Church After Mars Hill with Dr. Joel Aguilar | Podcast Season 04, Episode 04
Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll was known to portray Jesus as a warrior or an “ultimate fighter” in his teachings. He wasn’t the only one. In the Western church, our society’s obsession with violence and militarism has found its way into our theology in subtle – and not so subtle – ways. But is this an accurate portrayal of Christ, the Prince of Peace?
This week, host Joel Kiekintveld is joined by Dr. Joel Aguilar to talk about how we can construct our churches in a non-violent way by looking at scripture through the lens of the forgiving victim.
About our guest:
Joel Aguilar, PhD, lives in Guatemala with his wife Annette and their two daughters. He has a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Joel is currently the dean at the Community of Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI by its initials in Spanish), and is a Senior Fellow with Street Psalms. You can connect with Joel on Twitter at @joelaguilar85
About this season’s host:
Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. a Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. For 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.
Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.
Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.
- Dr. Aguilar presents the theories of mimetic desire and rivalry from René Girard in this conversation. You can read more about Girard’s life and work here.
- Other resources cited for further exploration: read the works of James Alison, Catholic theologian, priest, and author, and check out A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer.
- If you are a Christian leader or pastor seeking a space for support, growth, and transformation for yourself or for your team, we invite you to participate in one of our cohort programs, called a Circle. To learn more and to get on the waitlist to be notified when our next Circle is offered, click here.
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Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast, where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and a higher good.
This season we are discussing Church After Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld.
Back in 1984 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed a Hymnal Revision Committee to compile an updated hymnal for use in that denomination. The committee weighed and debated what songs should be included in the updated song book as well as language choices. In 1986 that committee released a list of the proposed changes. The list excluded some songs because of their militaristic imagery. One of the omitted songs was “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The response to the decision to remove “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was overwhelming. The Los Angeles Times reported that the committee was,
“Barraged by countless telephone protests that jammed office phones for 10 days and by 8,000 letters–only 40 of them supporting” the decision to remove the hymn.
At a special meeting called in response to the uproar the committee voted 21 to 3 to include “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in the 1990 United Methodist Hymnal.
This decision was made in spite of observations from some clergy like The Rev. Beryl Ingram-Ward who was quoted as saying,
″I have scoured the New Testament and found that the tradition of a warrior Christ is not found in Scripture”
That debate over the inclusion of a hymn with military imagery reflects discussions that have taken places in many corners of Christianity about the how much the followers of the Prince of Peace should use images of violence and war when speaking about faith. One place where there was not much debate, if any, about using violent images and militaristic metaphors was Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. The Pastor of that church, Mark Driscoll, portrayed himself as a brawler and street-fighter. He also portrayed Jesus this way when teaching, like this example from a sermon on Revelation.
Driscoll says: “The curtain is pulled back and behold, a white horse. I love this.
How many of you grew up watching Westerns? The good guy always rides the white horse, it’s biblical. The one sitting on it is called faithful and true, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. Jesus will never take a beating again. That was a one-shot deal for salvation, that is not an ongoing job for Jesus, to take a beating. His eyes are like a flame of fire. I just love this. This is ultimate fighter Jesus. A hip hop buddy of mine calls it Thug Jesus.”
That sermon was not alone, that type of imagery spilled over into the way the church was run as well. Mike Cosper describes it this way on Episode 12 of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast,
“In Mars Hill, war was the defining theme of its mission – media and preaching was the air war, community groups and counseling and care was the ground war.
They didn’t take retreats; they went on advances. They didn’t train church planters at conferences; they held boot camps. Privately, Driscoll used the same language. You were to sleep with your boots on. Part of your job description was often referred to as your range of fire.”
Violence and militarism were woven into the fabric of Mars Hill. But Mars Hill is not alone. Kristen Kobes Du Mez in her book Jesus and John Wayne provides a history of evangelicalism in the United States over the past 100 years that includes a warrior Jesus and a lot of violent imagery that was no different than Mars Hill.
But does the church need to be a place of violence and militarism? Do we need to add to the violence of our culture where we in the US have experienced more mass shootings than days this calendar year?
My guest on this episode is Dr. Joel Aguilar. Joel is joining me to talk about how we can construct our churches in a non-violent way.
Hello. Welcome to the podcast. The first question that I always ask folks is just to introduce themselves however they would like to do that.
Joel Aguilar: Awesome. All right. Hi Joel. Thank you for having me. Oh, my name is Joel Aguilar. I am from Guatemala City. This is where I was born and raised. I like to say that I’m a stay-at-home dad by day during the day, and that at time I turn into the Dean of a small graduate school called CETI, the Community of Interdisciplinary Theological Studies by its initial in Spanish. And then I am an academic practitioner. I would like to think so. And yeah, I work and live in Guatemala City and everything I do is in one way or another, connected to trying to help people find different ways to maybe reimagining their ideas of God. And that’s why I’m also connected to a community called Street Psalms where I’m a senior fellow and an ordained member. And we also do that along those lines. So yeah, I’m a father of two little girls who keep me really busy, Annette’s husband, so I’m a brown guy who married at West Michigan, girl, Dutch West Michigan girl. So an interesting connection there for those who are from the Midwest and interesting just today. So one thing that I really enjoy is just spending some time practicing martial arts. Even though I’m a peace builder by heart vocation and everything, I do enjoy sparring and doing that kind of stuff. It’s a counterintuitive way of finding peace, let’s say. So yeah, that’s a little bit of me, Joel.
Joel Kiekintveld: And I know since this podcast is connected with The Seattle School, you’ve been an adjunct faculty member at The Seattle School for different things as well. And I know guest lecturer in different classes, especially with Dr. Ron Ruthruff, so, and other places. So before we get started, I want to lay a bit of foundation before we start talking about how we construct churches in a more nonviolent way. But I know a lot of your work is rooted in the thinking of René Girard. So would you be willing to just give a little bit of a thumbnail sketch, which I know is not easy to do, of Girard’s thinking and theories as we begin our conversation?
Joel Aguilar: Yeah, yeah, that’s a little bit complicated, but I think I can do it. Let’s see if we can do it in about a minute and a half. So there’s the challenge. So René Girard was a French American anthropologist who focused at first his work in going through the literary criticism. And as he was doing that, he found that there were some common trends along the way of the great novelists, right? Let’s say Dostoevsky, Proust, Cervantes, which is in Spanish and closer to home for me, and also the Bible. So he realized that there were some connecting trends all over. One of those connecting trends was the idea of desire, and he called it memetic desire, basically meaning that the way we desire is through the imitation of somebody else. So we imitate somebody else’s desires. That’s to say, and this is a very simplistic way of putting it on, I see you’re wearing that black shirt jacket, and I’m like, Ooh, that’s really cool.
So all of a sudden you have become what Girard calls a model and I start imitating you and your desire for certain things. But beyond that, there is also the imitation of who you are as a person. And when that comes to the center of who we are, Girard posited that there are basically two ways we can relate to one another. One is through rivalry because we become obstacles in achieving the objects of our desires. Or another one that it’s a little bit more hidden, I would say throughout his work, is through positive imitation, meaning we can imitate positively one another and actually move forward in getting to know one another without having too much rivalry. But where it gets interesting is that for Girard, there are certain elements that lead us into rivalry and violence. And when violence grows out of control for Girard, there is a very specific figure that comes up.
And this he targeted in archaic religions, meaning the old religions of early humanity. And he said that there was a way that humans deal with conflict and extreme violence. And that is through the scapegoat mechanism, meaning that we will always try to find somebody we will blame for everything that is wrong with society, and that becomes the scapegoat. And for him, Girard was, for Girard, the scapegoat mechanism was the beginning of religion and violent religion, specifically, the sacred as he called it. Because then as a community reaches uncontrollable violence and we try as humans to find somebody to blame for all the evils of our community, then we execute or sacrifice that scapegoat, and that’s the birth of religion. And then to not make the long theory short, basically as we do that in the beginning of becoming humans and the beginnings of religion all the way through today, we have replicated that scapegoat mechanism through our social institutions, through the way we deal with conflict, through our religious institutions, political, the judicial system, I would say in Girard we can find an explanation of why we’re always trying to cast the blame on somebody.
And one, there are some things that are very appealing to who we are as humans, which is for example, the finding of somebody to blame, death penalty, for example, as a sacrifice to appease who we are. And then I’ll finish with this, and I know this is really quickly. In religion, specifically Christian religion, there is a hope within the system, and that’s where Girard brought up the story of the gospels in seeing Jesus as the ultimate sacrificial victim, meaning that in Jesus, our violent systems were revealed. So Jesus, instead of giving himself as a self-sacrifice, he came to reveal our violence and the scapegoat mechanism by which he was crucified and executed and then comes the resurrection. And Jesus in coming back, resurrecting, he threw out of balance the human system in, in not coming as a vengeful demigod who would avenge his death and pay back to all of those who crucified him.
But as James Alison says, he came back in the form of a forgiving victim teaching us a new way to be human and teaching us a new way to relate to one another. So I know I left a ton out of there, but that’s a quick summary. But I would say just to help our audience a little bit, there are three key elements. One is the idea of mimetic desire. The other element is how archaic religion works through violence and through the execution of the scapegoat in order to bring peace. And the third element would be more on the positive side of things that Christianity does bring a revelation of that system and hopefully we can see in Jesus a new way of being to not fall back into our violent ways. Yeah.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, thank you so much for doing that. I know that not everybody’s familiar with that way of thinking about things, the way of thinking about religion and violence, and that’s kind of the topic that we’re going to be talking about today is a little bit of what does that look like? We’re using Mars Hill Church in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill as kind of this case study over the season. And that church tended to use a lot of violent imagery. The pastor sort of described himself as sort of a street fighter, saw Jesus in sort of the same way, this hyper-masculine kind of Rambo character. It was even said that the favorite movie around the church at the time was Fight Club. So these violent, militaristic kind of ways of communicating the gospel, they talked about some of their strategies is the Air War and the ground war and those type of things. And then when we add to that, the history of Christianity and colonialism, which I love Brian McLaren talks about colonialism really boils down to the choice of convert, leave, submit or die. We have this kind of long history of violence and violent imagery in Christianity. And I wonder if you could share your thoughts from your perspective. Why do you think Christians are so drawn to this kind of violence and violent imagery, especially encompassing like militarism and those type of things? What’s the attraction there from your perspective?
Joel Aguilar: Joel, that’s a great question. And I may have mentioned a little bit of my background in martial arts because here’s one thing that I’ve learned through practicing martial arts. Some of us follow the mixed martial arts circuit in different leagues, and after experiencing a fair bit of sparring at the gym, we don’t really know what violence actually feels like, at least subjective, physical violence. So I think there is a romanticizing of what violence is, and leaving it at the very subjective level of like, you punch me, I punch you. I mean, getting punched in the face is really, really hurts. So now I think there is a romanticizing of what violence is, and I think it has to do because of a misreading of the biblical text. I think as a society we are addicted to violence, and violence as a means to achieve peace has been the main narrative for so long that we have lost creativity to think beyond that narrative.
And I think specifically Christians, we’re drawn to violence because we have not been able to read the text through the eyes of the forgiving victim, which is what James Alison posits in a lot of his work and Girard himself, and this is where it’s been extremely helpful. In one of his works, Girard talks about the texts of persecution and the text of persecution is basically a narrative, a story told from the perspective of those who perpetrated violence; those who executed a lynching; mob violence, for example, against a group of people or a specific individual. So in a text or a narrative of persecution, there will be always a justification of our violence by saying, well, we needed to get rid of these people because they were polluting our little group or society or whatever. And I think Christianity has fallen into the temptation of reading the Bible as a text of persecution and a rule book.
And I think that’s where hermeneutics, the interpretation of the text becomes key because it is not what the text has to say and what it means, but it is through whose eyes do we read the text. And if we dare to read the text through the eyes of the forgiving victim, we would have a different narrative. So I would say Christianity–and I come from a long tradition of evangelical Christians. My parents were pastors in Guatemala City from a very traditional evangelical background–we have misread the text I feel, and we are within a society that it’s addicted to violence. So we want payback. We’re in the cycle of violence. We are entangled with one another in that violence. So we want our first share of violence and we want a gun that will give us the violence and the victor we want over our enemies.
Joel Kiekintveld: As I’m listening to you talk, I mean, I wonder for those who are maybe hearing this for the first time of reading the text from a different way or from the victim’s point of view, can you give an example of how, and this isn’t a question I prepped for you, but is there a text you can think of where by reading it from the victim’s point of view, we begin to see a different way of dealing with the text?
Joel Aguilar: Yes. So the one text that comes to mind, and we’ve used this text for many years in the streets, homes, community, and actually the theologian who helped us start thinking about this was Phyllis Trill in The Texts of Terror. So I think the Judges 19 narrative of the Levite and his concubine, and that text is not very well known either. So if our audience wants to go check it out and have a gruesome violent reading of the Old Testament, this is like if you’re in for an action movie that leaves nothing out for the imagination, go read that text of Judges 19 and the 20 and 21 as well because the violence keeps happening over a few chapters. So in that text, there’s the Levite and a concubine who are not living where they’re supposed to. And at some point the Levite goes to visit his father-in-law or the father of the concubine, and as they’re coming back, they stop at a town.
And I’m just going really quick through here because it’s actually a long text and the men of the town, well, he gets to a space where he’s waiting for Middle Eastern hospitality to flourish. Somebody will see them and will invite them to their home and will open the space for them to be guests. So it does happen, but the person who is inviting them to be guests then and the Levite are surprised because there is a mob of men outside threatening to sodomize the guest and to rape the guest. And what’s interesting about this text, this is where it starts getting a little gruesome, the host of the Levite and the concubine is like, oh, don’t do such a vile act to my guest here, have my daughter and his wife or his concubine. So all of the sudden we start seeing, like, oh, wait a second.
So who are the baddies of this story? Are the men who want to rape the Levite or is it the Levite and the father of this young girl who are putting them out there to be raped by this violent mob? So in reading that text, a lot of things happening, are happening along the way, because the Levite at some point, first of all, the woman left the Levite and went back to her father’s house. And the Levite in the story says that he will go out and find her and speak to her heart tenderly and bring her back. But that doesn’t happen throughout the text. And there is a lot of violence happening, and the Levite and the concubine ends up being raped. And there’s a part in the text where the Levite just grabs the concubine whose hand was still holding the threshold after being gang-raped all night, and he puts her on his donkey. And when he gets to his, how he decides that he’s going to teach a lesson to the people of Israel, and the story turns even more violent. The story never says the woman actually died. But the story does say that the Levi decided to cut her into 12 pieces and send her to each one of the tribes of Israel so they would see what happened, talk about it, and judge what happened, meaning, let’s see what we can learn of this. Right? Things turn sour even further.
Everybody is like, no, we cannot do this. We need to respond. And there’s basically mass genocide happening against one of the tribes of Israel, and they kill almost all the men of that tribe, and then they keep making violence happen, and they take a bunch of young virgins and give them to the surviving men of the genocide so the tribe doesn’t cease to exist completely. So just briefly paraphrasing this story, reading the text through the eyes of the victim would take us to see the concubine who’s never named, will take us to see all the other young virgins who were given without any consent to the men of that tribe that survive a genocide. It will take us to see also, this is where it gets tricky. So the same tribe that raped the concubine, it’s the tribe that suffers the genocide. So did they deserve the genocide to be erased almost from the history of Israel? Could it be that after all that violence and the genocide that this tribe suffered, I think it was a tribe of Benjamin that was almost erased. You correct me if I’m wrong, wrong,
Joel Kiekintveld: I don’t remember either, so you might be better off than me.
Joel Aguilar: So I
Joel Kiekintveld: I know the tribe almost gets erased. I remember that part.
Joel Aguilar: So could it be that they become the victims? So all of the sudden you see there’s a reversal where we’re just not trying to point out who’s the one to blame, right? Is it the concubine? Right. And when we read this text in some communities in Guatemala, people usually turn against her and they’re like, it’s because she left her husband and she had to stay by him. Some people turned to, oh, it was the bad people who wanted to rape the husband. But then we keep reading further and the violence just keeps escalating and it keeps moving forward and it gets worse. And all of a sudden the people who were going to rape the man and his concubine become the victims of a national, let’s call it genocide. So if we read from the perspective of the victims in the text, the concubine is a victim, but also the tribe that suffers the genocide. And then, but who else is a victim? So the victims start popping up, and we are left without a scapegoat when we read the text from that perspective. So that’s just a quick example, and if there are any Bible scholars listening to us, very likely they’ll find many holes into this process. But also it’s just for the last few minutes that we haven’t actually read the text and gone through it with enough time and depth to see and ask certain questions. Right.
Joel Kiekintveld: What’s interesting to me in that story is there’s a couple things that play there that I think tie into what we’re talking about. One is there’s not an easy solution in that story. Like there’s no -We often talk about the myth of redemptive violence. There’s not any sort of violence in that story that seems to actually solve the problem. It just kind of keeps making it worse. And then the concubine who’s at the center of the story is in, and I know you said that some people will make her the scapegoat, but when I read from that perspective, she seems to be sort of this innocent victim, victim who ends up with maybe the worst result in a way in the story, aside from the genocide, but at least in the first part of the story. So it’s interesting when we begin to read from that perspective, it’s not as simple as we often think of, even if we’re reading the text from a pretty violent perspective where the wages of sin is death, this story doesn’t seem to answer those questions very well.
Joel Aguilar: And it’s just get very complicated. I, so I would say reading scripture as a persecution text or a text of persecution makes things very black and white. These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, or this is the good guy, this is the bad guy. When we read from the perspective of the victim, it is not as simple because there are so many victims, and as you mentioned, it trumps the myth of redemptive violence. And all of a sudden we find ourselves with our hands full of blood and full of victims within the text. So there’s never a resolution where violence is like, oh, and this is when violence actually worked and brought peace to this community, and they lived happily ever after. So yeah, you’re spot on that.
Joel Kiekintveld: What’s interesting to me in the kind of, you talked about, and I grew up in a similar evangelical world where a lot of violent language was sort of used, but also a very violent atonement theory. The atonement theory that’s kind of the most popular in the tradition I was in was penal substitutionary atonement, which is very focused on: someone had to pay a bloody price for sin so that others could not have to pay that price. But it ends up being wrapped around violence again. And I’ve wondered for years, and maybe you want to speak to that idea of atonement, nonviolent and violent atonement, but I’ve wondered for years if the violent imagery inside of the church in some ways stems out of the fact that we even think about what happened on the cross in terms of violence and retribution that sort of in a way opens it up for us to feel like that’s okay as an image for us of faith, if that question makes sense.
Joel Aguilar: Yeah. Then I think the question for me is whose violence is in the process? Cause I mean the cross is obviously violent. I mean it was a means of torture. But I think where we may have possibly perhaps missed the mark is in whose violence is the cross or whose wrath–because that’s very evangelical language– whose wrath is being atoned and quieted and fulfilled and satisfied at the cross. So one thing that I think it’s important to keep in mind is penal substitutionary atonement–It’s just one of the most recent theories of what happened at the cross. There is the ransom theory, the Christus Victor theory, and there are the moral theory of atonement. And there is several theories of atonement throughout church history who were presented by different theologians, different councils of the church, different patriarchs of the church, if we want to call them that.
And penal substitutionary atonement is one of the most recent ones, and it’s also a very Protestant one because John Calvin was the one who actually started thinking along those lines. And in doing so, I wonder if we are missing a little bit of the content of that interpretation and idea because who was John Calvin, right? He was a lawyer. So remember what I said before, we’ve read the Bible as a rule book. So he’s a lawyer, he reads the Bible and he reads it as the law. Therefore, in his mind, somebody’s got to pay the price of crime and then he’s translating in his mind, sin equals crime. Somebody has to pay for this crime. So that as context, it’s important to understand where it comes from. And that’s specifically the one theory of atonement that I was brought up in as well. But then, reading the Bible from below, from the space and position of those who have been crushed by life, from the victims of our system, from that perspective makes us wonder whose wrath and who do we have to pay to.
And I think that’s where things get tricky. Contemporary NeoReformed circles put a lot of weight on Pauline reading of the wrath of God. But even within Paul’s writing, the idea of wrath is very dubious and nebulous. I mean, it’s not very clear. But as good sons and daughters of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we want things to be clear-cut, black and white. So can we ask some questions to the text? Can we ask whose wrath was Jesus satisfying on the cross? Could it be that it was our wrath as humans? Could it be that Jesus was revealing the scapegoat mechanism that we have lived in for so long? Could it be that it wasn’t God’s wrath? Because then we have a little bit of a contradiction there. It’s like if the God who asks for Jesus’ death is the same God who resurrected Jesus, I mean, is a little bit confusing, right. So could it be? [Joel: Yeah] Could it be? And I just pose this as questions because if we enter into again, a doctrinal stance and statement, we fall back into a violent way of seeing things dogmas that don’t allow for flexibility tend to become violent. And we saw that historically through the Inquisition in Spain and also in the Americas because the holy office of the Inquisition was exported to Latin America, and we saw tons of people who were murdered in church or on the pretense that they have to pay for something as well.
Joel Kiekintveld: As you’re thinking, it brings up an idea for me that I was interacting with quite a bit last summer, which is Thomas J. Oord talks about God as the primary attribute of God is that God is loving, so God can’t not love. So he raises some of the same questions that you do coming from a majority perspective then about what is the cross and what’s happening there and whose wrath is satisfied. He’s coming at it from a slightly different angle, but it resonates the same way with me of like, if we begin to think about the nature of God and how we read the text, that may cause us to have to ask these questions. I think that the contradiction that you point out between what happens on Good Friday and what happens on Easter morning is a hard one because it is confusing and it feels like as if God is maybe schizophrenic or something like that, or of two minds. So I think those are legitimate questions for us to ask, especially in light of this topic of violence,
We’re kind of through this podcast this season really wanting to work at how do we build the church for the future. So we don’t want to just spend our time talking about all the errors made by one particular church or a number of churches, but how do we move forward towards that? How do we move into a different place? So I guess a question I have for you, and even in your introduction, you described yourself in some ways as your work all centers around sort of peacemaking. How do we begin to build faith communities and churches and so on that undo some of this violent language, this images of violence in some ways? How do we become followers of the Prince of Peace and begin to practice our faith in a different way?
Joel Aguilar: No, that’s a great question. It’s a beautiful question, Joel. I think one, because we’re so addicted to violence, our tendency is always to look at what’s been the worst that’s happened, what is the most damaging, horrible thing that has happened? And we focus our attention on to that because we become fascinated by the wrong that somebody else committed and they become our scapegoats, and they are the ones now were to blame for like, oh, it’s because of them that the church is in the state that it is, it is because of all these celebrity pastors that the church has lost credibility, or we will go back historically, or it is because Constantine that the church lost its focus on peace. So we will always try someone to blame for the things that are not right. So I think one of the things that we can do is to genuinely ask the question on whose eyes or through whose eyes are we reading the text through and who is being brought up in the reading we do on the text?
So I think that’s where it’s key to find people who perhaps have a little bit more experience on finding a nonviolent way of being a Christian. And I think it requires a genuine questioning of who we are as Christians. So one of the things that we need to understand is that we are hardwired that way to pick aside, and I mean, that’s just who we are as human, but if we become aware that we’re picking a side at least that will help us question why or am I picking this side? Am I against them or why? So just becoming aware. But then practically, I think we have to develop cultures, church cultures of love, church cultures of goodness that invite people to feel loved, welcomed, and accepted. And that’s really hard. It sounds very simple, but it is really hard, I think. So here’s perhaps a practical way of doing it. For Girard, in archaic religion, there are three things that shape archaic religion:
It’s the myth, the prohibitions, and the rituals. Myth is the story of how we became who we are religiously, in our case, the case of evangelical Christianity. I would say Our founding myth is the murder of the two brothers at the beginning of creation. Cain killing Abel because God was favoring Abel, right? So did you see there is a foundational myth there? Then there are prohibitions, right? You shall not kill. All right. So we have those prohibitions and you shall not covet and you shall do all these things that are important to do. So you won’t end up killing somebody. And then we have the ritual, the way we repeat the sacrifice in order to remind ourselves that this is what can happen if I kill somebody. So I should not do it. I shall not do it. So we translated that foundational myth to the cross, and I was like, of course Jesus paid for it because God’s been angry at us for the whole time.
So we keep repeating the myth when we approach the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper with a sacrificial mindset thinking that we are seeing the blood and the body of Christ. So we remember that he was brutally sacrificed to a peace for God’s wrath. So we keep repeating the ritual. So if those myth prohibitions and rituals are part of archaic religion, I know we’re not that different from our ancient ancestors. I think one way of subverting the violence within our religion is through subverting the rituals, not even the myth, because changing a foundational myth is just– that would just basically impossible. But if we change the rituals, we can begin to slowly changing the culture and the significance we give to the foundational myths. For example, here in Guatemala, one of the things that we have experienced with our community of grassroots leaders is that a lot of my friends and colleagues changed their minds regarding the homeless gang members and people in poverty by just sitting and having meals and sharing life.
That sounds almost like a Christian mission development cliche that, I mean, that’s what it sounds like. We, we’ve read the Christian stuff and the development stuff on the Three Cups of Tea or When Helping Hurts and do things with, and then it almost sounds like a cliche, but if we actually do it and sit down with people and open the space for true in, I don’t want to use the word inclusion, but with true mutuality in hospitality, then all of a sudden we can be with one another and reimagine somebody else’s humanity. So the first time about 15 years ago, May, that I had a meal with homeless people about threw up. I now look back and I feel a little bit of shame on that. We were sharing pizza, and when I saw their hands digging in for the slices of pizza, I was like, oh crap, I’m about to get sick. And I felt repulsion towards them. All of a sudden my brain shut them out and they became inhuman because they were going to pollute me and they were going to make me sick. But the more the ritual repeated, the more we open up to one another. And that’s why it’s a ritual. It’s a constant repetition of a ritual. So now we’re sharing a meal and it’s a constant sharing. It’s not once a week, it’s not once a month, but it’s almost every day of the week that we sit down and share a meal. And that was a huge shift in some of my colleagues and partners in ministry down here. They were not bringing food anymore just to give it out of the goodness of their heart. They were bringing the meal to be shared with people, to live that experience together. And it became a constant ritual. And over the course of time, one of my friends who is a pastor and lost his church, he was expelled by the board of the elders, board from his church, because he was having meals with the homeless, and his whole family was excommunicated from the church and denomination because they were with the homeless, sharing meals with the homeless and bringing them to church. He said to me, I realized that we were humans together. So I know it sounds like a cliche because we’ve made it a cliché,
But if we’re willing to engage truthfully, then I think that opens up a space for undoing violence and exclusion. And then you mentioned violent language as well. That’s a hard one because language in and of itself is– I’ll go a little philosophical here– is the house of being. Martin Heidegger said it. This is what in, This is our house, this is where we express who we are, what we think, and what we desire, I would add. So it is hard to change our language, but I think it is possible to give a new significance and new meaning to the words that we use and how we speak to one another. Quick scriptural reference: Acts 10, Peter’s conversion is a conversion of language. When he visits Cornelius’s house, Peter speaks to Cornelius and says, I have seen that I should not call anyone somebody impure. So to me, that shows that somehow Peter understood that language was a violent institution within humanity, that it’s in many cases designed to exclude and perpetrate violence to others. And I love how James Alison interprets that story. He says that that is the only time in scripture where Peter uses the power of unbinding on heaven and in earth at the same time,
Because of how the vision happens and the words he uses, it’s like I have come to realize that I should not call anybody impure. And he’s not saying that God should not call. I mean, God was already saying, Hey, kill and eat. Don’t call impure what I’ve already said that it’s clean. But it’s Peter’s transformation that happens through, not through the vision from God, but because Cornelius accepted his own vision to send and search for Peter. And it’s from the outside that Peter’s vision comes in. So yeah, I hope that answers the question. I don’t know.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah. What I hear you saying in that Joel is that, yeah, maybe transforming the founding myth, the kind of major story would be difficult to do, but the way that we kind of go about dismantling this is, how do we practice together, and even being open to who are we being open to? What translate, what translations or interpretations are we open to, rather than very rigid, this is the way to understand it, being open to hearing different interpretations and different experiences. So that becomes part of our ritual. And then also that we begin to change the language, and then that does become the new language that we use moving forward, if I hear you correctly in all of that.
Joel Aguilar: Yeah, definitely. And it is realizing that we are the ones using and creating the language, and it’s not God who’s asking us to call somebody impure. It’s not God who’s asking us to go and kill somebody because they are polluting to the people of God. And it’s not God who’s saying, Hey, I am wrathful and I’m going to burn you with consuming fire. Like the consuming fire and wrath, it’s actually human.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah. If we could just sit with that a bit, that would transform a great deal. If we don’t see God as vengeful and wrathful, but we see that vengeful and wrathful nature coming from us, that changes the story just in that, if we can sit from that perspective. Is there anything that I’m missing or haven’t asked you about or you would want to talk about when it comes to this idea of violence and nonviolent approaches to Christianity?
Joel Aguilar: I don’t think you’ve missed questions per se. I would say that one of the things that I have appreciated about Girard’s work is that he’s very clear in saying that violence is human, and what we do is to project our violent desires on the idea of God. And we may think of violence as war, for example, or subjective violence when we slap somebody in the face or when we see somebody murdered on the news, and that’s violent. But there are so many other different kinds where we perpetrate violence. For example, I have friends who, so I have two daughters. One is six, the other one’s one year old, and we are so intoxicated with violence. I have friends who have told us, “Hey, how are you disciplining your one year old already?” And I’m like, what the heck are you talking about? Yeah. How are you encouraging her to not do the things you don’t want her to do? I mean, she’s one, right? What can I do? And then this blew my mind.
This person said, well, if you start flicking her legs and hands or start pinching her every time she does something wrong, she will associate the pain of your punishment with what you don’t want her to do. And I was just like, I can’t imagine myself pinching our one year old just to assert that I’m right or flicking her legs or hands to make her cry and feel pain to pay for my wrath. You see? Yeah. And as a survivor of physical abuse by my father, I’m like, I literally, hell no. I don’t want either of my daughters to experience what I experienced. And there are other little, for example, we sometimes are oblivious to how the scapegoat mechanism works. There’s always somebody that gets under our skin. There’s always somebody that will, we will find annoying, weird, awkward, and we don’t see it as violence, but it’s how the scapegoat mechanism works.
Then we’ll go with our, it’s like, oh, have you seen so and so? So he’s so awkward. Oh my goodness. Every time he’s around, I’m so awkward. I don’t like the way he looks me. And then somebody else will be like, oh, yeah, you’re right. I don’t feel comfortable around him. So we start shaping our identity against somebody. That’s the process of scapegoating, because we’re coming together. We may not sacrifice this person to the God of the volcano, but we will for sure exclude in the same way. And if we were primitive, we may have as well sacrificed that person to the volcano. So there are the system of scapegoating rivalry, how we meditate one another. It’s so present in our lives and in the church. And I think that’s why we have leaders that have done so much harm to our faith communities. They’re leaders who do shape their identities over and against a common enemy, street brawler, always fighting against somebody that’s rivalries, the process of scapegoating. And all of a sudden you rally a bunch of men around you to become the men they want to be. And then you end up becoming abusive because violence engenders violence, and we imitate violence. And yeah,
Joel Kiekintveld: It’s interesting. I heard Richard Rohr a number of years ago say that the easiest way to form a community is decide who you’re against. And I think that’s what I hear you saying in those things is that we quickly will bond with somebody that agrees with us that this other person is, to use your word, weird or a annoying or believes differently than us or whatever. And I think that’s a cautionary tale for us as leaders as well. How are we forming the communities that we’re a part of? Are we doing that over and against someone or by inviting folks in? So I appreciate your words there.
Joel Aguilar: Yeah, no, it is so true. But at the same time, I think we need to be aware of what the cost of doing that is. So our friends in Street Psalms with James Alison and many others have been talking about this idea of having a weak identity, meaning a strong identity is formed over and against somebody else, but a weak identity is formed with and for somebody else. And in doing that, we get to the point where in our society, we will be caught between factions of whatever the problem or the issue is, whether the political right or the political left or liberal Christians, progressive Christians, or the conservative Christians. And we will label each other in whatever way we want and can. But I think the task of leadership is to sit in between and actually form relationships, meaningful relationships with a parent, two sides of an issue.
So the question is, if I am at church, if I am a leader at church, do I have the capacity to sit down and have coffee, share life, have my daughters play with their kids of somebody who is extremely conservative, perhaps in the context of the USA who supports the NRA, who’s for guns and whatever. Can I have that communion with them and see them as human? And do I have the capacity to sit and be friends and share life with the most radical, progressive, anti-gun, defun, the police, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, person within my congregation, and can I set the table for them to share life together?
So I think the task of leadership in and of itself has become way more complex, and it has a cost because if we do that, we need to be aware that we may be labeled as a sellout. Your convictions are not strong enough, right? Or we may become or find ourselves in the positions of being scapegoated and being the ones being excluded because we did not have enough teeth to actually take a stand against whatever it is, that thing. So that’s where I think the rubber hits the road for some of us who are in whatever leadership position we are. Do I have the capacity to form my identity with and for somebody who I disagree with and don’t even like? Or do I have the capacity to actually form my identity against them? And either one’s got its price and either one, both have their consequences and both can shape a faith community deeply and can build either a culture of violence or a culture of goodness. Right.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, that feels like a really good place to land, this idea of our choice between a culture of violence and a culture of goodness and the hard work of being kind of in the radical middle, being willing to sit between two opposing, two opposing sides. Thank you so much, Joel, for spending time and talking with us as we try to unpack what it means to be the church as we move into the future. I really appreciate having you.
Joel Aguilar: No, thanks for having me. I hope this was helpful for the audience and that some of the concepts may have sparked their interest to find more about Girard or James Allison or all these things. Let me see, because there’s a resource, I think it’s in incredibly valuable that came out not too long after the podcast that you are using as a case study. And I mean, it is, I’m not paid in any way, shape, or form by the writers of this book, but there’s, so Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer wrote a really simple, yet beautiful book called A Church Called Tov, like the Old Testament tov, word for goodness, and I think mean, and the subtitle is Forming a Goodness Culture. So I think if anybody in the audience is in a position of leadership who are asking questions, okay, this is what we know we shouldn’t do, how do we actually do something different or something that it’s good, I think they definitely should check out that book and study it and read it. And if you can read it, for example, if you’re a leader who’s a pastor, read it with the elders board or read it with your team, read. I think it’s just such a simple, yet profound resource that can help anybody to find a way to have a culture of goodness and non-violence within the church. Yeah.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, we’ll make sure that we get some connections to some resources in the show notes to both Alison and Girard, and then also to that book from Scot McKnight, and who was the other author?
Joel Aguilar: Laura Barringer.
Joel Kiekintveld: Laura Barringer. Excellent. Thank you so much for recommending that and for spending time with us today.
Joel Aguilar: Awesome. Thank you, Joel.
Joel Kiekintveld: It was a pleasure to have Joel join me today. I hope our conversation about peacemaking and how the can look less militaristic and violent was helpful for you. I pray that you’ll be able to put these thoughts into practice in your faith community.
If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the low-residency Master of Arts in Theology & Culture (MATC) programs at The Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at: theseattleschool.edu. I also invite you to check out the Center For Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that 1 in 3 pastors is at risk of burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local contexts – and in the process, to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach at transformingengagement.org/offerings
Until Next Time, I’m Joel Kiekintveld, Grace & Peace.