Am I My Brother’s Keeper?


A Honduran child, traveling with a caravan of Honduran migrants trying to reach the U.S., stands in front of Honduran police officers blocking the street, in Agua Caliente, Honduras October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

According to a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are to believe that the first murder was Cain killing his brother Abel and then when confronted by God, infamously responding, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Literal or not, the message is that we humans are Cain. Look to any tragedy and you’ll see a million Cains, asking if they are their brother’s keepers, if they have a responsibility to others. At the moment in this country (the United States) we are facing many Cain and Abel moments and are choosing to be Cain.

Currently, 7,000 or more Latin Americans, mostly Hondurans, are marching up through Mexico to cross the border into the US. They aren’t doing it for any nefarious reason, they aren’t going to vote in our elections (you can’t walk, hell, you can barely drive from the south of Mexico to the US border in less than three weeks), they aren’t coming here to commit crimes or steal jobs. They’re coming up here because Honduras has slipped into chaos and de facto anarchy, mostly as a result of a US-backed coup in 2009. We helped create this mess. The crime and poverty are rampant, and the people have no other choice, so they’re hiking all the way up to the US to try and find better opportunities. That, of course, has people panicked.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Our nation helped create this mess, we are the Cains that slew our brother Abel, and when confronted with the consequences we, like Cain, rhetorically deny all responsibility. We act as though we have no moral obligation to these people by virtue of being neighbors and of the same nature. We act as though their otherness, their strangeness to us somehow absolves us of the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We, guided by our President, see no goodness, no dignity in these people marching up and over our borders and see them as invaders, as something other than human. They are so vicious, so vile, that only the US military on the border could stop these foul creatures.

Am I my brother’s keeper? On a fairly consistent basis, we see a news story about an unarmed black man being shot, or harassed, or accused for no legitimate reason. We all know this happens and we all know black people are targeted unfairly. This isn’t a big secret, it’s known, it’s a system that we all (white people) have benefited from in some way. We helped create a system that has oppressed minorities for centuries and so we are Cain, killing our brothers and sisters. And when confronted we deny it all and ask why it’s up to us to help someone else, the victim of a system from which we benefit. We deny our responsibility in it all.

Am I my brother’s keeper? We find it so easy to believe that a woman who “slutted it up” was asking for it but refuse to believe her when she was assaulted. We create a system of machoism, of a masculinity dependent upon being more animal than man, a masculinity that preaches that conquest and force are good things, and then deny believing the words of those victimized by this false masculinity.

Am I my brother’s keeper? The list goes on and on listing those who have been harmed, who have been victimized, who have experienced loss, but no one has stopped to care for them. I find it interesting that the first murder is countered by the second greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If Christ was the response to the fall in the Garden, then it would follow that his “love your neighbor as yourself” is meant to counter “am I my brother’s keeper?” What if we are to treat the stranger as a neighbor? What if we are to treat those who are different as though they are family?

Or, what if in a simpler way, we merely loved our neighbors as we love ourselves in that we learned to have empathy towards the other? What if when we saw a picture of a mother in the Honduran Caravan we didn’t see an enemy or a threat, but we saw ourselves in her situation? What would we think if we imagined ourselves in her shoes, would we understand? How would we want to be treated if we were her? What if we tried to imagine what our black friends go through when they see the cops? What if we tried to think about how it’d feel to have something horrible happen to you, but then to have no one believe you or defend you?

What if the way we loved our neighbor was to try and see the world the way our neighbor sees the world? I contend that this would lead to a far more peaceful existence. There’d still be disagreements, there’d still be violence, but at least at the end of the day, we’d have some common ground to which we could return. But for now, we seem cursed to take up our stones and to kill our brothers, we seem cursed to live in perpetuity as Cain, but let us hope that one day we will awake and realize that it is far better to live in love than to live in fear.

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The Art of Empathy or, Understanding Why People are Upset About Trump’s Win


_87170064_gettyimages-488226322The weeping and gnashing of teeth, as well as the rendering of garments, has commenced in full effect ever since Donald Trump won the election last Tuesday. We’ve seen protests, people crying, and heard rumors (some validated, others not) of minority groups being targeted. In short, a campaign unlike any others has given way to a transition unlike any others.

There have been quite a few Trump supporters – or even non-Trump supporters – questioning why people are so upset. They’re mocking those who protest. But to them, I’d ask that they consider the following:

In some alternate timeline, the Republicans ran Mitch McConnell and the Democrats ran Bill Maher. So we have someone who is the insider of insiders, with some massive issues (McConnell) running against a populist outsider (Maher).

During the election, Bill Maher is Bill Maher. He talks about how we have to monitor parents who raise their children within Christianity. He talks about how we should infiltrate and monitor conservative evangelical churches, just because they compromise the security of America. He shows warm feelings towards the current Chinese government (who is hardline Communist and attempting to retract many Capitalist gains). He uses multiple speeches to speak of how it’s not enough to just tax the wealthy, we have to imprison them to teach them a lesson on greed. He talks about how he wants to ban conservative media sources. He mocks anyone in “fly over” country as backwards, and does this while campaigning. And at his campaign, young far-left activists throw objects at Fox News reporters and other conservative news reporters. They mock them, spit at them, and create an environment of violence, all while Bill Maher looks on and says nothing.

And then he wins.

For many of you who are conservative, how would you feel? You’d be afraid, right? You’d be afraid that the new visitor in your church is actually a government plant, sent to spy on your church. You’d worry that just because of your beliefs, you’d now be a target by the President of the United States, who has openly campaigned on how he wants to remove your rights.

You’d have friends tell you, “I just couldn’t vote for McConnell, I want the system removed.” You’d question if they actually care about you, if they are actually concerned with who you are and your rights. It’d cause you to question the nation in which you live.

THAT is the reality that many, many people woke up to on November 9. They woke up to a world where the president-elect campaigned on promises to attack their way of life. And just as you would be scared, they are scared.

I get why you voted for Trump, I understand it, because many will say, “Well because that HAS been us for a number of years.” And to a certain extent, you’re right. While the President hasn’t mocked or threatened to remove the rights of Christians, many on the far-left have. But think of how it made you feel threatened, think of how it made you feel vulnerable, and realize that many people feel that way today because of your vote.

So maybe show some empathy to them? Maybe reach out and say, “Look, I voted for Trump because I want the system to crash; but if he does actually come after you, I’ll stand with you because I support principles before I support the party. I support the constitution more than I support ideology.” It’s bad enough that Trump was elected, but if we truly want “unity,” if we truly want “healing,” then those who voted for Trump have to reach out and say that they won’t stand for Trump acting on certain promises, that they’ll stand against Trump if he does try to live up to his rhetoric.

And if you do actually believe that the rights of Muslims should be curbed, if you do actually believe that we should ostracize Hispanics, if you do actually believe that America will become great by becoming more white, then you are the problem with this nation. Not the illegal immigrants, not the Muslims, not the African-Americans, but you.

Flag of Our Fathers: Why National Anthem Protests Shouldn’t be Controversial


fist08-05-2008b_001When I wrote my last piece on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, my thought at the time was, “Maybe I’m coming to this a bit late. But, I guess I’ll say something.”

Here we are, weeks later, and the protests of the US National Anthem are still occurring, and it’s still very controversial. It’s a bit surprising, but also quite sad, that this is controversial. Since tons has been said on this issue, I just want to convey a few thoughts:

First – Protesting the flag is not the same as protesting the military. When a flag and national anthem come to stand for military power and military power alone – that to question or protest the flag/anthem is taken as a direct assault on the military – then the line separating patriotism from nationalism has been crossed. The United States stands for far more than its military, so a failure to stand during a National Anthem wouldn’t necessitate a protest against the military.

Second – Protesting the flag/anthem isn’t even a protest against the United States as a whole. Someone can greatly appreciate and value the US, but also have some major issues with it. It’s like loving an alcoholic; you will love that person for reasons other than the alcoholism, but you’ll also “protest” certain parts of that person’s life that could enable that person’s alcoholism, or even do something that would get that person’s attention. That’s similar to what these protests are attempting to accomplish. We have a problem in our nation with how black people, especially black men, are treated in general and by authorities. That doesn’t make the US an evil place, or a horrible place, but it does mean we have a problem and we need to fix that problem. That certain elements of society want to deny and act like this problem isn’t there is why the protest is occurring, to cause a conversation on the treatment of minorities in this nation.

Third – There’s implicit racism in condemning these protests. The argument goes, “If ya’ll want to protest how you think you’re treated, then do it peacefully.” When there’s a riot, we tell minorities to be peaceful. When they protest peacefully en masse through nonviolence, we tell them not to be disruptive (such as blocking highways). When they then perform a silent protest during the National Anthem, we tell them that’s disrespectful and they ought to be forced to stand for patriotic displays (we’ll get to that). So then how are they to protest? The implicit message is, “You have nothing worth protesting over,” or, to be blunt, “You’re treated fine, get over it, and get used to it.” It delegitimizes the experience of millions of African Americans and other minority groups in the US. We assume that because we – as white people – have had a great experience in this nation that all others have had the same great experience.

Fourth – No one should be forced to make patriotic displays, because that’s not patriotism, that’s nationalism. A true patriot of the US will value free speech more than they value a song or piece of cloth. To want to take away someone’s free speech – even under the argument of “it’s a private industry so they can force people to do what they want” (they can’t, that’s called slavery and is illegal) – is the antithesis of America. What’s more insulting to those who died to protect our freedoms than failing to show proper reverence during a song is failing to show proper reverence towards the freedom we were granted by their deaths.

Fifth – Speaking of people who have died to secure our freedoms, those people are more than just the military and those who died in foreign wars. We forget, especially those of us who are white, that many civil rights activists were murdered attempting to secure justice in an unjust world. Their sacrifices, which made national news and swayed public opinion, helped secure your freedoms today as much as any military endeavor in which we’ve engaged. I add the emphasis because this is a point that is hardly ever made; people died to try and beget equality in this nation. When we ignore their sacrifices and attempt to further an entrench a system they died fighting against, we dishonor their memory. I’m a white male, but oppression is a cancer and it spreads and destroys. If oppression is not fought, if it is not combatted, then it will eventually spread to harm other people as well. Thus, even as a white male, I’m indebted to civil rights activists who fought an oppression that had limited liberty. In my debt, I am in no place to then question their children and their children’s children when they speak of the continued oppression they must suffer through; rather, I must pay my debt and continue the fight against that oppression.

Sixth – These are our friends and fellow Americans who are hurting. These are not strangers. Many white people who have black friends still don’t hear what their black friends go through, because they [black friends] are sick of being doubted and questioned. But make no mistake, African Americans go through a lot in this world, not just with the police. They’re followed in department stores, they’re treated differently when they want to purchase something, they have a harder time finding promotions or getting a good job, and the list goes on. There are statistics to back up every single one of these claims, but more than that, there are personal stories from people we know who can back up these claims. When the reality of the US today is only slightly better than the reality of the US 40-60 years ago, maybe that’s why protesting the anthem is a good thing.

Those are my thoughts on this issue. There’s no reason to get upset over someone kneeling or not participating in singing the national anthem. Ultimately, we’d do better to have a conversation over what our friends are facing rather than condemn them for not conforming in a way we like.

Kaepernick, the Blind Love of Nation, and the New Racism


Most+american+picture+i+ve+ever+made+democracy+liberty+independence+justice+freedom+and+america+by+your+powers_320779_4868118Colin Kaepernick has landed in hot water and not for being a mediocre quarterback. During a pre-season game he chose not to stand during the United States National Anthem. He chose not to stand because, in his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” An almost mundane choice. He’s a pro athlete making a political point, and he’s not the first one.

Yet, his refusal to stand for a song and a piece of cloth has ignited a firestorm, met mostly with criticism. It’s hard to find anyone truly sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause, mostly because people are either enraged by his actions or apathetic towards the man himself. The conservatives hate his lack of patriotism while the liberals are too cynical to believe he’s doing this out of sincerity (but doing it because he was bumped to second string).

Removing Kaepernick from the equation, his act of protest and people’s subsequent responses betrays two bigger issues in our nation: 1) We’re too “patriotic,” in reality we are nationalistic and (2) we hold athletes of color to a higher expectation of patriotism than we hold white athletes.

To the first point, there’s a danger when we let our national identity intersect and mold our personal identity. To a certain extent it’s nearly impossible not to let our national identity influence who we are as individuals. I am, after all, a product of America. My accent, my beliefs, my cultural participation is in many ways tied to my being an American. And I’d argue that I am a patriot. I love the idea of America, I love the idea of freedom for all, I love what this nation (on paper) stands for. But being a patriot does not mean I have to be a nationalist. A nationalist will support his country no matter what, but a patriot is willing to point out its flaws and even admit to being disappointed in his nation.

I’d contend that Kaepernick, if we excuse ourselves from cynicism, is a patriot. He loves his nation, otherwise he wouldn’t protest in the hopes of change. True hatred for America wouldn’t ask for protest, but an overthrow. True hatred of America would require apathy to its flaws. Yet, nationalism prevents us from recognizing flaws in our nation, unless we first label those flaws as “outside.” One can think of how people [erroneously] say Obama is a shame to our nation, that they can’t be proud while he’s in charge. But a nationalist says this only after first claiming Obama isn’t actually from our nation, or at least claiming that his ideas aren’t American in origin. Therefore, the shame he feels for his nation isn’t for his nation, but for what his nation is becoming. And yet, without any sense of irony, he will berate and attack anyone who would question typical patriotic icons such as the flag, the anthem, and so on. Ultimately, the nationalist isn’t so much loyal to his nation as he’s loyal to the ideology behind his vision of what the nation should be, thus anyone who violates this ideology is immediately a heretic and worthy of being purged.

Our nationalism in the United States is often best seen as “white nationalism,” mostly because anyone who is not white is automatically suspected of being anti-American for any form of protest. Often, non-whites are left having to prove that they’re Americans, especially black athletes. We see this with Kaepernick, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were criticizing other black athletes for not being American enough. And by not that long ago I mean about two to three weeks ago with Gabby Douglas. She forgot or just chose not to put her hand over her heart when the American flag was displayed. The rage was so hot that other black female Olympians were often chastised on Facebook with people confusing them with Gabby Douglas. When other white Olympians failed to do the same, there was absolutely no outcry.

Notice the verbiage used for both Douglas and Kaepernick; “how dare you not respect the flag of a country that gave you an opportunity, that gave you freedom, that gave you…” It’s difficult to not imagine a slave owner saying something similar to a slave, “How dare you not be grateful for me when I’ve given you food.” The fact is, this nation didn’t give these black athletes anything. They worked hard, they shaped their bodies and talents and pushed themselves to such a level of competition that they’ve excelled at what they do (well, relatively speaking; Kaepernick is riding the bench after all). Yet, we require that these black athletes show 100% solidarity and respect to a piece of cloth, but do not place the same standard on white athletes. We can say we do, but we don’t. That we have racial inequality in our country, that we’re not living up to our ideals as a nation, is a good reason to protest the nation. Sitting during the national anthem is a good way to protest the current reality of racial inequality in our nation.

A true patriot will always love the ideals of his country, but will recognize her flaws. This allows for a duality of respect. One patriot can see a flag and show respect, because that flag represents certain ideals and the patriot wants to respect those ideals. Another patriot can see the flag and view it as representing the current reality,  and therefore choose not to respect it. In both instances, each person is right and each person is still patriotic. Both respect and protest are signs of patriotism. Neither is right and neither is wrong. The fact is, as a nation we have some deep and troubling systemic flaws that continue the oppression entire ethnic groups. But we recognize these actions as flaws because we realize that our actions contradict our ideals, or at least we ought to recognize such a thing. Sometimes it takes a drastic protest to shine a light on our flaws. Perhaps we ought to examine the message of Kaepernick before we shoot the messenger. After all, how patriotic is it to hate someone for exercising his right to free speech? Only a nationalist could allow such cognitive dissonance.

We do have a problem with racial inequality. Perhaps there are better ways to draw attention to that, but what are they? We’ve had this problem since before we were a nation and we’ve never fixed it. We attempt to sweep it under the rug like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist and it is a problem. Rather than complaining about someone protesting or the manner in which he protests, perhaps we’d be better served to listen to the message and to work to make sure our policies align with our ideals. Such an action is far more patriotic than any national anthem or pledge of allegiance.

How to be a Christian in the Era of Donald Trump


Trumpolini (1)I sat there a bit dumbfounded and debated on if I had actually heard what I thought I heard. Rep. Steve King had just said that no other “subgroup” of people – that is, non-white, non-Western people – had contributed as much to society as white people, or as he sadly tried to explain, “Western Civilization.” Such openly racist remarks by an elected official are thankfully surprising and shocking, indicating some level of progress in the right direction as a society, but at the same time aren’t entirely surprising. That’s what happens when we live in the era of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump as a politician is a racist and is fanning the flames of racism. I cannot say if he is such as an individual, considering it’s impossible to know what part of his campaign is farcical and which part represents his actual beliefs. People can argue all they want and attempt to present as much nuance as they want, but when the alt-right (read: White Supremacists) and even a former KKK member feel comfortable with Trump and feel emboldened by his message, nuance no longer matters.

Let me get this part out of the way: No Christian should vote for Donald Trump. I’m not saying who Christians should vote for, but as Christians we are to love our neighbors. If a candidate comes along who asks us to hate our neighbors, who asks us to cast suspicion on our neighbors, who asks us to feel superior to our neighbors, then we must reject that candidate. When Klansmen and white supremacists sing the praises of your candidate, and it’s done en masse by such people, perhaps it’s time to realize you have the wrong candidate. That the Republicans, a party that has feigned moral superiority for decades, are choosing a racist leader doesn’t mean one must bow before party unity. One’s soul matters far more than one’s political party.

The above being said, how do we live in a Donald Trump era? See, the issue isn’t whether Donald Trump believes half of what he spews or just does it because it gets him votes (I happen to think he doesn’t believe much of what he says). The issue is that a majority of people in a major US political party have bought into his rhetoric. Regardless of if he believes his own lies, many other people do. Many other people would love to see us kick out undocumented immigrants (as though that’s feasible or ethical), many other people would love to kick out all Muslims or ban them from entering our country, many other people actually believe there’s something “special” about being white. How do we maintain sanity and love in an era marked by craziness and hate?

We continue to do what Christians have done throughout similar ages, which is to ignore the rabble and go about our business. It’s okay to take political stances and have political beliefs, but we must never let those beliefs turn us towards hatred of people, especially oppressed people. It’s okay to argue against illegal immigration (I, for one, would not). There are legitimate arguments and concerns against it. But it’s not okay to argue or to take a stance against illegal immigrants. These are people, human beings, who by being human beings hold an absolute right to exist and partake in the best life possible. That our government has a failed policy on immigration doesn’t mean we should argue against the individuals who take advantage of the failed policy. If you see an undocumented immigrant who needs food or water, your job as a Christian is to give him food and water. If you see him being taken advantage of, your job as a Christian is to help him obtain justice.

The Christian message isn’t built on superiority, but on humility. Christianity is not a “western” religion and no culture can lay claim to it. When the western world was still sacrificing animals to pagan gods, Christians in the east were building cathedrals. Western Europe wasn’t completely Christianized until the 11th century, well over 1,000 years after the founding of Christianity. Christianity transcends our culture and, ideally, should function to shape our culture and our ideals. While I’m a proponent of what is mistakingly called Western Civilization (is it really western if it began in the Middle East, was improved by Greece, and only reached a “western” Rome nearly 2,400 years after it began?), I have no grand delusions to say that Western Civilization is better or encompasses Christianity. Rather, I understand that my culture, my beliefs, my everything, must fall under the domain of Christianity. If my political belief is an inconvenience to Christianity, then the political belief must change. If Christianity calls for me to love my neighbor and a politician calls for me to hate my neighbor, then I must abandon that politician.

Living as a Christian in the era of Trump requires us to accept the fact that we’ve lost all political influence. We cannot hitch our trailer to Donald Trump and say, “At least he’ll promote some Christian things.” No, he won’t. One who promotes hatred goes against the core of Christianity. As Christians, we must support the candidate that will best allow us to fulfill our duty – that is, who won’t create laws or create a culture that actively inhibits us – to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A politician that would seek to see our neighbors imprisoned, deported, or ostracized from society isn’t a politician we can support. That doesn’t say much in the way of who we should vote for, but it says quite a bit about who we should not vote for. Living in the era of Trump means we have to forgo political gain and work harder to show love to our neighbors. Failure to do so will ensure that Christianity disappears from the United States, for no political movement can save us, no political movement can protect us, only by displaying love to our neighbors can we be saved.

When do black lives matter? or, Dear Fellow White People


In the span of 48 hours, two horrific police killings of black men were captured on camera. 
Rinse. Repeat. 
While details are still forthcoming, specifically the one from Baton Rogue, the situation in Minnesota appears to be nothing more than an impromptu execution. And for the umpteenth time in so many years, we’re left questioning what can be done to stop police violence. It is quite the worthy question and certainly we need a way to stop the killing of unarmed people, especially black men, without compromising the safety of police officers. But for all the rage, the one culprit we don’t want to point to as the cause of these killings is ourselves (white people).
Now I don’t mean we’re personally responsible or that we personally enacted laws that led to such incidents. I’m not even suggesting tacit support of such unfortunate events. Instead, I’m referring to a system that we’ve inherited that, even if we didn’t create it, we are its beneficiaries. Our grandparents may not have benefited from it, but in 2016 we do. 
When my great-grandfather came over from Kiev in 1912, he wasn’t white. That is to say, he had white skin, blue eyes, and probably couldn’t get a tan if he wanted to, but he wasn’t *white.* He was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, a Jew and a Slav. In 1912 that didn’t qualify him to be white. For those of Irish ancestry, the Irish immigrants weren’t white in the 1800s, neither were the Italians. Instead, such races with light skin were brought into the “white” category for various reasons. They were white, but weren’t *white.* All that to say that while my great-grandfather and grandfather didn’t benefit from any system of privilege, by the time I came onto the scene in 1983, I was a beneficiary of a system made for white people. Somewhere between 1912 and 1983, Russian Jews found a way into the white system, as did all those from Eastern Europe, Italians, and the Irish (save for over in the United Kingdom). 
In the modern era, I typically have little to fear when stopped by a police officer (though in New York, unless one is wealthy it’s always good to carry a bit of fear with the NYPD). I also have some form of upward mobility ahead as of me. I work hard, promote myself, and I can move up. If my career stalls, I can go pursue a graduate degree almost anywhere in the world. The fact is, I’m a white American male and while not rich or powerful, I have the world before me. 
The same cannot be said for my brothers and sisters of darker skin. The upbringing of my white niece and nephew is significantly and profoundly different from that of my black friends with children, even those who are middle class. Essentially, we’re raising an entire generation of African Americans to obey the police no matter what, to “accept their role” in society, to dress a certain way, to speak a certain way, to act a certain way. Decades removed from codified segregation and a century removed from slavery, we’ve still made little in the way of progress from a cultural and sociological point of view. The mentality we attempted to instill into slaves is eerily similar to the mentality we attempt to instill into their free descendants. 
So, what do we mean when we say black lives matter? If our utterance of that phrase ends with the intention of stopping police brutality, then we have a very limited vision of equality. We shouldn’t have to fight against police brutality in a free society, especially for any particular race. The right to remain unmolested by law enforcement when innocent is a given, built into our constitution. Fighting for an end to police brutality, especially for black men, isn’t so much a fight for racial justice as it is just a fight for common sense and liberty. 
No, when we say black lives matter we must mean more than, “stop killing black men.” We have to mean more, or we’re merely speaking empty words. When 1 in 3 black children are born and raised in poverty (compared to 1 in 4 Hispanic children or 1 in 10 white children), when there’s study after study showing that African Americans face an uphill battle in obtaining a job and/or education, when there’s proof that upward mobility is almost non-existent in black communities, when all evidence points to the system of Jim Crow still very much alive and active – not a specter haunting us, but a living being behind the scenes and psyche of our leaders and ourselves – we must demand change. When we say black lives matter we must look beyond police brutality cases and peer deep into a system that denies equality to an entire race of people simply because of the color of their skin. 
And we who are the beneficiaries of a system meant to protect white people, we who unintentionally benefit from such a system, are in the best position to eradicate such a system. The Civil Rights movement gained momentum and made the gains it did when white people stood with their black brothers and sisters and said, “enough is enough.” It was pressure from white people, those who benefited from segregation, that helped tilt the battle towards the side of justice. It’s not that we’re the heroes or that we need to save anyone, merely that we benefit from a system of oppression and are therefore in the best position to overturn it. The oppressed can only eradicate oppression through violence; but the oppressors, in peace, can choose to stop oppressing. 
This is not some “white guilt,” nor am I “cuckholded” as the vile and racist alt-right would claim. We owe it to our black brothers and sisters to work for change. Not merely because they’re human or because oppression is a cancer that always spreads to other races, but because we are family. We have a moral obligation to other humans to ensure they receive justice. Not for any utilitarian purposes, but merely because it’s right in its own right. Shall we deny them justice? Shall we deny a good work? Or will we finally rise up and say no more? Will we finally pursue what is right and good? The answer to that question is important, because lives depend on it, especially black lives. 

Lex Luthor vs. Maximus the Confessor: An Apophatic Response to Atheism


Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman

Warning: This Post Contains Spoilers

As nerds around the world fume over, what many agree is “a crime against comic book fans” and “the worst superhero film of all time“, one aspect of Zack Snyder’s controversial new film, Batman vs. Superman, has yet to be analyzed. I am, of course, referring to: (SPOILER ALERT) Lex Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

Moments before the film’s climatic battle between two of the worlds most beloved heroes, the insidious Lex Luthor–portrayed in this film as a sort of morbid cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Victor Frankenstein, and Jim Carrey–delivers a good-ole-fashion super-villain monologue. One that explains his motivation for seeking to destroy Superman (a seemingly all powerful, godlike, being who writes the sports section at a local newspaper) and reveals the movie’s true meaning. That’s right folks, Batman vs. Superman is not merely a superhero flick; it’s an allegory.

Lex Luthor is the personification of New Atheist Post-Enlightenment ideology: a zealous scientist hellbent on proving to the world that God (i.e., Superman) is neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent and, thus, a sham. Batman represents man’s struggle (unwittingly spurred on by Luthor’s ideology) to overcome and ultimately defeat the God delusion; a delusion that many claim is harmless–and even beneficial–yet has the potential to destroy humanity. In short, Luthor’s speech reveals that the true conflict in this film is not between Batman and Superman; but, between man and God . . . or, at least, a particular conception of God.

As a philosopher, I found this subversive underlying theme intriguing. Not the least of which, because it affords me the shameless opportunity to use pop-culture as a platform for having a serious philosophical discussion. Also, because it affords me the chance to correct several common misconceptions.

Stated succinctly, Lex Luthor’s idea of God is so far removed from traditional Classical Theism (CT) it’s laughable. To demonstrate this, I will contrast Luthor’s conception of divinity with that of one of the greatest ancient exponents of CT: St. Maximus the Confessor. Then I will show how St. Maximus’ apophatic approach to theology provides a powerful response to Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

We shall begin by examining Luthor’s conception of the divine, and his argument, a little more closely.

God as Man Writ Large

Lex Luthor holds a grossly anthropomorphic view of the Divine Essence. His picture of ‘God’ is simply ‘man writ large’.  In other words, he imagines God is something like a human being; only with unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

These are all attributes Superman appears to possess: he is virtually an unstoppable and indestructible being, he can listen to any conversation, or radio transmission, or TV broadcast, around the world, and has unlimited access to a Kryptonian super computer–containing virtually all the knowledge in the known universe–and seems completely unimpeachable.

Luthor’s conception of God–which I’m going to call the omniGod thesis–entails the Divine attributes are essential properties of the Divine Essence.  In other words, for Luthor, what it is to be God is to have: unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

Copy of Lex Luthor's God2It is precisely this conception of the divinity (or something like it) that many contemporary arguments for the nonexistence of God are aimed at. One popular line of reasoning goes like this: If we identify something from general experience that conflicts with the notion that a single being possessing one or more of the divine attributes actually exists, then we can show that God (who, just is, a single being possessing all of the divine attributes listed) does not exist.

Atheists, utilizing this type of argument, typically point to the fact of gratuitous evil to demonstrate that no omnipotent and omnibenevolent being actually exits. According to them, if such a being actually existed, it would, necessarily, ensure there was no gratuitous evil. In other words, if the omniGod thesis where true there would be no gratuitous evil. Since, however, we do experience evil, we can only conclude that God–conceived of as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being–does not exist.

Lex Luthor's God

The argument above is what philosophers call the problem of evil. Interestingly, Lex Luthor utilizes a similar line of reasoning in his climatic rooftop monologue. In this speech, it becomes crystal clear that his stupid-elaborate plan to wrangle Batman and Superman into a gladiator style battle is motivated by his determination to prove the Man of Steel does not posses the essential properties needed to be divine.

If Superman loses, and Batman kills him, he is not omnipotent. If Superman wins, and brings Batman’s head to Luthor, he is not omnibenevolent.  As a backup plan, Luthor also hacks into the source of Superman’s omniscience (i.e., the Kryptonian super-computer) and uses it to create an abomination that will totally obliterate the Man of Steel; thereby proving he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. No matter what, the outcome of Luthor’s allegorical battle will prove, definitively, that: God is Dead!

St. Maximus and the Apophatic Way

In stark contrast to the omniGod thesis, Classical Theism (CT) has never pictured God as ‘man writ large’. Rather, it says God is so radically distinct, so different, so transcendent, that he is literally beyond understanding. Which is just another way of saying: we have no idea what God is! In fact, because he defies all human categories, and human thought, we can never know what God is. St. Maximus put it like this:

“God is one, unoriginate [i.e., he has no beginning or end or cause or explanation], incomprehensible . . . altogether excluding notions of when and how, inaccessible to all, and not to be known through natural image by any creature.”

When he says God is “inaccessible to all”, he is not claiming it is impossible to have a relationship with God. Remember, he is using metaphysical language. What he means is, ‘God’s Essence’ or ‘Divine Nature’–what it is to be God–is inaccessible to the human intellect. Rest assured, St. Maximus strongly emphasizes the fact that we can enter into a direct personal relationship with God in his other writings. The point, in this passage, is to establish that we have no idea what God’s essential properties are.

He goes on to explain that the Divine Essence stands in marked contrast to created being which, according to St. Maximus, can be understood and lead us to believe God exists:

“Created beings are termed intelligible because each of them has an origin that can be known rationally. But God cannot be termed intelligible, while from our apprehension of intelligible beings we can do no more than believe that He exists. On this account no intelligible being is in any way to be compared with Him. Created beings can be known rationally by means of the inner principles which are by nature intrinsic to such beings and by which they are naturally defined. But from our apprehension of these principles inherent in created beings we can do no more than believe that God exists.”

In other words, creation (which encompasses everything in existence outside of God) is fundamentally intelligible. This means it is possible for the human intellect to grasp it, to define it, and to explain it. The Creator, however, exists outside of the universe; and we simply can not grasp the nature of something outside the universe. We can, according to Maximus, know that the Creator exits; but we can’t say what he is.

Classical Theism: Radical Ontological Distinction Between Creator and Creation

classical theism

 

An Apophatic Response to Atheism

It may have occurred to you, by now, that CT is completely immune to arguments for the nonexistence of God like Lex Luthor’s. Why? Because Lex Luthor style arguments are aimed at the omniGod thesis; which assumes God’s attributes are His essential properties.

According to proponents of CT like St. Maximus, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For him, the attributes are either negative statements (with no positive content) or grounded in God’s energies (i.e., his active presence in the world). For example, to say that God is omnipotent is really just to say: God does not lack power. This is a negative–or, apophatic–statement with no positive content.

Positive statements can be made, but are made in reference to God’s energies (not to His essence). For example, when we say that God is good or just, we are not referring to His essence but to His energies. We come to believe God is good or just because he reveals Himself as good or just through His real presence and interaction, in history, with people and in the world.

All things considered, Lex Luthor is, not only, a disappointing super-villain, but a lackluster philosopher.