Saturday, July 2, 2016


I don’t believe in God.

Or I do. It depends on what God is. If you take the normal, American street definition of God, then no, I don’t believe in that God.

To explain I’ll have to use the whole Trinity, in the order: God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son, each time contrasting the street version with mine.

And this is just a blog post, not a tome. It isn’t a convincing argument, it’s just an executive summary pointing in a certain direction.

God the Father

Street version: God is a supernatural person who knows all the past and the future, who can violate the laws of physics at will, and who is in total control of everything.

My version: Within evolution, of species or of cultures or of behaviors, I see four rules (though actually the latter two are emergent consequences of the first two).

Mutation: Change happens.

Selection: Life is hard, it is easy to cease existing. In our species’ case, we need water, food, shelter, and we don't reproduce without them.

Collaboration: If a given form (species, cultural element) A benefits some other form B which in turn benefits form C… which in turn benefits form A, then that positive feedback gives every form in the loop a selective advantage. A stable ecosystem is a vast network of collaboration.

Coercion: a form can, via force or weaponry, rob other forms of their resources, to the point of enslaving or killing them. A stable ecosystem can be parasitized, which destabilizes it.

These four are the implacable rules of existence. They are our father and our mother. We can get with the program, or perish.

Which is stronger, collaboration or coercion? Creation or destruction, giving or taking, grace or power, the beloved community or empire, stable order or unstable chaos, life or death (think “therefore choose life”)? In the short term, power. In the long term, grace. We’re betting long.

Whoa, you say, where is that warm loving personal God people talk about? Hang on, I said I’d need the whole Trinity. But yes it’s true, where the street sees a supernatural creator God of the physical world, I see implacable logical rules which utterly shape the biological and social world we live in.

Rules aren’t physical, not like a stone is physical. So maybe that’s the overlap between the street’s “supernatural” and the way I think of things. The street’s supernatural God would be an anthropomorphic metaphor for my intangible rules. Not too bad really, if you remember its limits as a metaphor.

God the Spirit

Street version: the Holy Spirit is some kind of spirituality, ethereal, the source of inner promptings that cause some people to do things which turn out great.

My version: In human society, the implacable long term (many hundreds of generations) result of the four rules above is collaborative communities and merciful personality types.

In the medium term (tens of generations) violence and coercion have given selective advantage in many circumstances. But the longest term outcome is the slow and inevitable creation of increasing networks of collaboration, i.e. the creation of widespread circumstances where a propensity to violence is a selective disadvantage.

Note the bit of dualism here: both coercion and collaboration give selective advantage. But the one destroys what the other creates. You can’t have destruction before creation, and in the long term, creation is greater than destruction. Destruction has a shorter time horizon than creation does.

I didn’t make the clothes on my back, my car, my house, my fridge nor the food in it. Other people, vast numbers of them, worked together to give me that stuff, in exchange for the work I did doing my specialty that I gave to a relatively small number of people. It can’t be denied that the web of global collaboration is much greater now than it was a hundred generations ago. The degree of our specialization and interdependence is astonishing. Look about you. Nearly everything you see is the result of collaboration.

Thus the character type that is being selected for, in the long term, is one which is capable of inducing collaboration even in its enemies. It is capable of negotiating fair agreements with perpetrators in the face of past traumas and injustices. In other words it is merciful, and able to forgive, and appreciative of incompatible points of view in the community.

Interesting that the implacable logic of evolution should select for the most placable, merciful, forgiving, and yet insistent character type.

My apologies, I’m going by leaps and bounds here, there’s a ton to be said, I’ve written a whole book about it. Chapter 2 of The Healer Messiah calls that character the Holy Spirit. On a thumbnail, the argument is that we should want a covenanted relationship with our enemies, with those who continually offend us. That is God’s Spirit revealed in scripture. We are children of that God when we too breathe that spirit.

It is not a given that we’ll make it to the heaven of the beloved community. It is unclear whether the violence that has been bred into us—for in the medium term it has been very successful—will result in our destruction before we have the time for the beloved community to supplant more violent forms of social order. But that’s our agenda, those of us who have chosen life.

Back to the street: yeah, the Holy Spirit is a character type, which we are (barely) capable of housing, the image/representative/Spirit of God, and which causes us to do things which turn out really great, unless they get us killed, but even then it’s worth it for the long haul.

God the Son

Street version, type evangelical: Jesus is God, God who on the cross paid for our evil and reconciled us to Himself. Jesus’ miracles and above all, resurrection, are proof of his being God.

My version: The very idea of Jesus is incredible: someone who is both God and human. Might as well say both infinite and finite, both one and many, he’s a walking logical impossibility, marking that this story gainsays the logic of power. Power is the ability to control the situation. That’s what Jesus gives up. The Jesus story calls the weakness of human relationship the power of God.

In Jesus we meet God in humanity. Here there are just too many things to say: Jesus as symbol uniting God and humanity, Paul saying that Jesus is the prototype, the new Adam, of a restored humanity, Jesus likening loving God with loving one’s neighbor, Jesus teaching us to pray “forgive us our offenses as we forgive those who offend against us”, and on and on.

In the gospels and in Paul, Jesus wholly incarnates God’s spirit.

AND to take this disturbing language to its social conclusion, Paul claims we are to be like him, in the church, embodying the spirit of God in our relationships to each other. That is, like this God revealed in Jesus, we do not attempt to control, we ask each other insistently for what we want, and we will die rather than coerce. Jesus is a God who risks the cross rather than use power over us.

The Spirit is what ties Father to Son. The implacable is tied to the cross by the power-renouncing merciful forgiving patient and insistent nature that the implacable selects for.

So in contrast to the street version, the cross is not Jesus’ payment for our sins in a ledger slaking the wrath of God. The story of Jesus on the cross is a story about us, us as victims, accepting the cost of the trauma inflicted on us by perpetrators—who are also us. Nobody can bring our dead back. The cross is the price borne by victims who rise above their trauma, and want a relationship with their offenders who can’t possibly pay the price themselves, because they did not suffer the irrevocable loss.

Giving thanks to Jesus for his accepting the cross is language for our thanks to each other for accepting the remaining unrestitutable costs of the traumas we have caused each other, and wanting a relationship nonetheless. So yes, reconciliation is the goal, but not by a payment done by some third party long ago—this is personal.

That's the God I believe in.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Violence Prevention

Can confrontational communion survive competition with violence? Our current nation states are in thrall to the idea that the only effective rejoinder to violence is violence. Were there a nation that had a different vision, a nation that was a "beloved community" based on confrontational communion, what's to prevent its violent neighbors from taking over? I want to point out three possible reasons why they would or could not, and discuss the last of the three.

The classical reason is profit. Confrontational communion is highly synergistic, efficient, productive. The violent group might wish, for profit, to trade with the beloved community, and be persuaded that violent takeover would destroy the productivity.

A second possibility is what The Healer Messiah calls ignition--that the leadership of the violent group, aware of the synergy that is strong in every society including theirs, could be brought to recognize the superior path of the beloved community, and be inspired to emulate it within their own society.

But ignition risks the cross. It risks that the leadership of the violent group refuses to dare the loss of control inherent in confrontational communion. The beloved community must have a way to avoid the dangerous case of being in direct competition with a violent group who wants to control them. The beloved community must have a way of reducing the probability of the emergence of dominant violent leadership in other nations. The beloved community must have a way of reducing other people's pathological dependency on violence.

This third possibility is what I want to dwell on today--call it violence prevention. The beloved community can act now, to prevent the future emergence of powerful violent people who have a need to be in control.

The traumatized often become traumatizers. Those who have been on the receiving end of the power of violence often live lives defined by the limits that were imposed on them during the time of their trauma. Their lives are permanently trapped in a future they did not chose, they did not want, that was imposed on them. They have reason to believe in the power of violence. Some of them, in their determination never to be outgunned again, spend their lives accumulating the means of violence. They have a deep-seated need to be in control, and become dominators.

I think this is the reason Jesus so emphasizes concern with the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, the oppressed. Relief work, such as helping refugee Syrian children deal with the trauma they have experienced, is not just a moral virtue. It is a strategic necessity for the beloved community.

To the degree that we can heal the trauma of violence, to the degree that we can demonstrate to the traumatized that the world is also a place that loves them, that is willing to share with them, that does not need to be controlled in order to keep from attacking them, to that degree we diminish the future emergence of societies where large numbers of people have the need for dominant control wired so deeply into their psyches that they cannot respond to ignition, or even to friendship, without seeing their traumatizers eyes in every face. In sum, we must show them the face of God, for they have seen the face of hell.

photo credit: Dignity via photopin (license)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Southern Cross

© John Fairfield at
...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain...

The Southern Cross banner and flag acknowledge the failure of America to deal justly with black Americans since the founding of this country, the historical and ongoing trauma experienced by the African American community, and our determination to rectify the situation.

The Southern Cross banner (above) and flag (below) can be used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please acknowledge this site.
© John Fairfield at

Sunday, March 1, 2015

I'll go after the drones, you go after the vests, OK?

We, the faithful of our different traditions, must unite against a danger dominating each of our traditions.

Our different belief traditions often compete. Muslims versus Christians, Hindus versus Sikhs, secularism versus belief, and many more. Debates, missionary efforts and political opposition contribute to a logic of competition.

That's not the work we must be doing, that's not the battlefield.

The real danger is faith in violence and coercive control as the fundamental guarantors of our security.

I see that faith in the actions of terrorists, and I see that faith in some actions of many governments. I don't care if they're using drones or suicide vests, their faith that their group's identity, dignity and security can ultimately only be defended by coercion is, if you'll excuse my Christian language, an idol, a false god to which we sacrifice our children.

We do need to defend ourselves against coercion. But not with coercion, nor with appeasement.

Worse: these worshipers of coercion claim orthodoxy. They are often characterized in the media as strict, fundamental, and somehow the most orthodox and extremely faithful interpreters of their tradition. Wrong: they are unfaithful, and nowhere near as extreme as us faithful. They have not understood their tradition deeply. They include respected imams, pastors, rabbis, priests and other religious leaders who justify violence and the projection of military power.

These people are not evil, usually they just don't see any realistic alternative. Just like us, they honestly and genuinely want to protect the weak from the strong, the oppressed from the oppressors. They hunger for justice. And within limited conditions, the rule of law works--the presence of police with overwhelming coercive force can protect the public. But the rule of law only works within groups having a public consensus. It doesn't work between groups where there is no consensus.

Our planet has vast and bitter experience with the costs of violent struggle between groups, but people continue in it for lack of an alternative. They see only the choice between control, coercion and dominance on the one hand, or deception, appeasement and avoidance on the other. Fight or flight. And sometimes fighting, or fleeing, is appropriate. But what they don't realize is that their tradition, any of our traditions, offers a way for conflicting groups to utterly transform their relationship to each other, an alternative devoid of fight or flight, through which there is real, earthly security, and that is applicable in very dangerous situations. Nothing is guaranteed, but this alternative offers better chances of justice than what can be attained if we're limited to fight or flight alone.

Our job, the job of those of us who have learned from our traditions how to transform enemies into trustworthy opponents within a just relationship, is tconvince people that this alternative is real, and to show them how and when to use it. The only way our riven planet will be healed is if those who have faith in coercion are offered better security.

As an American Christian I don't have the standing, the language, the stories, or the cultural knowledge to speak to Middle Eastern terrorists. But I do to American Christian supporters of military control. In our interfaith alliance, each of us will be tasked to do our intrafaith work, to speak to those within our own tradition who put their faith in coercion. If you're a Middle Eastern Muslim: I'll go after the drones, you go after the vests, and let's support each other, OK?

This is an interfaith call to arms! The faithful of all traditions must collaborate to show how conflicting groups can create productive and just relationships to each other, preserving their identity without coercion or appeasement. We must combine the wisdom of our different traditions, to study and evaluate and above all use it. We must support and learn from each other. And each of us must speak to our own, to teach them how to be faithful, and live.

Contact me, We need each other.

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photo credit: Teledyne Ryan UAV Drone RPV Firebee via photopin (license)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

N.T. Wright on Marriage

I really like N.T. Wright's broadly stroked sketch of the whole Bible, save for the conclusion at the end, where to me he abuses his own argument, and ends up not following his own wisdom.

He mentions sea and dry land, and animal/vegetable, and heaven and earth, and marriage between man and woman, as symbols, signposts pointing towards something profoundly true. Blazed across the whole Bible is God's attempt to reach out to God's offenders, to establish a marriage, a covenanted relationship, with those who are offensive. There is something complementary in the relationship between opposites, between the infinite and the finite, between heaven and earth, between God and God's enemies, between us and ours. Out of their confrontation within a marriage something can be born that wasn't in the cards for either one alone. It is the supreme act of creation.

All good. Language often pulls metaphors out of something visceral whose functional logic parallels that which is being talked about. For example, we might say "we're all in the same boat, don't rock it" using a physical analog to describe a social situation. Indeed every marriage between a man and a woman is a symbol of complementarity, of the productive coming together of things that are radically different, and of the commitment it takes to make that complementarity work.

But that doesn't logically imply that gay marriage is wrong. Just that gay marriage isn't as strong a metaphor for the commitment and value of a complementary relationship, as is hetero marriage. We don't conclude from the truth of "we're all in the same boat" that we shouldn't "think outside the box." A good metaphor doesn't amount to a normative claim. Rather, this overarching biblical theme of the value of difference implies we must forge a committed relationship with those whose perception and experience of the world is radically different from ours. Within the warm community of the church, we commit to confrontation, transparency and struggle with each other over our differences, and to depend on each other's different perceptions in our mutual discernment of what to do next in healing this world. It is the supreme act of creation.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I can't breathe

I've been reading John Lewis' Walking with the Wind, his first-hand account of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Lewis' writing is honest, personal and very real. The non-violent movement convulsed the nation and broke the back of legal segregation in the deep south.

But by the end of chapter sixteen, after the movement had endured all the beatings, shootings, teargas and bombings of the Freedom Rides and Birmingham and Mississippi and Selma, Lewis writes (pg 347):

Something was born in Selma during the course of that year, but something died there, too. The road of nonviolence had essentially run out. Selma was the last act.
We're only flesh. I could understand people not wanting to get beaten anymore. The body gets tired. You put out so much energy and you saw such little gain. Black capacity to believe white would really open his heart, open his life to nonviolent appeal, was running out.

Sixty years later, what does The Healer Messiah have to offer the people of Ferguson, or New York, or dozens of other communities? Is there any wisdom beyond nonviolence? Is there a reason why the movement of the 60's ran out of steam? What should be done now?

The movement attempted to use the federal government to force the southern states to end segregation. They built on Supreme Court decisions declaring segregation unconstitutional in education and in interstate commerce. Their strategy was to generate political momentum that would force the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to intervene against southern states to uphold federal law. 

State troopers and local sheriff's departments often attacked the movement with dogs, fire hoses, savage beatings and brutal mass arrests. By Lewis' account, the political impact of the horrific TV footage of the peaceful marchers' fate on the bridge out of Selma forced the Federal government to send federal troops, federal marshals, and the FBI to protect the marchers from the sheriff posses and the populace as they walked through the hate-laced countryside from Selma to Montgomery.

Their strategy worked, in that it attained its goal of forcing southern states to end legalized segregation. Their nonviolent courage ignited the nation, and the widespread political support they inspired resulted in the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 and US Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On page 349 Lewis writes 

Now we needed to deal with the subtler and much more complex issues of attaining economic and political power, of dealing with attitudes and actions held deep inside people and institutions that, now that they were forced to allow us through the door, could still keep the rewards inside those doors out of our reach. Combating segregation is one thing. Dealing with racism is another. [emphasis mine]

In short, the movement hadn't set out to heal its enemies. The State of Alabama, and the Klan supporters who signed up for the sheriff posses and cheered the club-swinging mounted police, were forced by the feds, not healed.

The Healer Messiah asserts that our only salvation is our enemies' salvation. Our only healing is our enemies' healing. The movement's great but limited results weren't a failure of nonviolent tactics, but were a result of the limitations of their strategy. I'm not saying what they did was an error—they had an opportunity to force the system to behave by its own values, and they seized that opportunity. Their courage ignited many in the nation, and they took a giant step in the right direction.

But there is work left undone.

The way forward is to raise our strategic sights to the healing of our society. We must heal each other. By that I mean inspire each other into the kind of relationship described in The Healer Messiah as a confrontational communion, not a melting pot. It is a daunting proposition, but there is no other final solution. Our weapons are courage, hospitality, humility, mutual inspiration and perseverance. May God, whose spirit we can breathe, help us all.

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Addendum: the following is my contribution to the conversation about the structures that have us stuck. I have little experience here, in particular I'm neither black nor a policeman. I offer it humbly, perhaps it will be useful to you.

The logic of police interventions is to control. This is so deep as to be unquestioned. It goes down to the bedrock of the need for the state to have a monopoly on coercive power if it is to protect the weak from the strong. In this logic, control is a virtue of police. 

During an interaction between citizens and police, if the police see the citizens as docilely accepting police control, usually all goes according to well-established processes and safeguards. But to the degree that the police feel their control is not accepted, they impose greater levels of physical control. They escalate. In extremis, they'll kill.

But a virtue of the oppressed is to deny the control of the oppressive system.

Many young black men project a defiance of control, in their stance, their dress, their language and their attitude. This defiance is a virtue of the oppressed. They reject the unfair system under which they suffer. Their every gesture expresses that dignitytheir rejection of the system. It's the same reason Palestinian's throw rocks at tanksa matter of dignity.

Blacks are angry and frustrated at living with unfairness. Whites fear those who have such a demonstrably and historically well-founded grievance against them. The expectation of conflict is all it takes for police to feel a challenge to their control even when there is none.

The virtue of control, the virtue of defiance, overlaying fear and anger. That's how Ferguson, and many other communities, are stuck. This is going to be a long haul.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hospitality when threatened

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."

But not Halloween night.

In a small town in late October, aliens and monsters lurked in the darkness around the house. Frankenstein and some witches stood on the front porch defended by skulls and spider webs, weird wailing sounds echoing from loudspeakers. The attackers advanced with a threat, "Trick or Treat."

Hospitality was extended, and gratefully received.

At Halloween, we celebrate hospitality offered in the face of every symbolic threat we can think of, on both sides.

Good idea. We often look like that to each other.

No wonder the crowd was diverse. Felt great.

photo credit: e_monk via photopin cc

Monday, August 25, 2014


What am I?

Pinch your shirt to make a fold of cloth. A wave is a pinch on the surface of the sea. Massanutten Mountain is a long ridge near my town, a pinch of the earth's surface.

There's no line on the ground that you can straddle with one foot on the mountain, and one foot off the mountain. Salient and solid, the mountain fades gradually out into the whole earth's surface. There's no separating a wave from the sea, yet we count the waves as if they were independent.

If visitors from some alien civilization came to this corner of the galaxy and asked it "What do you know of yourself?" they could do worse than ask us. We're each a part of this earth that is aware, that internalizes a model of the world around us. We know some of what goes on in ourselves, less of what goes on in our town, a tiny bit about the planets and the stars, yet what we know is amazingly effective. We're pinches of the whole, that mirror the whole in caricature in our minds.

And more, we can talk to each other.

So we have a duty to each other. Our duty is to tell each other what this experience is like, seen from where we stand. Each of us is closer to some things, and sees some things better, than the others. I owe it to you, to tell you what I know of this life. I should expect that you see things differently. That's what I need you to tell me about--the rest I already know.

photo credit: Rob Shenk via photopin cc

Monday, July 14, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 7

...a group of experts, those who individually design the best solutions, is NOT the best group to attack the problem. Why? Because they tend to all have the best point of view—not a very good one, but the best one. Better is a group of people who have some experience but have very different points of view on the problem, some of them not the best. Those sub-optimal points of view carry information that is not in the best view.

From The Healer Messiah, chapter 8.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Useful Enemies

Muhammad Legenhausen, a Muslim friend of mine who speaks German among several other languages, recently posted the following:

Im Namen Allahs, des Gnädigen, des Barmherzigen

Teur ist mir der Freund, 
doch auch den Feind kann ich nützen, 
Zeigt mir der Freund, was ich kann, 
lehrt mich der Feind, was ich soll.
Friedrich Schiller

The first line means "In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful." It is the first line of all the chapters of the Qur'an save one. Muhammad tends to start all of his posts this way. I translate the quote from Schiller as

Friends are dear to me,
But I can also use enemies.
A friend shows me what I can,
An enemy teaches me what I should.

The ambiguity is interesting. It could be that having an enemy teaches me the harshness I need to dominate and not lose out. It could be that the enemy is my savior from my ignorance and self-approval. It is not both: I don't learn much from people I dominate, other than how to dominate. Choose.

The icon is of the three military strangers whom Abraham hosted and confronted at Mamre. They came to destroy the city where Abraham's nephew lived. Abraham feasted them and negotiated with them, somewhat unsuccessfully. They turned out to be emissaries of God. Choose.