the rise and fall of Darth Vader, a redemption story

A few weeks ago, I watched all six of the live action Star Wars films (that had been released on DVD, of course) with a friend who had never seen them before. The best part was that I took a day of paid time off from work and we watched all six in one day. Now, I’ve been watching Star Wars since I was old enough to quit taking afternoon naps, but never in my life before that day had I watched all six in one sitting.

It had been awhile since the last time I had watched the prequel trilogy (episodes one through three) for obvious reasons I won’t take the time to go into here. Episodes one and two were what they were, but I was particularly struck by episode three. For some reason, even though I had seen this film countless times before, I was affected by it in a new, stomach-churning way.

Episode three, entitled Revenge of the Sith, is easily the most tragic installment in the series, as hero Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side, spearheads an unprovoked slaughter of the Jedi Order, and aids in the dissolution of galactic liberty and the accession of an oppressive, xenophobic regime. The impetus for such unconscionable behavior is complex, and to a point disturbingly understandable, yet truly heartbreaking (if you’re willing to overlook the fact that Star Wars is completely fictional). Obi-wan Kenobi, Anakin’s master and father figure, sums up the anguish of the situation as he stares down at his former friend, who has been physically disfigured by his fateful duel with Obi-wan and spiritually twisted by the tentacles of evil. “You were the chosen one!” Obi-wan mourns. “It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.”

To which Anakin (or as he is then known, Darth Vader) responds in an inhuman shriek, “I hate you!”

“You were my brother, Anakin,” Obi-wan continues. “I love you.” And then, Obi-wan leaves, seeing Anakin’s body catch fire and believing his dear friend’s death to be inevitable. Of course, Anakin does not die. Instead, he is rebuilt into a horrific cyborg who terrorizes the galaxy on behalf of his new master, the Emperor, Darth Sidious.

Now, we all knew that Anakin would become Darth Vader. And yet, there’s this horrible feeling that comes from watching Anakin’s descent into darkness. Even after seeing this movie many times, I was devastated by it anew. Perhaps it was because I had matured quite a bit since the last time I had seen it and could more fully understand the weight of Anakin’s decisions. Or perhaps it was because I came to the chilling realization that I could actually empathize with Anakin. After all, Anakin’s turn to the dark side wasn’t immediate or wholly intentional; it was a slow, gradual trajectory of bad decisions guided by deception and manipulation.

The order in which we watched the movies was such that we watched episode six, Return of the Jedi, immediately following episode three. Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite chapter in the Star Wars saga because it is when good finally triumphs over evil. Spurred by the unconditional love and faith of his son Luke, Darth Vader renounces the sale of his soul to evil, sacrifices himself to destroy the Emperor, and succumbs to redemption moments before his death. Later, while celebrating the Rebellion’s victory, Luke sees the diaphanous specters of his former teachers who have passed on into death in the Force—Obi-wan and Yoda. Moments later, another form appears. It is the unmasked figure of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker.

In the original version of the film, Anakin is portrayed by Sebastian Shaw, who represents Anakin at the age he was when he died (albeit with all of his original limbs intact and the scars that come from burning alive erased). When the special edition of the film was released, viewers were surprised to find that Shaw had been replaced by Hayden Christensen, who had portrayed Anakin in the prequel trilogy. For years, I was upset and nearly offended by Christensen’s presence in Return of the Jedi. That is, until I watched all six movies in one day.

Hayden Christensen represents who Anakin Skywalker was before he was destroyed and remade into Darth Vader, “the good man” as Obi-wan describes him. Only Luke doesn’t believe that “the good man” that was Anakin Skywalker was destroyed completely. As he explains to Darth Vader in a palpably tense verbal confrontation, “[Anakin Skywalker] is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully.” As it turns out, Luke is right about his father. There was good in him, and it only took one decision for him to be redeemed.

That’s why I have come to appreciate the interpolation of Christensen into the luminous role of Anakin in Return of the Jedi. Christensen’s appearance, frankly, evokes a more visceral response than does Shaw’s, because we have developed a more emotional connection to Christensen as Anakin. Whatever your views on Christensen’s performance in the prequel trilogies (and people have many), I believe he rightly represents the full circle of Anakin’s redemption.

I love redemption stories in general, and Anakin’s redemption story in particular. I don’t believe in lost causes or bad apples. I don’t believe that there’s anyone so far gone that they can’t be brought back. And Star Wars—to use verbiage that would otherwise make me gag—is a beautiful depiction of such a belief. When you watch the last hour or so of episode three, Anakin—or rather, Darth Vader by that point—would seem to have found himself too deeply entrenched in the sway of the dark side to have any hope. That conviction only grows stronger as you watch episodes four and five, as well as the first half of episode six.  For all intents and purposes, Darth Vader is evil incarnate. Until he isn’t.

The story of Anakin Skywalker revolves around the truth that there is always hope. After all, if Darth Vader could be redeemed, then who couldn’t? Anakin’s hands (organic or otherwise) had committed such abhorrent deeds and yet, in the end, he uses what is left of them to save his son and destroy his puppet master. “You were right about me,” Anakin tells Luke, just before he dies.

As difficult and idealistic as it may seem in the real word, I want to be like Luke. I want to have hope for those seem hopeless and believe in those who seem too lost to be found. In the midst of unyielding darkness, I want to be a beacon of light that refuses to give up on lost causes. If Darth Vader could be redeemed, why can’t they?

a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial

The weird thing about growing a beard is that people make a point to inform me that I’m doing it, as if the product of the process isn’t extruding from my face. “You grew a beard!” one hyper-observant woman once explained to me. “Your beard is getting very long,” say others, often on a daily basis. Random strangers frequently approach me to comment on my beard, a few even with the gumption to ask if they can touch it (which, if you’re wondering, no, you may not). A vociferous number are on the warpath to get me to shave it all off, though I suppose this is because they are the ones who have to actually see the beard.

I did go clean-shaven for a few months in 2015, long enough to know that I won’t be doing that again for years. With my baby face and abiding acne, I was mistaken for a high school kid one too many times for me to take up the razor again soon. I am a grownup, after all, and I would really like to be perceived as such.

But there’s more to growing a beard than simply the practical reason that it makes me look my age, and the fact that it’s far more convenient than shaving every day. Growing a beard, for me at least, is this esoteric self-realization that I am a man. This is not to say that those who are unable or disinclined to grow a beard aren’t real men, but rather that when I see my beard in the mirror or stroke it thoughtfully I know that I have made it to the point I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not a boy anymore, with all the limitations that come along with childhood. I am a man, with all the capacity for doing good, noble, and worthwhile things. My beard is an external manifestation of what I hope are my gestating internal qualities.

Plus, let’s face it, aside from all the mysticism, beards are awesome. Not only does my beard consistently provide my nervous fingers something to fidget with, but it’s an instant rapport-builder with all sorts of people. I’m really not that cool or interesting of a person, but my beard has a way of suppressing the drabness of my personality. And if growing a beard was good enough for so many great men of history, then it must be good enough for me.

As the great smokin’-and-drinkin’ theologian Charles Spurgeon once said, growing a beard is “a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.” So for those of you wondering, I’m not shaving for awhile yet.

you might as well read this announcement, you have nothing better to do

You may have been previously unaware of this, but since I began this blog I have attempted to publish a new post every Monday. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed or not, but I have really failed reached that benchmark recently. The reason for this is threefold. First, my days tend to be busy, and by the time I am able to sit down and write, all I want to do is watch TV and vegetate. Second, I’ve spent some time traveling recently, which sounds rather sophisticated until you learn I’ve only been to Texas and Missouri. The third reason for my intermittent blogging is the reason for this particular post.

I have been working on a project that is far broader in scope than those to which you have been privy here. See, writing about things such as politics, social justice, theology, and ministry have been delightful paramours of mine, but my first love is writing fiction. Ever since my world-renowned first novel, The Mystery of the Bike, was published in 1999, I have been creating stories nonstop. Most of them rarely get to be longer than a page, and hardly any of them have ever made it to the eyes of another reader. I’ve always been hesitant to let others read my stories, partly because I never seem to be able to finish them, and partly because I don’t want to find out that I’m actually the worst writer the world has ever known.

But this past month (which happens to have been National Novel Writing Month), I wrote (and completed!) a full story that will be published on this blog. It’s not a novel by any means, but rather a short story of about 15,000 words (which I’m sure some of you wouldn’t consider to be all that short). The other short stories I have published on this blog are in the 1000-2000 word range and are, for the most part, biographical. This one, however, is completely fictional and significantly longer. You have no idea how excited I am to share this with you (if you choose to read it, I suppose, which you certainly don’t have to do).

The story, which is entitled The Perfect Place to Stash a Corpse, will be published like the serial novels of old, meaning I will be posting the story in four parts. Each part will be posted on a Thursday, with the first to be published this week (December 3rd) and the conclusion to be published on Christmas Eve. Hopefully breaking the story up into four pieces will make it more palatable for those of you who wouldn’t consider yourselves to be avid readers.

I don’t want to tell you too much about what the plot of the story is, because—as the title suggests—there is to be an element of suspense to it. For those of you wondering given the timing of its publication, I suppose you could call it a Christmas story if that’s the kind of thing you’re into, but if it’s not then you can just call it a regular old non-festive story.

I’ll leave the suspense to King, the satire to Dickens, the allegory to Lewis, and the loquacity to Dostoevsky, only hoping that you’ll read what I have to offer and maybe enjoy it along the way. And if you hate it, that’s okay too. Just know I will never forgive you.

See you Thursday.

a response to the destruction of Alderaan

My fellow citizens of the galaxy,

By now, you have most certainly heard the harrowing news of Alderaan’s destruction. If you have not already been privy to this knowledge, then I am sorry to inform you that this relatively peaceful planet and its two billion inhabitants have been annihilated by the iron fist of the Galactic Empire.

A statement from an Imperial spokesperson purports that the obliteration of Alderaan was “a requited response to the seditious anti-Imperial movement sweeping the planet.” I will agree that as the governing body of the galaxy, the Empire is well within its rights to subdue any threat to its supremacy. But, my friends, we must consider this question: at what point do the Empire’s actions shift from preventative measures to ensure its continued authority to assaultive slaughter of its own innocent citizens?

From what I have gathered, an act intended to intimidate the Rebel Alliance has only fomented countless others to join the Alliance’s cause. Open civil war, now, seems imminent. Our galaxy, which has already seen its fair share of tumult in the past two decades, is on the brink of something that could destroy us. I fear the horror of the Clone Wars could be eclipsed by what’s about to happen.

War seems to be the only recourse, and how terribly tragic that is, for war has never solved a thing. Galactic history is a series of wars with intermittent pockets of peace dashed here and there. When one faction wins its war, it is only a matter of time before another usurper arises to play at another war. Should the Rebellion, by some cosmic miracle, happen to win this war and topple the Empire, I can assure you the peace will not last. Perhaps the Imperial remnant will rebuild and respond, or perhaps a new threat will wrest control of the galaxy. Whatever face the enemy takes, be sure it will always exist.

There are some rebel sympathizers who say, “If we want peace, we must prepare for violence.” Unfortunately, history proves that violence does not beget peace, only more violence. Perhaps if all life forms across the galaxy were not so reactive, violence could engender peace. But this is not so.

So, assuming we have already condemned the Empire and its pernicious acts, what are we to do? Do we strap on our blasters and march off to war, knowing full well this could bring us to ruin? Do we load up our X-wings and strike, knowing at best we can only win a transitory peace before the next menace thumbs its nose at us? Are these “intermittent pockets of peace” worth sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives?

These questions I cannot answer, nor is anyone asking me to do so. I only hope that those who must will consider the questions carefully before taking action. Our lives, and the future of our galaxy, balance precariously on the blade of a knife, and a whiff of breath in one direction or another could change everything we’ve ever known.

May the Force be with us all.

we are the champions, but more so me

The Kansas City Royals have won the 2015 World Series. If that statement is news to you, I hope the rock under which you live has a quality central heating system because it’s about to get cold outside. So many people have said so many things about this unthinkable phenomenon that I’m not sure I can add much more to the conversation. But that’s not going to stop me this time.

I really like to make a big deal of the fact that I began religiously watching the Royals in 2005. In that year, they played on a TV channel called RSTN, which had some of the worst picture quality you’ll see on a 21st century sports broadcast. Since I was only twelve years old during that season, most of the Royals games went later than my bedtime, so I’d fall asleep listening to Denny Matthews’ unflappable voice on the radio. That year the Royals won only 56 games and lost 106. I’ve been following them with zeal ever since.

The reason I tell people so often that I’ve been following the Royals for a decade now is because I want them to know I’ve gone through the wringer with this team. For years, the Royals were a group of also-rans shooting for even fourth place in the AL Central, and usually missing that by a lot. I stuck with them through those dark, dark times, long before the days of Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and company. Guys like Doug Mientkiewicz, David DeJesus, and Mark Teahen were the Royals’ heroes then, but who even remembers their names now?

I found it really frustrating this postseason when people I specifically remembered to be vociferously against baseball in high school were all of a sudden losing their minds for the Royals. Other people who had made constant cracks about how bad the Royals had been were suddenly going on emotional tirades about how proud they were of this team. How was that fair? I wondered. These people were basking in the glory without enduring the struggle!

As I so often am, I was reminded of a story told by a dude I’ve really come to like. That dude is Jesus, and in Matthew 20 he told the following story:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Now, I doubt very much whether Jesus was talking about Royals fans in this passage. He was really talking about people who have been devout Christians since they were born getting whiny about guys like Ted Bundy who become Christians just before they die. Like me, they asked, “How is that fair, when I was the one who was faithful when it was hard?” I guess the answer is that it doesn’t have to be fair. In the end, a denarius, eternal salvation, and a World Series title are all great rewards, whether you endured for them little or much. That’s a little something called grace.

So whether you have been a Royals fan since the franchise began in 1969 or you just started watching this team a week and a half ago, welcome aboard the bus. Rex Hudler is driving and it’s sure to be a wild ride. I suppose it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had to wait for this to happen. It’s here now, and we all might as well enjoy it.

autism is not a supporting character

I will be starting today’s post with a confession: I truly enjoy the Disney Channel show Girl Meets World. I know, it’s weird, because I’m a grown-up dude with a beard and a real job. I could explain it away to the fact that I work with young people so it’s important for me to keep up with what they might be watching, or the fact that it has been on the television multiple times when I have done home visits for work. But in all honesty, it’s just a fun, goofy show that my wife and I like watching together.

Like its predecessor Boy Meets World, each episode of Girl Meets World deals with real issues, some of them rather difficult. Recently, the show aired an episode called “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.” For those of you who don’t know, Farkle is the eccentric, lovesick intellectual prodigy who makes the show fantastic. In this episode, Farkle’s aptitude test officially determines him to be a genius, but also reveals a potential for Asperger’s Syndrome, an anachronistic term for a strain of autism that is commonly referred to as milder. Of course, his friends initially become upset and deny that he could have autism, which is likely a pretty typical reaction for family and friends when a loved one is diagnosed with something so gigantic. They support him through the whole testing process and waiting period, determined to remain his best friends no matter what happens.

Initially, I was very excited that Girl Meets World was going to address mental health, especially with one of its main characters. Few shows, it seems—particularly shows for young people—take the time to address or include the rather large portion of the population dealing with mental illness. And if they do, they usually deal with it in a pejorative or inappropriately jocular way. I expected Girl Meets World to handle it differently and it did, although I was a little disappointed by the way the episode turned out.

At the beginning episode, Cory (yes, that Cory) teaches Farkle’s class about how, like atoms, every human is unique, and that they shouldn’t allow the labels put on them to define who they are. Naturally, I assumed that Farkle’s autism diagnosis would provide the opportunity to teach kids that Farkle might have autism, but that autism is not who he is. He is still goofy, girl-crazy, and gifted, no matter what his mental health diagnosis may be.

The episode didn’t go that route exactly, though. As it turns out, Farkle doesn’t have autism. Instead, the writers pawn off the autism diagnosis on a minor character named Smackle. Now, they portrayed autism in this minor character in a tasteful—albeit supremely caricatured—way, so that wasn’t the issue I had with the episode. I just wished they had let Farkle have autism instead of pinning it on a supporting character.

When young people are diagnosed with things like autism, they’re not just supporting characters. To their friends and family and in their own lives, they are main characters, just like Farkle is a main character on Girl Meets World. By giving away Farkle’s autism diagnosis, it seemed like the writers were willing to tackle the issue from a distance, rather than the scary-close reality of it. In real life, autism can’t be passed along to someone else. It sticks and has to be faced head-on. It honestly felt like the writers brought the big issue out into the open only to sweep it back under the rug again.

One in sixty-eight kids are diagnosed with autism. That’s a very high number, and I can guarantee that many of them watch shows like Girl Meets World. It’s too bad that those kids can’t see someone with autism portrayed on-screen as a fun-loving, intelligent kid with a close-knit group of friends that care about him. Of course, autism doesn’t look the same across the board (hence the reason it is often referred to as “the autism spectrum”), so Farkle will certainly not look like every kid who has autism. But I do think Girl Meets World had a great opportunity to help kids—particularly kids who are frequently viewed as different—learn that there is way more to who they are than the label that is given to them, and that it’s okay to have a label that sets them apart.

I do understand that maintaining a main character with autism would be difficult for the writers of the show, but I just feel like it would have been worth it. If we want to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health, then it needs to be presented front-and-center as something that isn’t scary or shameful, but as something real.

It’s strange to say, but Farkle would have been a great candidate for autism. Because we’ve already been introduced to him first and foremost as a really loveable human being, it would have been an easy way to show kids that people with autism are people primarily and that Farkle’s autism does not define him. Of course it has an influence on his personality, but it does not pigeonhole him into the category of merely autistic.

But alas the writers decided to impute Farkle’s autism to a supporting character. However, for so many people, autism doesn’t take a supporting role, nor can it just be pushed off to the side. For one in sixty-eight families, autism plays a prominent, messy, joyful, uncertain, difficult, and exciting leading role. I would have really liked to have seen Girl Meets World explore that more than it did in “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.”

Oh well. It’s still a great show. And I’m still a member of #FarkleNation.

me vs. the death penalty, round one

That’s right, my fellow Americans, today I will be tackling everyone’s favorite topic: the death penalty. Well, perhaps “tackling” is too strong of a word. I should say, today I will be running full force into the death penalty and getting thoroughly knocked on my butt. I say that because the topic itself is so broad that there’s no way I could cover every square inch of the issue in this blog post, or even in my decidedly and inevitably biased brain. But alas, I begin.

I believe that killing someone—anyone, no matter what they’ve done—is wrong. Most people are willing to agree that murder is immoral. It’d probably make the top five list of worst crimes a person could commit. We are especially sickened by murder if it takes place in a school or in an act of terrorism. But for some reason, a shocking amount of people are willing to turn a blind eye when the murder victim is a hardened criminal and the murderer is the state. Of course, those people would also call this justice, not murder.

By definition, murder is the illegal killing of one person by another. This definition—which will be common among most if not all dictionaries—does not make any claims regarding the morality of the murdered individual. Murder is murder regardless of the victim’s legal standing. That’s why Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy’s assassin), originally received the death penalty for his crime, ironically enough. Because, even though Oswald murdered the President of the United States, Ruby did not have the legal right to kill him for it.

And yet, this is a legal right that many people are comfortable with delegating to the state. It’s wrong for a civilian to kill a criminal, but completely within legal limits for a government employee to do so while wielding a syringe filled with lethal chemicals. It’s a philosophical paradox; and not, I think, a paradox to which we can respond by simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, “It is what it is.”

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the death penalty is that the criminal deserves to die because he or she killed someone else. This “eye for eye” mentality regarding murder, however, doesn’t really align itself with the way other crimes are punished. It’s interesting to me that murder is the only crime (near as I can tell) to which parallel justice can be prescribed. For example, rapists are not punished for their crimes by being raped themselves. I think most Americans would respond to this sort of retribution with disgust, and for very good reason. Logically, one would expect this attitude to transfer over to the case of murder, but still “we kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong.” To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Now, I understand that legal executions do not take place in a vacuum. The sole intent of the death penalty is not simply to punish the criminals, but to bring closure to the victims’ families. I have never been affected by a crime worthy of the death penalty, so I understand that my right to speak on this subject may be somewhat illegitimate. However, I wonder this: Do we live in such a savage society that we cannot find closure in the wake of a crime until the perpetrator has been eliminated from the world? Does the execution of a criminal truly heal the wounds he or she has caused?

It’s important to remember that victims are not the only ones with families. While it may be plausible that the family of a victim—which is innocent—may find closure in its transgressor’s execution, there can be very little solace for the perpetrator’s family—which is also innocent. It is absolutely terrible that an innocent family must lose one of its members to murder, but causing unwarranted hurt to another innocent family should not be the answer. That would be almost like the government of a third world nation decreeing that, because some people are starving, no one gets to eat the meager rations they do have.

I would hate to end this blog post with you thinking I am some sort of anarchist who thinks everyone should be able to do whatever they want, no matter who they hurt. This isn’t the case at all. An anti-death penalty stance, I think, necessarily includes a very serious disapprobation toward murder. I believe that people who murder other people should be prosecuted for their crimes, but my concern is the end result of the prosecution. There are two primary goals I believe should be sought via the workings of the criminal justice system, and neither of them are payback. The first should be public safety, and the second should be rehabilitation.

People who commit murders are, frankly, a threat to the safety of society at large. Therefore, I believe that the principal objective of incarceration should be to keep dangerous individuals in an environment where they can do no harm to others, rather than for punishment. Many people have serious qualms about the cost-effectiveness about keeping imprisoned someone who could otherwise be executed. To that I respond in this way: I don’t know whether it’s cheaper to kill a criminal or keep him or her alive, as I’ve found many conflicting reports regarding this issue. What I do know is that we’ve taken a grievously wrong turn when we begin discussing the value of a human life in terms of dollars and cents.

The second goal, in my opinion, of the penal system should be rehabilitation as opposed to retribution. Rehabilitation says, “You messed up. Let’s see if we can get this thing turned around.” Retribution says, “You messed up. Now you’re screwed.” Rehabilitation seeks a hope for the future. Retribution seeks an end to the future. Rehabilitation sees the person. Retribution sees the crime. Of course, rehabilitation looks different for each person. For some, rehabilitation may be eventual reintegration with society. For others, rehabilitation may just be learning to accept that what was done was wrong. And, of course, there will be those for whom rehabilitation is a pipe dream, but I suppose there must be a patron saint of lost causes for a reason.

That was only part of what I had to say regarding this subject, and even then it was a grueling ordeal that cost me a few good hours of sleep. Tune in next time (or at least whenever I get around to writing more) for my spiritual approach to the death penalty, and my response to those Christians who support it.

saturday night service

Saturdays in the fall and early winter play host to some of the greatest moments of the calendar year. From the beginning of September to early January, hundreds if not thousands of young guys (and girls, on occasion) get their college tuition paid for by playing in twelve to fourteen football games in a given season. People show up in droves to get a glimpse of these games, and even more watch them from their couches at home. They spend hours watching the games, hours reading about them, and hundreds of dollars on merchandise and tickets and cable packages and tailgating victuals. They interpolate intense emotions between goalposts, at times predicating their entire satisfaction in life on the success of their team of choice and feasting off the plate of other men’s success.

I am one of these poor milksops enslaved by the college football machine. No matter how much I would like not to, I can’t keep my mind off of football. Somehow, football always seems to seep into my brain, whether I want it to or not. I feel a tug in my chest if I know there’s a game on and I can’t watch it. I feel like less of a man if I can’t engage with someone in a well-educated conversation about the past weekend’s games and each team’s outlook for the season. I feel naked if I don’t wear the correct apparel on a given Saturday. I feel like a complete and utter failure in life if I miss one K-State—my team of choice—game.

But my love for football doesn’t simply end there. Oh no. If only! Each week, myself and another friend rank all 128 of the NCAA FBS teams from worst to best, and this is a process that probably takes a good two hours per week, not to mention all of the time I spend watching games, listening to podcasts, researching statistics, reading articles, and playing college football video games. Even when I’m at work or just doing something inherent non-football related, I frequently find myself consumed with thoughts about football. At times, it seems like a religion dressed up as a hobby.

Or perhaps it could be likened to a drug. There’s never enough college football for me. College football games can be found on television at least four nights a week—if not more—and yet it seems like games are spaced out by eternity. College football keeps me from working on Saturdays—which, in my job, is a prime opportunity for accomplishing requisite tasks—much like a drug might preclude its addict from working. And, of course, the worst thing in the entire world is the college football off-season. Those eight-plus months are positively torturous. My “withdrawals,” so to speak, have created within me an unusual affinity for Canadian football, which begins its season the first week of June, two months before American college football.

No matter what you want to compare it to, my love for college football is dedicated and obsessive. It’s the kind of thing that characterizes fairy tale love relationships. It’s the kind of magnetism that keeps a puppy on the heels of its owner when treats are at stake. It’s the kind of diligence that inspires a dutiful employee to quality work.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me lament that I cannot seem to follow Jesus nearly as closely as I follow college football.

a stolen miracle

Four years ago, my dad called me on a sleepy winter evening with some pretty unsettling news. Apparently, my parents had had a meeting at my then-eight-year-old adoptive younger brother’s school that day, and it was in that meeting that he was officially diagnosed as intellectually disabled. The news itself didn’t come as a particular shock; my brother had been way behind in most academic things for awhile. However, with something like that, it doesn’t really matter how prepared you are. Once it becomes real, so much changes. Once it becomes real, there’s no going back.

The revelation hit me hard because of this: that should’ve been me.

See, back when I was a fetus, I had a condition known as hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. I don’t want to go too in-depth, but basically I had too much fluid and not enough brain in my head. Assuming I survived the pregnancy, I would have been born with severe mental handicap. With the fragility of my skull and brain, sports would have been completely out of the question. My parents were crushed.

And then one day they went for an ultrasound, and—inexplicably—I had a typically-developed brain. Eventually I was born a healthy baby with a perfectly functioning brain, and a gigantic head the only residual effect of my prenatal tumult. It was a medical miracle.

But then, flash forward two decades to the aforementioned telephone conversation. I was immediately wracked with intense guilt, because in my mind I had stolen my brother’s miracle. Somehow my brain had gotten healed, and yet his hadn’t. How was that even fair? What had I done to deserve that?

For a couple weeks afterward, I struggled to come to grips with this new reality for my family. What would it mean for us, now that it had been officially declared that my sweet little brother had deficits in his ability to function? And still: why him and not me? I haven’t deal with a lot of tragedy in my life, and those weeks were some of the most difficult I’ve faced.

I don’t remember how I came to understand the situation in a new light. It could’ve come via a word from a friend, or from my own personal musings. Either way, I came to realize that things would’ve been completely different if I had been born with hydrocephalus.

I was already my parents’ third child, and had I been born with the complications that were expected, my parents probably wouldn’t have had my biological younger brother, and certainly would not have adopted my youngest brother. My adoptive younger brother’s biological family consisted of five older biological siblings, a niece or nephew, and no stable father figure. In that context, a boy with my brother’s intellectual disability would probably not have gotten the attention he needs.

I’m not trying to say that my family was the heroes in this story. I’m not even trying to say that everything happens for a reason, because I’m not sure that’s even true. But sometimes I think things do happen for a reason, and when they do it usually turns out better than you could’ve planned for yourself. In this case, I’m very glad they did.

why i might be a nonviolent nonresistant pacifist

Awhile back I read a book that was not very good. If I remember the premise correctly, it’s the story of a dude who wakes up as a hostage of some terrorists and has completely forgotten the last year of his life, and somehow comes to the conclusion that serving America is just as important as serving God. There is one passage I recall in particular in which he talks about turning the other cheek. He says you should always avoid a fight, that is, unless you have no other choice, like if someone’s trying to hurt you or infringe upon your freedom.

At first I thought that made a whole lot of sense. Of course I should be allowed to fight back, especially if someone is doing something wrong! But the more I thought about that and tried to synthesize that with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:39, the less sense it actually started to make. Is it really okay to hurt someone if they’re trying to hurt you or someone else, or have provoked you in some other justifiable way? I mean, Jesus never actually gave any exception clauses to the turning the other cheek rule. All he said on the matter was “blessed are the peacemakers” and “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s it.

This bugged me for awhile because I’m the product of a culture that loves violence, and I gleaned much of my masculinity from violence of some sort. I mean, my favorite movie is Braveheart, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I could play Skyrim for days on end, and I absolutely love stories about warriors fighting for what’s right. I even approached my faith with a warfare-inspired vocabulary and attitude. But the more I came to believe that Jesus really meant what he said and said what he meant (a Messiah is faithful, one hundred percent), the more I realized how untenable my love of violence really was.

It got difficult for me to look at the things Jesus said in regard to people who mistreat you and who you consider to be your enemies because I was forced to deal with some pretty difficult truths. The root of violent retaliation—even in cases which seem justifiable to most people—is almost always selfishness or, if you prefer something a little nicer, self-defense or self-preservation. However, it becomes very difficult to love your enemies when you are your own primary concern, doesn’t it? So either Jesus had no idea what it was like to have people dislike and mistreat you (and let’s try to remember who was tortured and crucified by his enemies) or he was calling us to some pretty radical stuff. As you have probably guessed, I contend the latter.

I am now at the point where I truly believe Jesus was advocating for nonviolence with no (or at least shockingly few) exceptions or equivocations. I know this is probably an unpopular opinion, but frankly nonviolence just makes sense to me. Our world is already so crippled by violence, and more often than not we seek to heal the wounds caused by violence with even more violence. But if Jesus came to establish an upside-down kingdom, then you would expect him to tell us to just knock it off with the violence already, because it has yet to fix anything and probably never will. See, the intent of violent retaliation is to overcome the initial perpetrator, whereas the intent of nonviolent nonresistance is to overcome the evil deed of violence while still valuing the humanity of the perpetrator. Therefore, violence (generally) burns bridges while nonviolence (ideally) maintains them.

So where did this totally unbiblical (from my point of view) exception clause which allows violence in certain cases come from? How did we get to the point where, as the band Showbread would say, “turn the other cheek succumbs to preemptive strike?” I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea.

As Americans, we hold very dearly to what we perceive to be our God-given rights. We have the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to pursue happiness, the right to religious assembly, the right to personal opinion, the right to get mine and keep mine, and we’ll be damned if anyone tries to take those rights away from us. But when we turn the other cheek—no matter what the circumstances—we have to give up our rights freely, even if it seems wrong or unfair. And I just don’t think we’re comfortable with that. To us, that feels like we’re giving up part of our identity as Americans.

But I think if we’re truly citizens of that upside-down kingdom Jesus came talking about, we’ll gladly give up our rights as Americans so that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” At this point in my life, I’m ready to do that. The world has already had its fill of violence; I can’t see how my enacting any more will do anyone anywhere any good. I’m desperate for that nonviolent kingdom to get here, and if I want any hope of seeing it, the change has to start with me.

I’m not naïve though. I am well aware that there are some very difficult issues with nonviolence, and I’m sure some of you will have qualms with what I have posited here. Below I will try to preempt some of those qualms with a self-imposed question-and-answer period. I may not be able to answer everything perfectly, but hopefully I will provide some sort of thoughtful rebuttal to sustain a dialogue.

Q: Doesn’t being nonviolent nonresistant make you a sissy?

A: Yeah, maybe. If you think Jesus was a sissy.

Q: So if I’m not supposed to “resist an evil person,” does that mean I should just let someone hit me over and over and over and over? Or should I just stand and watch by while they beat the living daylights out of someone else?

A: I’m going to do what many writers do when asked a difficult question: quote somebody else. I’m going to quote from a blog post by Greg Boyd (the full post can be found here) in which he states:

“We are not to ‘resist an evil person.’ The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an “evil person” uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!”

I would also like to provide a personal example here. In my job as a youth mental health case manager, I frequently work with youth who become violent toward myself or others. During those times, I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted, scratched, spit on, etc. My job requires that I intervene in these situations, and we are carefully trained in nonviolent crisis intervention to defuse such situations. This allows us to provide safety and teach the child that the violent behavior is unacceptable. For me to respond violently to these situations would be simply unconscionable, but that does not require me to remain passive. Intervention does not require retaliation.

So in answer to this question, no, you don’t have to keep taking abuse after abuse. You don’t have to just do nothing. However, resorting to violence is not the appropriate way to solve the problem either. Yeah, that’s right. You might have to put on your thinking cap and get a little creative.

Q: Does this mean you don’t support our troops?

A. By no means! In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our troops! Both my grandfathers served in the military, my dad served in the military for twenty years, my sister served in the military for like four and a half seconds, and my brother-in-law currently serves in our military. I appreciate everything our servicemen and women have done to protect our nation. While I may not be in favor of everything that has been done during war times—and I am certainly not a fan of war—I do understand that our nation’s leaders and military have acted based upon what they believe to be of the greatest good to our people. I am just grateful that I will never have to be put in a situation where I must make such difficult decisions.

Q: What about if someone broke into your house and was going to shoot your wife and kids?

A. First off, how often does that actually happen? And secondly, for the sake of the cases where this actually has occurred, I would again like to defer to Greg Boyd. He puts it so well in this video that even trying to paraphrase it would do it no proper justice.

Click here to see the video!

Q: Does this mean you want to just let violent people off the hook?

A. Nah, I definitely believe in restorative (not retributive) justice. I just don’t think it’s my job to dish it out, and certainly not to respond violently to violence. That’s like a parent hitting their child to teach the child that it’s not okay to hit people.

Q: How do we stop ISIS then?

A: No idea, dude. Again, I’m glad I’m not the one to make those decisions.

Q: Did you stop watching violent movies and reading books about medieval warfare?

A: Nope. Even though I put little stock in violence as a viable source of healthy conflict resolution, I do think stories of war can be used to teach values such as camaraderie, courage, integrity, and so forth. Plus, movies like 300: Rise of an Empire are just plain awesome.

So that’s that. My intent with this article was not necessarily to sway you over to my line of thinking, but to at least get you thinking about the issue and perhaps start a dialogue about it. After all, I’m still trying to figure everything out for myself as well. That’s why you’ll notice the title of this article is Why I Might Be a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist and not Why I Am a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist. And, like I always say, if you like what I said or absolutely hate it, let me know so we can talk about it.