Love the Enemy’s Side of the Story (Covington Kids vs Nathan Phillips)

I was ready alright. I saw a clip on YouTube where “white privileged teen boys of an all-male Catholic school (Covington)” were taunting and mocking Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe member and Vietnam veteran. This happened after the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Moreover, some of the boys were wearing caps that said MAGA (“Make America Great Again”), especially also the boy with an apparent smirk on his face who seemed to block Nathan’s way.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated by Native American culture, especially since the Kevin Costner movie Dances with Wolves (1990) came out. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump and the way he wants to “Make America Great Again”, to put it mildly.

So I was ready alright. Ready to defend the oppressed, ready to take up the underdog cause. Ready to go on a rant against “conceited racists”. I spontaneously identified and empathized with Nathan Phillips. In doing so, I equally spontaneously vilified especially that smirking boy with the MAGA cap. My primal conclusion run parallel with this kind of meme:

nathan phillips and the maga hat wearing teens

However, luckily some people pointed to other clips about the event and I had to radically alter my vision. Don’t get me wrong. I still sympathize with people like Nathan Phillips, but now I also no longer vilify the teens from Covington Catholic High School. And here is why (thanks for this video by Dinkleberry Crunch):

 

Surely this video adds more context to the whole situation, and prevents me from thinking of one side as “noble knights” and the other as “big monsters”. The truth is that the knights (the “Jedi”) aren’t that noble and the monsters (the “Sith”) aren’t that monstrous. Moreover, by choosing sides the way I did, I became somewhat a self-righteous monster myself.

Jesus demands (Matthew 5:44): “Love your enemies.” Father Robert Barron pointed out that this kind of “love is not a sentiment or feeling. It is actively willing the good of the other.” Indeed, if love were a mere feeling, we could never love our “enemies”, for we mostly associate them with negative, dark sentiments. The reality of the love Jesus is talking about cannot be reduced to feelings, though. It has to do with a conscious act of the will. Love demands us to look at a conflict from “the enemy’s side”. This leads to a kind of self-criticism that allows us to restore a healthy relationship with “the enemy”. Love as an act of will operates in the hope that the enemy will imitate this kind of behavior, be self-critical himself, and make a new healthy relationship a reality – in whatever form. In other words, that kind of love has the potential to create a space for mutually reinforcing “good mimesis”.

Anyway, Jesus warns against perversions of “defending victims”. He fully stands with the oppressed, but refuses “to persecute others in the name of victims”. After all, by persecuting others in the name of victims, we tend to become oppressors ourselves, and we become the monsters we wanted to destroy. That’s what kind of happened to me, I must admit, in the case described above. Sometimes we need the words of wise, spiritual people to be more aware of what happens to ourselves and the world. So, to conclude this post, two quotes by the wise voices of Gil Bailie and René Girard:

René Girard in Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p. 236:

We have experienced various forms of totalitarianism that openly denied Christian principles. There has been the totalitarianism of the Left, which tried to outflank Christianity; and there has been totalitarianism of the Right, like Nazism, which found Christianity too soft on victims. This kind of totalitarianism is not only alive but it also has a great future. There will probably be some thinkers in the future who will reformulate this principle in a politically correct fashion, in more virulent forms, which will be more anti-Christian, albeit in an ultra-Christian caricature. When I say more Christian and more anti-Christian, I imply the figure of the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is nothing but that: it is the ideology that attempts to outchristianize Christianity, that imitates Christianity in a spirit of rivalry.

[…]

You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.

rené girard quote on caricature of christianity

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1995, p. 20:

There’s plenty of truth in the revised picture of Western history that the young are now routinely taught, the picture of the West’s swashbuckling appetite for power, wealth, and dominion. What’s to be noted is that it is we, and not our cultural adversaries, who are teaching it to them. It is we, the spiritual beneficiaries of that less than always edifying history, who automatically empathize more with our ancestors’ victims than with our ancestors themselves. If we are tempted to think that this amazing shift is the product of our own moral achievement, all we have to do is look around at how shamelessly we exploit it for a little power, wealth, and dominion of our own.

The fact is that the concern for victims has gradually become the principal gyroscope in the Western world. Even the most vicious campaigns of victimization – including, astonishingly, even Hitler’s – have found it necessary to base their assertion of moral legitimacy on the claim that their goal was the protection or vindication of victims. However savagely we behave, and however wickedly and selectively we wield this moral gavel, protecting or rescuing innocent victims has become the cultural imperative everywhere the Biblical influence has been felt.

gil bailie quote on myths justifying violence

 

 

The Jesus Treatment of Bullying

In Catholicism, A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image Books, 2011) Robert Barron explains the nonviolent way of Jesus in the face of evil as a “third” way, apart from violently fighting or fleeing the evil (pp. 48-51):

In words that still take our breath away, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44). In order to understand this radical teaching, we have to be clear on what Jesus means by “love” (agape in Matthew’s Greek). Love is not a sentiment or feeling, not merely a tribal loyalty or family devotion. Love is actively willing the good of the other as other. Often we are good or kind or just to others so that they might be good, kind, or just to us in return. But this is indirect egotism, not love. And this is why loving one’s enemies is the surest test of love. If I am good to someone who is sure to repay me, then I might simply be engaging in an act of disguised or implicit self-interest. But if I am generous to someone who is my enemy, who is not the least bit interested in responding to me in kind, then I can be sure that I have truly willed his good and not my own. And this is why Jesus says, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? … And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Mt 5:46-47). Jesus wants his followers to rise above the imperfect forms of benevolence that obtain among the general run of human beings and to aspire to love the way that God loves: “for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). […] If we are truly free from our attachments, especially from the attachment to approval, then we can become “sons and daughters” of [this Love], this God and hence conduits of his peculiar grace. […]

The already radical teaching on loving one’s enemies becomes even more intensely focused as Jesus turns his attention to the practice of nonviolence. Giving voice to the common consensus among law-abiding Jews, Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well” (Mt 5:38-40). It is most important not to overlook the fact that this was, for its time, quite an enlightened, compassionate rule, for many individuals and nations would have felt justified in answering a violent affront with a devastating and disproportionate counterviolence. The seemingly brutal “eye for an eye” rule was in fact an attempt to delimit the retaliatory instinct. But, as we can see, Jesus is uneasy even with this relatively benign recommendation. I fully realize that Jesus’s instruction can sound like simple acquiescence to the power of violence, but we have to probe further. There are two classical responses to evil: fight or flight. When confronted with injustice or violence, we can answer in kind – and sometimes in our sinful world that is all that we can reasonably do. But as every playground bully and every geopolitical aggressor knows, this usually leads to an act of counterviolence, and then still another retaliation until the opponents are locked in an endless round of fighting. Gandhi expressed it this way: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The other typical responses to aggression are running away or submitting – and sometimes, given our finite, sinful situation, that is all we can do. But, finally, we all know that ceding to violence tends only to justify the aggressor and encourage even more injustice. And therefore it appears as though, in regard to solving the problem of violence, we are locked in a no-win situation, compelled to oscillate back and forth between two deeply unsatisfactory strategies.

In his instruction on nonviolence Jesus is giving us a way out, and we will grasp this if we attend carefully to the famous example he uses: “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well” (Lk 6:29). In the society of the time, one would never have used one’s left hand for any form of social interaction, since it was considered unclean. Thus, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, he is hitting you with the back of his hand, and this was the manner in which one would strike a slave or a child or a social inferior. In the face of this kind of violence, Jesus is recommending neither fighting back nor fleeing, but rather standing one’s ground. To turn the other cheek is to prevent him from hitting you the same way again. It is not to run or to acquiesce, but rather to signal to the aggressor that you refuse to accept the set of assumptions that have made his aggression possible. It is to show that you are occupying a different moral space. It is also, consequently, a manner of mirroring back to the violent person the deep injustice of what he is doing. The great promise of this approach is that it might not only stop the violence but also transform the perpetrator of it.

Robert Barron then gives some examples of this strategy, as it was used by Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Pope John Paul II (see the video fragment below):

The award winning social skills educator Brooks Gibbs, who tries to educate people to live by the Golden Rule, took the “mirroring strategy” of Jesus as a way to deal with bullying. What the mirroring strategy does, basically, is to take away the power of the bully to humiliate the victim. The words of the bully are received as “badges of honor”. It is comparable to the way the word “nigga” is sometimes used nowadays among African-American youngsters themselves, so the word gradually loses its power to have a derogatory meaning. I remember being called “homo” one time and thanking the one who yelled it for “the compliment”. In other words, the mirroring strategy in the face of evil is a kind of transformative mimetic practice that invites evildoers to imitate another set of practices and assumptions to end the evil. It could be an example of what René Girard calls “good mimesis”.Tupac on Niggas

Does it work? Not always, but if it does, the results are stunning, as is shown in the video below by Brooks Gibbs:

A Mimesis of Nelson Mandela

Incensum, a vocal ensemble I am part of, was very honored and grateful to sing at a memorial service for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013), organized by the Embassy of South Africa in Belgium, on 12 December 2013. The service was held at the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels. For more information and some tributes:

Saint Michaels Cathedral Brussels interior choirCLICK HERE TO READ THE PROGRAM (PDF)

CLICK HERE TO WATCH A REPORT ON THE EVENT (hear us sing at the end)

Click here to read a welcome by Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi (PDF)

Click here to read a tribute by Mr P. Ustubs of the EEAS (PDF)

Click here to read a tribute by Sec. General Dirk Achten (PDF)

It is clear from testimonies all over the world that Mandela is an inspiring example of forgiveness. The man himself made a spiritual journey from the prison of bitterness to the liberation of pardon. His life took part in a dynamic of Love that is also characteristic of Christ’s life. To imitate these examples is not merely to copy them but to challenge ourselves to continue the creativity of Love in our own circumstances. It is trying to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39 – click here to read more) without losing our self-respect. A mimesis (i.e. imitation) of Nelson Mandela can become an example of what René Girard would call “good mimesis”. It seems that African culture itself has its own resources for this type of imitation. African American writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960):

Zora Neale HurstonThe Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic. But this in no way damages his standing as an original. Mimicry is an art in itself [and] he does it as the mocking-bird does it, for the love of it, and not because he wishes to be like the one imitated.

In other words, to imitate Nelson Mandela or the Christ figure is the exact opposite of an idolization of those figures. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) warned for this (read more by clicking here):

Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead.

Joachim Duyndam, Socrates Professor of Philosophy and also a member of the Dutch Girard Society, discusses “good mimesis” and how we learn from inspiring examples in this interview fragment. He also mentions Mandela – CLICK TO WATCH:

Of course, the road that Nelson Mandela traveled is perhaps best described by Madiba himself. These quotes, also from the Gospel, should be self-explanatory:Mandela Quote No one is born hating another personBe Imitators of GodMandela Quote As I walked out the door

Ephesians quote Be kind and compassionate