very ideals that motivated the action infertile. As said above, humans will never know the full impact of their words, ideas, interactions, etc.. on other people and the ever-moving historical drama unfolding before us. We will be long gone before that happens. But of course, this is basic historicity: there are no independent variables. What I do with my life tomorrow could very well influence someone on the other side of the world a few days later. Maybe even earlier. Possibly later. This gets into the fun idea of the butterfly effect. Or the notion that all of creation is one giant organism that which has a seemingly infinite supply of endless parts that all interact with each other…and are quite possibly predetermined. Or not. Depending on one’s views of reality. ;D

Third time’s the charm: In many ways, none of the characters in this novel appear not to be psychologically or physically ‘grounded’ (hehe). (Was that sentence confusing? It was supposed to be.) They’re a little bit insane, although they may not appear to be in their own contexts. But in a tale about time travel, inter-planetary travel, and galaxy-hopping, there is bound to be a variety of cultural contexts. For this reason, Titan speaks to us about the human condition of “othering” people for cultural reasons. Individuals whose psychologies are raised or which grow and change in cultures different to ours may appear to be strange, different, possibly even psychologically unstable. We quickly write them off as being “other.” What Vonnegut does is show us that all of us are cultural beings and we’re all in the same “psychologically-unstable” boat as everyone else, in our own unique way. The rich, the poor, the lucky, the distraught. The religious, the atheist, the everything-in-between. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that someone who is in a committed marriage and has two kids with a stable household is less psychologically stable than someone with severe social anxiety who can never leave the house. I am using “psychologically stable” as a metaphor to show how we “other” (verb) people. We’re all cultural beings who function differently depending on our culture, and because culture is primarily a death avoidance mechanism, the fact we cling so tightly to our culturally conditioned psychologies is a form of psychological instability. In other words, clinging tightly to one’s culture and rejecting all others is a form of mental illness. Here I refer to the writings of Ernest Becker and other existentially empirical psychologists.

This is a truth to keep in mind while going about our average day, seeking to be hospitable. If someone appears gross, disgusting, unflattering, annoying, uncompromisingly angry, let us take a step back and evaluate why. Why do we think they’re gross? Or why are they so angry? Simply put, let us learn to empathize with the “other,” so that we may more fully call them “sister” or “brother.”

Four! Despite this vast meaninglessness and pointlessness of being cultural beings in a world where culture is a relative death avoidance mechanism that never guarantees any of our actions will ever produce primarily loving fruit (that was a mouthful), there remains hope. Malachi Constant, toward the very end of the novel, can only come up with one purpose for living: love those around you who are there to be loved. But this proves a problem – if we can’t determine the outcome of our actions, how are we supposed to live up to our ideal of loving anyone who is around to be loved? This is where Vonnegut’s die-hard humanism fails me, and we diverge on our thought. Although Kurt also had an explicit appreciation for the Sermon on the Mount (I mean, his book Jailbird is arguably about his secularist appreciation for Jesus’ famous sermon), he never seemed able to combine humanism in a coherent way with the Anabaptist call to discipleship in the here and now, understandably so.

Vonnegut frequently struggled with depression and meaninglessness. It makes sense, in a very ironic sort of way. His life was wrought with suffering. Caught on the hook of the American Dream, he was drawn out of water, flopped on financial failure, then let back in the kiddie swimming pool only to have the same thing repeated a few more times throughout his life. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day, and his sister died of cancer only two days after her husband died in a train wreck. This left Vonnegut to care for seven children in total – three of them his biological children, four of them orphaned by the sudden death of their parents. Among all of this, he was continually haunted by his time as a war prisoner during WWII. While fighting ‘for’ America, he was captured, and in a dramatic turn of events, American aviators dropped bombs all over his prison in Dresden, almost being killed by the government he swore to protect. God bless America (and Kurt Vonnegut). He tried to kill himself at least once, and openly writes about it in some of his works. All in all, Vonnegut was a riot. A bit psychologically unstable, though. Or maybe completely sane. I guess it depends who you ask. So it goes.

Given Vonnegut’s biography and struggles with depression, it makes sense that some of his works can come across as nihilistic operas that make you feel hopeful in a queasy way. Acquainted with suffering and some of the deepest questions of existence, Vonnegut was prepared to offer a simultaneously harsh critique and manifesto in defense of being human.

In non-vonnegutian fashion, I finish with these final thoughts, seeking a coherent wrap-up: meaning is not solely found in the abstract, but, in conjunction with point two, it is found in the empirical. It is found in those whom we can love. In other words, meaning is incarnate – the abstract god made flesh. The abstract meaning turned tangible. While we can never truly know the full effect of what we seek to accomplish, we can hope and pray for the best. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, said just this while imprisoned by the Nazi regime for being a pacifist. Paraphrased, he said, “all you can really do is say your prayers and be ready to die.” All we can hope for is that our frail attempts to love ourselves and those around us, in some way, have a positive effect, and that others may see the beauty of Life and Truth in our ideals and actions, and continue to strive toward the Beauty of the coming  Eschaton. We walk as ambassadors, as messengers, as those who speak and live truth, to the best of our ability. Part of it all is knowing that what we’re doing is deeply wrapped up in culture, and uncontrollable historical factors that may make all we do for nought. Then we go die.

But death is not the end.

Grace and peace

-Jacob

Blogging Through Old Scratch, Pt. 5: God at War, or ‘The Problem of Ecclesiodicy’

In chapter 8 of Reviving Old Scratch, Beck summarizes in a few short pages what he refers to as Gregory Boyd’s “theology of revolt.”

As previously mentioned in this series, Beck argues that our compassion can be the very burden of our faith that makes it so hard to bear. To reiterate, our compassion draws us to the margins of society where we experience, or at least witness, immense amounts of suffering and despair. Our compassion turns into cynicism, outrage (at God, society, ourselves), and confusion.

Beck writes:

As Greg Boyd argues in his book God at War, when doubting and disenchanted Christians lose touch with the warfare worldview of the Bible, we begin to treat the suffering of the world like it’s a logical puzzle to be solved rather than  reality to be resisted. And when we treat suffering as an intellectual problem, all that happens is that our doubts and questions pile up. Our mind starts running in a circle, chasing its own tail.

p. 81

However, in contrast to modern interpreters and readers of the Bible, the Bible itself does not seem very concerned with the presence of evil and suffering in the world. It assumes these things/forces/persons exist. “Suffering exists and we must act -that’s the starting point (p.81).” What both Beck and Boyd seem to be arguing is that the “warfare worldview” of the Bible is such that it assumes, unashamedly so, that evil and suffering exist (obviously), and that the proper response in the face of such things is to resist them. The proper response is to do something. For example, God did not send the Bible incarnate – He sent Jesus. God’s primary revelation to humankind is…a human being, not a philosophical treatise. If God wanted a trite systematic theology about the problem of theodicy and suffering, why did He send a human being who actively worked against suffering (all the while suffering Himself) rather than questioning and philosophizing about it? The Bible just doesn’t make room for such things.

Thus, the problem existence of evil does not pose any sort of theological or philosophical issue for the Bible or its authors. Read the Psalms – they definitely do not deny suffering. Do they cry out in the face of it? Yes. But the central issue is not so much that suffering exists, moreso God’s inaction in face of it. Thus the prayers and pleas rather than the disengaged abstracted theological treatises.

As Beck writes, “The biblical response to evil isn’t philosophical but behavioral. We might phrase it this way: The only theodicy we find in the Bible is resistance (p. 82).”

Due to the graciousness of Greg Boyd and the wonderful people at Woodland Hills Church, I was given the ability to read God at WarSatan and the Problem of Evil, and Is God to Blame?, all three of Boyd’s books focusing primarily on issues related to evil, suffering, and God/Church responsibility in the face of such things. Due to these readings, when I talk about the problem of theodicy to my evangelical friends, they generally assume I mean why evil exists. However, I more question why the Church does little to nothing to act in the face of that evil, suffering, and injustice, and more often than not, blatantly refuses to even acknowledge such evil, suffering, and injustice. The problem of theodicy for me probably isn’t so much “theodicy” as “ecclesiodicy.” Why the Church isn’t more appropriately functioning in its vocation of resistance.

That said, I have familiarity with what Beck is condensing in this chapter. Many evangelicals don’t. Thus, miscommunication frequently ensues. I hope Beck’s work makes Boyd’s focal argument of “resistance” much more accessible than reading his two major works (although, despite possibly disagreeing with some of his main points, I highly recommend them. They are quite enjoyable reads, and one will glean a lot from them).

So what does this resistance look like?

For me, personally, someone with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, anxety, and a Sensory Processing Disorder, it looks like getting off an 11 hour work day, wanting to come home to my apartment and go to bed, only to choose an option that more fully fits the vocation I have been given as a disciple:

A) Study and worship the One whom I claim to worship and follow. To resist, one must know what side one is on.
B) Study the events of the world. Learn more about the injustice. To resist, one must know the enemy.
C) Loving acts of service to friends, family, and people unknown. Self-expenditure is the name of the game. For example, Beck writes that he chose to do the dishes over and against debating the philosophical problem of evil. Rather than debate, he acted.
D)  Rest as worship. Do not rest simply for the sake of selfish rest, as I mentioned above. Rest as sabbath, as worship, as resistance to man’s obsession to control things. Rest as resistance to the dominant ideological/cultural assumptions that “productivity” and “efficiency” are moral virtues, when in reality, they are generally very dehumanizing.

Put simply, the vocation of the Church is to resist.