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Confronting Violence and Providing the Alternative
on July 5, 2012
Brian McLaren's latest fictional ebook, The Girl with the Dove Tattoo, is a powerful account of human nature and the nature of God. This short ebook (Amazon estimates it to be 61 pages) absorbs the reader into its engaging story. We read as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha work together to confront human violence and offer an alternative to violence that will lead to peace. The story is captivating, but even more important is the ebook's ability to illuminate our understanding of anthropology and theology.
There is one scene that I found particularly powerful in this respect. It's the scene where Jesus tells how he, the Buddha, Moses, and Muhammad were attacked by some of Muhammad's followers. Why attack your own religious leader? As one character explains, the men attacked because, "They see these guys as a threat. They're showing that different religions can be friends, that they can work together for the common good." People working together for the common good seems like an odd reason to be angry--religions, including Islam, encourage their followers to practice love and mercy. But as Muhammad was attacked, his response enraged his followers even more. Jesus explains that as they "kicked [Muhammad]--first in the chest, then in the gut, then in the ... groin, he kept telling them that he loved them and he forgave them ... He kept saying, `Allah the Merciful have mercy on you. Allah the Merciful have mercy on you."
The scene, tragically, reveals something important about human nature. We form our group identity in violent opposition to other groups. Group identity is strengthened when we find a common enemy. We think about this enemy as a monster that threatens our group and we hold the monster responsible for our problems. For our group to survive, we think the monster must be killed or expelled. So, when it comes to violence, we always think our violence against our monstrous enemy is good and justified.
But how could Muhammad's own followers turn against him? Because they felt Muhammad was a threat to their religious identity. And indeed, Muhammad was a threat to their religious identity because their identity was based on a distinction all humans tend to make between "us" and "them." (And, in the story, Christians turn against Jesus for similar reasons.) We believe that "we" are good because we know that "they" are bad. Muhammad's friendship with Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha revealed that there is a distinction between "us" and "them," but that the distinction doesn't have to lead to violence. Rather, those distinctions can lead to friendship. And that's the threat Muhammad posed to his fellow Muslims.
Brian is making a profound observation. We tend to think that conflicts stem from differences. But in this story Brian claims that conflicts are not caused by differences with other groups, but by similarities in our own group. Similar desires shared within a group leads to inner conflict, rivalry, and hostility. The monster is not primarily somewhere out there; the monster lies within our own group. One character puts it like this: "we don't realize that our greatest threat isn't actually them. It's the hostility that we all keep stirring up among Us. We need one kind of hostility--against outsiders--to keep from falling into another kind of hostility--where we turn on each other and collapse into complete anarchy. So, we're like, addicted to hostility, and sooner or later, it will destroy us."
Unless we are shown an alternative way of dealing with our own violence. In The Girl with the Dove Tattoo, Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha show us this alternative. For example, in the scene above, Muhammad reveals the alternative by showing us what God is truly like. The theology behind this book reveals that God is not a violent monster. God doesn't respond to our violence with God's own violence. Rather, God responds to our violence with mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. This drives the monster of our own violence out of hiding and into the light. But revealing the monster is dangerous business, for the monster of violence doesn't like to be exposed by love and forgiveness. When Muhammad forgives his attackers, they beat him even more. Why? Because we humans, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, or atheists, tend to have greater faith in our own violence than in a God of mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness. Brian has Jesus explain about the attackers, "But forgiveness--that was one thing they couldn't stand. That made them even more violent than before. They wanted to silence him so he would stop speaking words of forgiveness ... But he was showing them that there is a strength greater than violence and a fight greater than with fists. It's the strength of love and forgiveness, he said, and the struggle ... against hate and revenge in one's own heart."
That's the anthropology and the theology behind The Girl with the Dove Tattoo. It's an anthropology that exposes the violent monster within ourselves and that leads us to take responsibility for our own violence. It's a theology that claims God has nothing to do with our violence, but everything to do with transforming our violence into love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. But more work needs to be done. Fortunately, Brian is following up The Girl with the Dove Tattoo with a non-fiction book that will continue to explore these themes. That book is titled Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. I look forward to reading that book when it is released on 9/11/2012.