Powerfully Vulnerable

I just had to share this amazing story! It is told by Adam Ericksen at the Raven Foundation website. Here it is, republished with kind permission:

The Internet can be a very mean place. But it can also lead us to grace.

BalpreetThe dichotomy of meanness and grace was recently displayed on the website reddit.com. The backstory goes like this: A man was waiting in line at airport security. He spotted Balpreet Kaur, a young woman who is a baptized Sikh and a student at Ohio State University. The man surreptitiously took out his phone, positioned the camera, and while Balpreet looked away, he took her picture. Then he posted it to Reddit’s humor section, called r/funny, with the caption, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The picture quickly went viral and people made demeaning comments about Balpreet’s appearance.

What was “humorous” about Balpreet’s appearance? She has facial hair.

It’s a classic example of Internet scapegoating. The original poster, whose reddit username was “european_douchebag,” (Seriously! You couldn’t make that up!) wanted to invite his Reddit community to join him in demeaning Balpreet’s appearance, and his community was happy to join. Balpreet became their scapegoat. As the picture went viral, people began posting degrading comments about her. They accused her of being ugly, and in that accusation they began to feel a sense of their own beauty.

Are You Imitating or IdolizingBut scapegoating always provides a false sense of beauty. Scapegoating boils down to this: We know that we are “beautiful” by comparing ourselves with someone else that we consider “ugly.” Unfortunately, scapegoating in this way can be seen throughout human cultures. Every culture has arbitrary standards of beauty that lead to scapegoating. When our sense of beauty is based on these arbitrary standards, it leads us into the trap of scapegoating. This is the trap that “european_douchebag” and his community fell into, and it is a trap that we all fall into. Until someone has the sense to pull us out.

And that’s exactly what Balpreet did. A Facebook friend informed her about the picture on Reddit. After she found the image and read through some of the comments, she posted her own response to her image and the demeaning comments:

Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the OP [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled :) However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-) So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together t-shirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. :) I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.

Love is not love until love is vulnerable (Theodore Roethke)Balpreet’s response was so powerful. It nearly brought me to tears for two reasons. First, Balpreet has a strong sense of her own beauty. She knows her beauty is not dependent upon arbitrary cultural standards. Rather, her beauty is dependent upon something else: The “Divine Being” that has made her body beautifully sacred – and has made everyone’s body beautifully sacred.

The second reason that my 33 year old eyes nearly teared up was that because Balpreet believes in the sacredness of all human bodies, she broke the cycle of scapegoating. Now, I could easily understand if she responded to “european_douchebag” with her own resentful meanness by saying, “your username is appropriate, you freakin’ jerk!” But if she did, she would simply be imitating “european_douchebag” in defining her own goodness against his meanness. Fortunately, Balpreet didn’t imitate him. Instead, she imitated the “Divine Being” who doesn’t reject any body, but rather makes all bodies beautifully sacred. Even the body of a man with the username “european_douchebag.”

Here’s where the story gets even better – her gracious response softened his heart. He actually imitated her response by responding with a gracious apology on his Reddit account:

I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.

The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)When we imitate someone else’s meanness by responding with our own meanness, it only hardens both our hearts and makes us all mean. Fortunately for us, Balpreet is focusing her “life on creating change and progress for this world.” That change and progress is the courage to end the cycle of scapegoating. We learn from her that when we respond to scapegoating with the spirit of grace and forgiveness, believing in our own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, then our hearts can soften and we have the chance for a better imitation – the imitation of grace.

– by Adam Ericksen

I explored this dynamic of “the imitation of grace” also, in an earlier post. Click here for “Turn the other cheek.”

Religulous in Barcelona

I’ve put the word ‘religulous’ in this post’s title after a documentary, or should I say ‘mockumentary’ of the same name by director Larry Charles. In it, Bill Maher goes around the US primarily to investigate certain people’s religious beliefs and comes to the conclusion these beliefs are ‘ridiculous’ – hence the title: Religulous.

Bill Maher is right to point out some absurdities in certain people’s convictions, although stylistically spoken he could have done it a little less ad hominem. It’s a pity, however, that he limits his investigation to people who say they believe in ‘God’. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had shown how the psychological and sociological mechanisms that produce certain convictions are also hugely conditioning people who claim they don’t believe in ‘God’. Maybe he would have called his documentary Anthropologulous then. Whether we do or do not believe in God, we’re susceptible, as human beings, to some very strange convictions and behavior.

In fact, what I’ve learned from René Girard (among others) is that ‘belief in God’ is not ‘the real problem’. Atheists are no less capable of the kind of ‘religious’ behavior Bill Maher calls ‘ridiculous’. Similar to the rituals surrounding the deities of traditional religion are, for example, pop festivals or the ceremonies honoring dictatorial leaders of atheistic regimes (such as some of the annual festivities held in North Korea). So the question should not be ‘do you believe in God’? Maybe we should rather reflect on the social and psychological mechanisms, the desires and deeper motivations which shape our life.

To me, German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) seems to summarize the ‘real’ dilemma when he claims “Man has either a God or an idol”. Or, to put it differently, the question isn’t so much ‘do you believe in God’ as it is ‘what (kind of) God do you believe in?’ So it’s not only a pity that Bill Maher doesn’t reveal the parallels between potentially ridiculous behavior of both ‘theists’ and ‘atheists’, it’s also a shame he doesn’t interview more people who try to develop their faith in a constant and frank dialogue with the natural and social sciences. Too bad he doesn’t get into the rich philosophical and theological traditions of Christianity. Actually, the way he reads the Bible is none other than the way his adversaries read it – he just comes to a different conclusion. In this sense he imitates his adversaries and becomes somewhat of a ‘mimetic rival’. Bill Maher is oblivious to the basic hermeneutical principles that were used by educated theologians throughout the ages (and from the get-go, meaning these principles were also used by the biblical writers themselves!).

Nevertheless, all these remarks on content and style aside, it must be said I did enjoy quite a few hilarious moments in this documentary. I thought about it when I recently visited Barcelona together with my wife to celebrate her birthday [Was she happy? Yes, she was!]. We were there when Barca, the unmatched and world-famous soccer team that is, had to play the Champions League final at Wembley against Manchester United. So we were confronted with exuberant Barcelona soccer fans the night their team won this important match. At the same time we witnessed a leftist manifestation that went on for a few days at the Plaça de Catalunya. Mostly young people were gathered there to demand governmental and economic reform that should result, among other things, in job creation, since unemployment is on the rise in Spain. In both instances we witnessed what Bill Maher would call ‘religulous’ behavior.

I don’t want to imply that supporting a soccer team is ridiculous as such. It is, however, a social phenomenon that is susceptible to extreme and bizarre behavior, as it tends to produce processes of idolatry. The picture on the left indeed shows that Lionel Messi is treated like a god by some of his fans. I neither want to imply that the unemployment claims made by the Spanish youth at the large square in central Barcelona should not be taken seriously. I just wanted to record how people sometimes ‘strangely’ behave when they’re united against a ‘common enemy’ (in this case ‘the system’).

Amidst all of this social upheaval and turmoil both my wife and I were driven by yet another herd of people towards the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), especially his Basilica Church La Sagrada Família. Never to be completed during the architect’s lifetime, this amazing monument is now finished on the inside and, perhaps needless to say, visiting it opened my senses and heart to another kind of religious, even ‘spiritual’ experience. It was like walking into the spatial mind of a genius who devoted his life to the creation of a sphere where people could ‘reconnect’ with themselves, each other, nature and, ultimately ‘God’. As is known, Gaudí was a devoted Catholic who put all of his talents as a scientist, mathematician and artist at the service of ‘The Holy Family’. His work displays a deep awareness of the interconnectedness, indeed ‘familiarity’ of all that is. Moreover, Gaudí was convinced people could only ‘find’ them‘selves’ if they discovered there was no ‘self’ apart from a ‘being’ that ‘is’ always already ‘in relationships’. What and who we are is first and foremost ‘given’ – it is not something we autonomously create. To deny this, is to surrender to what René Girard would call a ‘romantic deception’.

The following quotes of Gaudí show how he considered any artist’s creativity as something that doesn’t spring from a purely ‘original’ mind. Rather, his view on ‘originality’ is closely connected to the discovery of a creation that always precedes the work of the artist:

“Originality consists in returning to the origin.”

“Man does not create… he discovers.”

Artists like Gaudí consider themselves ‘co-creators’ or ‘collaborators’, only relatively ‘free’ as ‘imitators’ of Nature:

“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”

“Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.”

Gaudí seems to distinguish between two kinds of imitation, ‘blindly copying’ and ‘creatively mimicking’:

“Copiers do not collaborate.”

From the point of view of Girard’s theory on imitation (his ‘mimetic’ theory) blindly copying exactly occurs when people feel they are not imitating at all. On the other hand, people who realize they are dependent on others will develop a creative kind of imitation, allowing ‘originality’. By consciously imitating something or someone other you’re indeed saying two things: that there is a likeness between yourself and that other and that there’s also a ‘distance’ (otherwise imitation would not be possible). One could even say that imitation somehow creates this distance, a kind of ‘space’ where men each become ‘others’ towards… others.

As said, the Sagrada Família, as a building that so closely resembles the ‘mathematical’ mystique of natural forms, precisely produces a realm wherein people are not swallowed by the unifying yet destructive powers of ‘wild’ crowd mechanisms, but a ‘breathing’ sphere where people really become aware of each other in the ‘space’ surrounding them. To Christians like Gaudí and Girard this kind of awareness allows for the experience of a divine Love which creates us. From the contrasting situations in Barcelona I start to see what they’re getting at…

Lorenzi Marcella Giulia and Francaviglia Mauro wrote a very interesting article on Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in the Journal of Applied Mathematics (click on the title to read it): Art & Mathematics in Antoni Gaudí’s architecture: “La Sagrada Família”. I especially recommend it to those mathematicians who want to taste something of Gaudí’s peculiar spiritual take on science.

Of course there are other ways to enjoy the swarming life in God’s grace – “His ways are manifold”.

Try for example the Hard Rock Cafe in Barcelona, and discover “God is my Co-Pilot”, celebrating that good old rock ‘n’ roll music!

Cheers!

Bono (U2) and The Imitation of Christ

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).

Translation:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).

Translation:

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’

– CLICK TO WATCH:

For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.