Luke 4 and “Postcards from Babylon”

(The following can also be found as the opening essay for Epiphany 3C, at “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.”)

Luke launches the mission of Jesus with an inaugural sermon in his hometown Nazareth. Jesus reads the quintessential Jubilee text (Isa. 61), announcing good news to the poor, and makes it clear that this is what his mission is all about. The good news of going to heaven when you die if you believe in Jesus is nowhere to be even glimpsed. Rather, believing in Jesus implies believing in a political mission that couldn’t be more different than the politics of capitalist America. Orienting your economics for the poor and marginalized instead of the rich and powerful? Advocating debt relief rather than practicing debt predation? That’s not capitalism. So it’s a good thing American Christianity has claimed a different, otherworldly Good News.

So what do Americans do with such a central text launching Jesus’ mission? Preach the Second Reading as a nice, safe sermon about caring for one another in the body of Christ (though reading it in light of the Gospel makes clear its emphasis on the marginalized in the body politic). Or convert. Be open to a New Reformation, one where this text is taken seriously as the anti-imperialist, liberationist text that it is.

zahnd - postcards from babylonIf a significant portion of the American church were to actually make such a conversion to the Good News of Jesus, what would that look like? Brian Zahnd‘s latest book, Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, explores this question, recounting his own conversion in the process. Chapter 7, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” gives a brilliant Girardian reading of Satan as something very real but not personal. And since it’s not personal, it cannot be defeated by violence against persons. Zahnd asks,

Why doesn’t God just destroy the (d)evil? Because the satanic phenomenon is inextricably connected with who we are. God cannot simply destroy the devil in one fell blow without destroying us too. Jesus came to destroy the devil, but the devil will not be destroyed like Osama Bin Laden was destroyed by Seal Team Six. It takes more than a bullet to the head to kill the devil. Jesus destroys the devil by calling us out of rivalry, accusation, violence, domination, and empire, into heaven’s alternative of love, advocacy, peace, and liberation — this is what the Bible calls the kingdom of God.

So, yes, I believe the devil is real. Not in the way I believed as a child when I was afraid I might find the devil leaping out of my closet with pitchfork and pointed tail — no, I believe the devil is much more real than that. The devil is the all too real dark spiritual phenomenon of accusation and empire that lies behind humanity’s greatest crimes — the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the medieval crusades conducted in his name, the lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South, and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The devil is also very real in a million smaller, yet still diabolical, acts of rivalry, accusation, violence, and domination that take place every day. Ultimately the Satan reaches its fullest form in the evils of empire. But the good news is that Christ has overthrown the kingdom of Satan with the establishment of his own empire — an Easter Empire. (115-16)

Earlier in this chapter, Zahnd cites today’s Gospel Reading in hailing the importance of each Gospel’s opening to Jesus’ ministry:

In keeping with their distinctiveness, each of the four Gospels has its own way of introducing Jesus as a public figure.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is the prophet like unto Moses reissuing the Torah from a mountaintop. The message is that it is time for a renewed Torah and a renewed Israel.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry is first described as he announced the arrival of Jubilee and the day of divine favor at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The message is that it is time for God’s favor to fall upon all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The message is that it is time for the long-awaited feast of God to begin.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four Gospels to be written, Jesus begins his public ministry by casting out a demon at the synagogue in Capernaum. The message is that it is time for the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom. Satan, your kingdom must come down. (111-12)

Zahnd elaborates on Mark’s Gospel because it is the most oriented to the theme of overthrowing Satan, but each of the Gospels’ opening salvos are clear about what Jesus came to overthrow, the evil of imperialism, even if they don’t pose it as overthrowing Satan like Mark does. John’s opening sign of water into wine is followed immediately by his different placement of the so-called “cleansing of the temple” — the epitome of Jesus’ prophetic resistance to the institutions of empire. Matthew’s Beatitudes (5:1-12) and series of antitheses (5:21-48) map out a revolution of values that are upside-down and inside-out to those of Empire. Both Matthew and Luke do presume the battle with Satan by placing their inaugurations of Jesus’ ministry after their prolonged stories of Jesus battling Satan in the wilderness.

Jesus’ inaugural address of proclaiming Jubilee fulfilled is placed by Luke only a few verses after:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (Luke 4:5-8)

Jesus’ response to the devil brings up one other crucial feature of this text: if human empire actually worships a satanic god of accusation and violent militarism, then who is the true God that Jesus is calling us to worship? In recent years, many are promoting Luke 4 to the head of the class in showing us how Jesus read his own scriptures to reveal a nonviolent God. When reading Isaiah 61 as the arrival of God’s Jubilee — good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed — Jesus also leaves something out: “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2).

zahnd - sinners in the hands of a loving godOnce again, we can feature Brian Zahnd, who wrote this essay when this text came up in the lectionary in 2016, “Closing The Book On Vengeance.” He followed that up with an entire book arguing for a nonviolent God of love in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, with this passage once again featured in a chapter based on the 2016 essay (Chapter 2, “Closing the Book on Vengeance”). He brings out not only Jesus’ editing of Isaiah 61 but also his citing (in next week’s portion of this passage) of two stories from the Hebrew scriptures in which God reaches out to enemies through the prophets: Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17) and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). The fact that Jesus brings up these two stories as follow-ups to his reading of Isaiah 61 seems somewhat of a non sequitur, but they actually fit beautifully with what he has edited out, a God of vengeance on enemies. The follow-up are stories of a God who reaches out in love to enemies.

The chapter on vengeance had begun by considering the God-commanded genocides in the Book of Joshua (typical of imperialist gods) and then closes with Luke 4, the new Joshua (Jesus). Zahnd concludes:

When we read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath or the story of Elisha and Naaman the leper, whom do we identify with? Are we Elijah? Are we Elisha? Probably not. More likely we’re a starving widow or a suffering leper. We are the outsiders in need of God’s mercy. More provocatively, whom do we identify with in the conquest narratives of Joshua? Why do we imagine ourselves as the conquering Israelites when we have more reason to imagine ourselves as the conquered Canaanites? To be blunt: If you are going to imagine divinely endorsed genocide, you should not imagine yourself as Joshua but as the unfortunate Canaanite whose entire family and village have just been murdered. Instead of always seeing yourself as the cowboy, try being the Indian sometime. Imagine yourself as a Pequot Indian instead of an English colonist. Try being the Lakota Sioux instead of the American cowboy. Do that and then ask yourself how you feel about justifying genocide in the name of God.

We must constantly resist the temptation to cast ourselves in the role of those who deserve mercy while casting those outside our circle in the role of those who deserve vengeance. Jesus will have no part of that kind of ugly tribalism and triumphalism. Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love. (44-45)

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Sandor Goodhart will present at the 2019 Theology & Peace Conference!

We are thrilled to announce that Sandor “Sandy” Goodhart will lead us in a Midrash on Hebrew Bible and Beloved Community at our 2019 Conference, June 17-20, “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.” Sandy is a Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Purdue University’s Department of English. He served as the Director of the Jewish Studies Program (1997-2002), of the Philosophy and Literature Program (2005), and of the Classical Studies Program (2007-2011). He is the author of five books on literature, philosophy, and Jewish Studies including Möbian Nights: Reading Literature and Darkness (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), The Prophetic Law: Essays in Judaism, Girardianism, Literary Studies, and the Ethical (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014),
Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution (Notre Dame University Press, 2011; co-edited with Ann Astell), For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and Truth (East Lansing MI: Michigan State University Press, 2009), Reading Stephen Sondheim (Garland: New York, 2000), and Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). He served as guest editor for a special issue of Shofar, 26.4 (Summer 2008) on Emmanuel Levinas, the co-editor (with Monica Osborne) of a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, 54.1 (Spring 2008) on Emmanuel Levinas, and the editor of a special issue of Religion, An International Journal 37.1 (March 2007) on René Girard. He is a founding board member of the North American Levinas Society (founded with his students at Purdue), the former President of the
Colloquium on Violence and Religion (2004-2007), and the author of over ninety essays (including essays on Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow).

Sandy will lead us through a Midrash on the Hebrew Bible and Beloved Community.



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Our 2018 conference was ground breaking! Don’t miss 2019!

by Sangeetha EkambaramFirst appeared in the Aug. 2018 Issue of the COV&R Bulletin.    REGISTER NOW FOR THE 2019 CONFERENCE!

American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. The College has educated Civil Rights champions, national leaders and outstanding Christian ministers. The school’s history during the 1960’s and 1970’s was lively with cultivating civil rights champions, national leaders and outstanding Christian ministers. Students from American Baptist College, such as Julius Scruggs, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Bevels, William Barbee and John Lewis served on the front line of the Nashville Student Sit-In movement for justice and change.

The 2018 Theology and Peace conference, ACCEPTING THE INVITATION TO THE BELOVED COMMUNITY took place at American Baptist College in Nashville, TN. ABC has served as the training ground for several prominent leaders from the Civil Rights movement until today. Each aspect of the conference centered on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community.”

Theology & Peace President, Susan Wright, gives opening address.

Susan Wright, outgoing Theology and Peace president, opened the conference by invoking King’s awareness of the human need for community and engagement with the adversary in order to achieve this goal. Wright referred to René Girard’s concept of the pre-rational tendency to imitate each other’s desires as evidence of this need. [Watch on YouTube]

That evening’s film, King in the Wilderness, brought to attention King’s emphasis on economic justice as the true foundation of building the “beloved community.” The conference was graced throughout by community-building practices such as group singing, led by Patty Prasada-Rao and Elder C.W. Harris, contemplative meditation, and prayers.

Throughout the conference Patty Prasad-Rao and Elder CW Harris led us in prayer and song.

James Warren gave an audio-visual presentation, utilizing pop culture illustrations to introduce Mimetic Theory

Theology & Peace Contributing Theologian, Rev. Paul Nuechterlein on “Advanced Mimetic Theory”

The first morning engaged participants with the works of René Girard. James Warren oriented a group of newcomers by laying out the basics of mimetic theory. An advanced group featured Paul Neuchterlein, who reviewed the evolution of Girard’s theories, including the idea that the self-sacrificial victim in the Christian tradition uniquely addresses the basic issue of violence. He brought to attention the racial and gendered foundations of systemic violence through the lens of various academic disciplines and the need for personal self-awareness.

ABC faculty, Phyllis Hildreth, J.D. and Joseph Tribble, M. Div., responded. Primarily concerned with how mimetic theory intersects with beloved community, Hildreth aimed to contextualize Girard’s theories and the conversations surrounding them. She asked critical questions about who was included in the conversation and who was being centered. In conversations aimed at reconciliation, she cautioned that it is crucial to remember that, depending on one’s position in the power structures that be, not all approach the table in the same way. Tribble questioned Girard’s basic notions about mimetic desire within the framework of cultural, social, and psychological complexity. He cautioned against the tendency to oversimplify “into large categories.” Echoing Hildreth, Tribble argued that true engagement occurs when the dominant group is decentered.

Dr. Forrest E. Harris delivered a stirring, informative and powerful plenary session at the 2018 Theology and Peace Conference.

That afternoon, President of ABC, Dr. Forrest E. Harris, delivered a powerful plenary address. [Watch on YouTube]

He argued that it is exactly American society’s refusal to accept the “Beloved Community” in the form of economic justice, that “allowed the worst demons of racism to re-enter the house,” and in even more insidious forms than in the 1960s. Harris fervently argued that it is those at the margins of society that hold the key to true liberation for all, as their experiences stand in stark testimony against the “pharaohs of our time.” He used the metaphor of a stitching the garment of “life to love…and love to liberation” as the “singular calling of our collective humanity.”

Plenary #1 Panel Responses with Rev. Mary Mckinney and Rahim Buford

Rev. Mary McKinney and Rahim Buford followed with response. [Watch on YouTube]. Rev. McKinney traced her journey from growing up in a segregated Georgia to choosing a seminary in Chicago that could situate her perspective on race in America. She also discussed her identity as a queer woman, struggling with the conservative teachings of her religious upbringing.

Rahim Buford advocates on behalf of and mentors those held in a local juvenile detention center.

Rahim Buford, a student at American Baptist College, was formerly incarcerated for 25 years after being tried and convicted as a juvenile. He shared much about his life story, a testament to a harsh and unjust criminal justice system, especially towards juveniles. After a difficult and long process, he was eventually released. In addition to sharing his story, he advocates on behalf of and mentors those held in a local juvenile detention center.

Rev. Dr. Theophus “Thee” Smith explains targeting, from criticism & gossip to persecution, scapegoating & hate crimes, and ritual killing.

The plenary speaker that evening, Dr. Thee Smith from Emory University, addressed issues of restorative practices as a response to the human tendency towards “target practice.” [Watch on YouTube] He showed how the Christian practice of the Eucharist can address the issue of violence as it can act as a “substitution for the sacrificial victim.” Thee then pointed to various practices of reconciliation and invited the conference attendees to participate in an exercise “rehearsal for the beloved community.”

Cyntoia Brown hearing in Nashville: Parole panel split on granting clemency.

Wednesday morning began with a powerful prayer session for the clemency hearing of Cyntoia Brown taking place that morning. Incoming Theology and Peace president Preston Shipp would be speaking in her defense.

Rev. Jeannie Alexander, director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, shared the experiences of the scapegoated.

Rev. Jeannie Alexander, Director of No Excpetions Prison Collective, then led the bible study focusing on Mark 5:1-20, reading through the interpretive lens of mass incarceration. She vehemently argued that Girard’s notion that modern day religion no longer enacts violent ritualism is plainly false. She offered the testimony of her own experience as a prison chaplain, and the ritualization of state violence in the rehearsal and performance of state executions. She further pointed out that we, as a society, scapegoat criminals, instead of dealing with systemic issues of racism and poverty[Watch Part 1] [Watch Part 2 ]

That afternoon conference attendees visited Thistle Farms, founded by Becca Stevens. The business assists women in escaping life on the streets or other dangerous situations and supports them in their “journey to wholeness.” Stevens asserted, however, that wholeness is not enough if poverty remains an issue.

Becca Stevens, President and Founder of Thistle Farms, delivers Plenary #3

Therefore, Thistle Farms also offers employment to these women through its bath and body care company. The business includes global partnerships, sharing its vision of economic justice to women in particularly Rwanda and in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece.

[Watch Becca’s Plenary] [Watch Q&A Session]

Inversion Vocal Ensemble

That evening, conference participants enjoyed dinner at Thistle Farms as well as a lively musical performance by the local Inversion Vocal Ensemble and folk singer Buddy Greene.

Final Panel Discussion with Joseph Tribble (ABC), Kristin McWilliams (Thistle Farms), and Thee Smith

The con-ference concluded with reflections on Girardian theory in the context of today’s realities. As participants reflected on the “Beloved Community,” Dr. Thee Smith reminded us that Dr. King was a sacrificial victim of American society, not only in his murder, but in the present day with the domestication of his radical vision.

Theology & Peace will return to American Baptist College, June 17-20, 2019 for our 12th Annual Conference: “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.”


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The Rev. Naomi Tutu will speak at the 2019 Theology & Peace Conference!

The daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Naomi Tutu blends her passion for human dignity with humor and personal stories. Her professional experience ranges from being a development consultant in West Africa, to being program coordinator for programs on Race and Gender and Gender-based Violence in Education at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. She served as Program Coordinator for the historic Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, and was a part of the Institute’s delegation to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. She the recipient of four honorary doctorates from universities and colleges in the US and Nigeria. Rev. Tutu is an ordained clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. She serves as a curate at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville and has recently been hired by the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village to work on racial and economic reconciliation issues across Western North Carolina.


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Michael Battle Will Speak at Theology & Peace Conference!

Currently appointed as Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary in New York, the Very Rev. Michael Battle, Ph.D. has an undergraduate degree from Duke University, received his master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master’s of Sacred Theology from Yale University and a PhD in theology and ethics, also from Duke University. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1993. Battle’s clergy experience, in addition to his current church work, includes serving as vicar at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, NC, rector at Church of Our Saviour, in San Gabriel, California; rector at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, N.C.; and interim rector or associate priest with other churches in North Carolina and in Cape Town, South Africa.

On two occasions he moved into churches located in ethnically changing neighborhoods (to Asian in one and to Hispanic in the other) and helped both to adapt and grow. He also served as provost and canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. In 2010, Battle was given one of the highest Anglican Church distinctions as “Six Preacher,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. A distinction given to only a few who demonstrate great dedication to the church that goes back to 16th century England and Thomas Cranmer. Battle’s academic experience includes service as interim dean of Students and Community Life at Episcopal Divinity School, dean for academic affairs, vice president and associate professor of theology at Virginia Theology Seminary; as associate professor of spirituality and black church studies, at Duke University’s Divinity School; and as assistant professor of spiritual and moral theology in the School of Theology at the University of the South. Battle has published nine books, including Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation,  Reconciliation: the Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu and the book for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me.

“French Anthropologist René Girard provides renewed self-esteem to Christians by showing how Jesus explodes the sacrificial, violent nature of human community. Jesus explodes the mechanism in human beings that requires another victim. Girard brilliantly articulates how human beings are entirely dependent on the re-establishment of order after cycles of victimary bloodletting.”(Heaven on Earth, 43)

In his PeaceBattle Institute he works on subjects of diversity, spirituality, prayer, race and reconciliation. Almost since its inception, he has served as pastor and spiritual director to hundreds of clergy and laity for CREDO for the Episcopal Church. He has also served as chaplain to Archbishop Tutu, Congressman John Lewis, the House of Bishops and, in 2008, was chaplain to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. He is a featured keynote speaker and has led numerous clergy and lay retreats, including the bishops’ retreat of the Province of the West Indies. In addition, Battle has served as vice president to the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Arun Gandhi’s Institute for Nonviolence. Battle and his wife, Raquel, were married by Archbishop Tutu and are parents to two daughters, Sage and Bliss, and a son, Zion. All of whom were baptized by Archbishop Tutu as well.

Visit his website:

Faculty page:


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Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu

June 17-20, 2019
 “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu”
American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee
Speakers Include: The Very Rev. Michael Battle, Ph.D.The Rev. Janet Wolf, The Rev. Naomi Tutu


René Girard

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mimetic Theory, as articulated by René Girard, offers profound insight into human nature, desire, rivalry and the tendency to create scapegoats on both the individual and systemic levels.

Martin Luther King‘s vision of Beloved Community offers an antidote to the disease that mimetic theory diagnoses.

Coming out of the context of apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu‘s theology of Ubuntu helps us understand our inter-dependence as a fundamental truth of being human, namely, that “I am only because we are.”

Desmond Tutu

The Beloved Community affords us the opportunity to move beyond our tribal tendencies and the scapegoat mechanism that insidiously infects our hearts, our communities, our political institutions and even our churches, and to enjoy inter-dependence and inter-dividuality in the spirit of Ubuntu.

More Speakers To Be Announced!

In partnership with American Baptist College, Nashville, Tennessee

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