interfaith friends

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

My Friend Sheima

The first face of Islam I ever encountered belonged to a smiling 11-year-old girl who kindly gestured for me to sit next to her on the bus that would take us both to our first day of middle school. I was shy and introverted, but I had been nervously excited to begin a new chapter of my life with all the thrills middle school had to offer – changing classrooms, having my own locker, no longer being just a “little kid” in elementary school. All of my eager anticipation was nearly crushed before the day even began, as many kids on the bus greeted me by making fun of the new perm I had been so eager to show off. But this one girl reached out to me in kindness, and I felt a rush of relief in the midst of my embarrassment as I sat down next to her. We gradually became good friends. Over the years, Sheima would become a sister to me, one of the first people who helped me see the beauty in God and humanity… and the potential within myself.

When we first met, I did not know anything about her religion. But as time went on, I realized that her faith had compelled her thoughtfulness in our first encounter. It is not that she felt obligated by her religion to reach out to me. Rather, in knowing God to be gracious and merciful, in learning from her faith the values of empathy and compassion, her natural inclination toward me and everyone else was one of love. Her love mirrored the love of God to which she opened herself multiple times a day in her prayers and meditations, and love from and for God shaped her understanding of the world.

This is the Islam I first encountered, manifested in one of the best friends I have ever had. Her family welcomed me into their home and hearts as well, and through them I learned not only the doctrines of Islam, but the values of Islam embodied in Muslims who take their faith seriously – values of hospitality, compassion, tolerance, patience, generosity and love.

Religion As A Weapon

I know that there are violent expressions and interpretations of Islam. I know that any religion can be used to marginalize and exclude others. I know that not all Muslims, and not all Christians, interpret their faith in a way that is loving and peaceful. I know that monotheistic faiths in particular can lead people to an exclusive understanding of God that facilitates a dualistic, us-versus-them mentality that treats people of other faiths and no faith with suspicion and hostility, making them easier to dehumanize, oppress, persecute, and kill.

But none of my Muslim friends, none of the Muslims I know, have ever been motivated by their faith towards hostility and violence. The hostile spirit wielded by some Christians toward Muslims in the post 9/11 world, and particularly after the attacks in Paris, however, is unmistakable. When governors shut the doors to Syrian refugees, prominent officials call for religious tests, and presidential candidates seek to score points through ostentatious displays of Christianity and simultaneous fearmongering against Islam, faith is brandished as a cudgel.

But it gets worse.

When President George W. Bush launched the Global War on Terror, he felt compelled by his understanding of the Christian faith to do so. Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath has quoted him as saying:

I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’

While President Barack Obama has not made such appeals to God regarding his administrative decisions, he also identifies as Christian. And he has overseen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a war on Libya, and over 450 drone strikes that have killed predominantly untargeted individuals. A conservative estimate of the deaths from the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone stands at 1.3 million.

While religion should not drive foreign policy, Christianity that does not lead to restraint in warfare, Christianity that does not bear witness to the victims of war, has lost its salt and is worth nothing. And the many who see no contradiction, indeed, see a vital link, between Christian faith and military service, who believe in raining fire and death upon the enemy, do not know what spirit they are from.

At home and abroad, Muslims have experienced Christianity as a weapon. Yet they are constantly compelled by a demanding, suspicious population to counter the image of Islam as a hostile religion of terrorists. Muslims in the United States and around the world have denounced terrorism, hosted interfaith gatherings, written editorials and articles, and continue to live lives of patient compassion, modeling the religion of peace that I have come to know and love. Yet their voices are too often ignored by those who demand accountability for “Islamic” violence.

The truth is, violent expressions of Islam mirror violent expressions of Christianity in a cycle of hostility driven not by God, but by human fear. As mimetic theory shows, vehement religious zeal is driven by a desire to assert one’s self, or one’s religion, over and against another, and any differences are ironically drowned in an overwhelming flood of violence.

A Mutual Dependence on Enmity

The tides of violence are rising as fear and hatred perpetuate one another. The American Empire, ever living up to Dr. King’s apt assessment as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” depends on ISIS to keep the war machine turning and put a noble face of “fighting terror” on a policy of maintaining military dominance and exploiting resources. ISIS, for its part, depends on violence from the United States and her allies to create an atmosphere of desperation, which is their biggest recruitment tool. In a recent article for The Nation, Lydia Wilson interviewed captured ISIS soldiers who confessed to being “terrorized” into fighting. Civil war fueled by American occupation had triggered a desire for vengeance, but more than revenge, fighters were desperate to provide for their families in a broken and impoverished land.

ISIS uses the devastation and hopelessness nurtured by a decade and a half of war to convince Muslims that the world is against them and that they are their only hope. Every gun fired, every drone strike, every parent, child, spouse and sibling killed, every dream obliterated, drives another recruit into their ranks. And with every act of terror they commit, they turn the world against not only them, but against the innocent Muslims who become increasingly isolated. Islamophobic attitudes and policies play directly into the hands of ISIS, who want to force Muslims to choose between them and an increasingly hostile world. Muslims who resist this binary are voices for peace, and they make up the majority of ISIS’s victims.

ISIS uses Islam to bring a veneer of righteousness to their violence, when there is nothing Islamic about it. Seeking to provoke overreaction by Western powers and further isolate fellow Muslims, they target not only soldiers, but civilians of all religions, ignoring the Qur’anic proclamation that to kill an innocent person is to kill all of humanity. (5:32). The United States military, for its part, invokes Christian prayers and employs Christian chaplains, yet throws Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” out the window and demonizes its victims. Both sides are made up of fearful, flawed human beings trying to protect themselves and their families, believing God to be on their side.

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

But there is hope. Religion that excludes and dehumanizes others is a weapon, but faith that recognizes the interconnection of all life can be a healing balm. At their best, Islam and Christianity both show life, the universe, everything to be ordained by the One who is Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Christians and Muslims worldwide are compelled – by hope and faith and love nurtured by prayer and support from their communities – to lives of active kindness, generosity, and a determined struggle for restorative justice. At their best, Islam and Christianity inspire not pride, but humility, not self-righteousness, but empathy, not hostility, but healing.

Worshipping the same God, inspired by ethics of compassion and mercy, and striving for the same goals of restorative justice for victims of exploitation, oppression and violence, Christians and Muslims have great potential to be not merely allies, not simply partners in peacemaking, but true friends. Interfaith dialogue is a good beginning, but the seeds of compassion must be sown deeper. Knowledge can be forgotten, fear can taint information, but friendship is the antidote to hostility that can dispel violence and lay a foundation for reconciliation.

So how do we form these friendships? Muslims around the world are already reaching out, as I have said before. Christians must step up and denounce Islamophobia, in order to dispel the fear that precludes relationship. Hand-in-hand with this task comes recognizing and condemning the violence of our own government. I am convinced that Islamophobia works subconsciously to dehumanize the victims of American aggression overseas as well as implant subtle but damaging views of Muslims at home. How else can we explain our collective complacency with a drone program where up to 90% of the casualties are not targeted and a genocidal ideology that justifies the killing of all military-aged males by deeming them combatants even when their identities are unknown? Friendship cannot grow in hostile soil polluted by fear and self-deception.

With fear dispelled and hearts broken open to the truth of our violence, I believe that more people will be willing to reach out to Muslims in friendship, or receive the friendship Muslims continually offer. Of course, friendships, like the one Sheima and I developed, come about naturally if they come about at all. They cannot be forced. But the current climate marginalizing and isolating Muslims precludes interfaith friendships, whereas reaching out in humility and compassion can facilitate them.

Friendships between Muslims and Christians would go a long way toward sucking the oxygen out of ISIS’ ideology and out of the United States’ war machine. Neither side in this battle is endorsed by God, no matter what leaders and soldiers might say. Yet all who fight are beloved of the same God, who stands with all victims and recognizes the fighters themselves as victims of violence and their own fear. The key to peace is not the elimination of the people who fight the battles, but the elimination of enmity itself. Showing that friendship is possible across boundaries of faith shows that God transcends human limits and can’t be confined to one group or invoked against another. It also draws upon and fuels positive mimesis. Compassion is contagious.

Just as ISIS and the West mirror each other in violence, Muslims and Christians can mirror one another in love, and come together in mutual resolve to end violence and sow seeds of peace. A fragile and dying world is dependent on it. And our souls will be enhanced by letting the expansive and reconciling love of the God we all believe in draw us together. Because I am already blessed with such a wonderful friendship, I can testify that so much joy and hope await if we tear down the divisions of fear and hostility and come together in love. We have everything to lose continuing on our destructive path of violence, and everything to gain in coming together in friendship. If we cannot make peace together, we cannot make peace at all. Only friendship across all human divides can save the world.

Image: Copyright: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz via


American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part III)

Is there such a thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. – Rick Santorum, BuzzFeed News, 2012

In the third and final installment of this series, I will be changing my approach somewhat. There is a specific reason I am doing this, and here it is:

Because I would be labeled a “liberal Christian” by most in America, I do not want to fall into the trap of playing the victim for my own aggrandizement. Should I take the approach of simply defending myself against the attacks of not being an actual Christian, I fear I will engage in the very same scapegoating much of the conservative Right constantly engages in. Then I can show everyone how much of a victim I am! That would not exactly be Christlike. Instead of doing that, I am going to offer my insight (and hopefully wisdom) as to how to approach my fellow brothers and sisters who take a more “conservative” approach in love. My goal will be to help ease much of the fear some seem to have at the thought of theologies that differ from their own. Then perhaps all “types” of Christians can come together and actually help build each other up and grow.

Santorum’s primary fear in the quote above seems centered on his belief that liberal Christians are “re-writing” the Bible. Because this is not the first time I have heard this claim, I will focus my attention there. First, I would like to attempt to put his fear to rest because that is not what I, or any of my colleagues for that matter, are doing. Now, I will say that I interpret things vastly differently than most Western Christians, but different views aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Our Jewish forefathers often disagreed amongst themselves and, as scholar and historian Lester L. Grabbe tells us in Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel and Jesus:

Most Jews accepted the sacredness of the temple and the general teachings of the Torah. But there was no official orthodoxy (in the Christian sense), for it is clear that there were many interpretations of the Torah and many different views about how to apply the law outside the temple. (Preface, xii)

One group of Christians need not fear the interpretive methods of another, but in fact should be willing to learn and grow from them. And this goes both ways! Nobody has the complete—capital “T”—Truth.

The second thing I would like to address is the notion that the Bible should be treated as if it had “plain” teachings. And even if it did, there would still be complicated minds interpreting it—and we know no two minds are perfectly alike. It does not matter if you are studying Christology, eschatology, soteriology, or any of the other “-ologies,” there will be differences of opinions. In fact, dissimilar conclusions—even slight ones—will always be drawn when looking specifically at Jesus’ teachings, as most were in parable. Let me list some of them:

  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Servants
  • The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed

One could spend their entire lifetime deciphering what each parable truly “means”—and even that gets us nowhere because there is no one “meaning” to something that is pedagogical (used for teaching). Moreover, reading a parable literally is as logical as the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “I can resist anything, except temptation.” My point is, without getting into specifics, is that there is no one way to interpret Jesus. Things simply aren’t that plain.

I realize I am not offering a counter-hermeneutic to a flat reading. That is not my point here. But it was my point here, here, and especially here. I would, however, like to pose one question to those who favor a flat hermeneutic: is that how Jesus himself viewed Scripture? I believe that is a fair question—one that I never once heard asked in church. Again, I attempt that here.

So, I know I did not defend whether a “liberal Christian” can exist. Hopefully, if you have been keeping abreast to what I write, the answer is self-evident. Honestly, I would have offered more of a retort but it is so damn easy to fall into the scapegoating trap and I am trying to watch myself. I will, however, conclude by saying the following: Conservatism does not get to claim ownership of the Gospel, even if some of their members refuse to acknowledge a contrary understanding of it.

As a church, let’s stop scapegoating others. That’s not the Jesus way. He refused to create scapegoats. Instead, he chose to serve everyone, and it is my hope that someday I’ll start looking more like him in that regard.


Image: Stock Photo by radiantskies via

new quote

#IwasKimDavis, Or “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome”

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Mark Sandlin, author of “The God Article,” for starting the #IwasKimDavis hashtag, which helps to curb our tendency toward scapegoating and instead embrace empathy. This is my #IwasKimDavis story.

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”

Sixteen years later, these words still sting.

I was a freshman in college. I had converted to Islam two years previous, which is another story, and I was struggling to maintain my fledgling Muslim identity at a college with very few Muslim students. My conversion to Islam and later reaffirmation of Christianity is not particularly relevant to this story, except to say that I struggled to find a way to relate to and worship God that offended neither my heart nor my mind. Bewilderment about the Trinity and horror at the crucifixion as I misunderstood it at the time were some of the reasons why I embraced a faith with the same roots as the Christianity I had been raised with, without the same paradoxes. What’s important to understand, for the purposes of this story, is that I was struggling to be faithful to the God I was trying to understand. I believed this God to be Most Gracious, Most Merciful. But I also believed that this God had designed men and women to complement each other, and that this God had decreed homosexual behavior sinful.

It was, honestly, something that bothered me about Islam. But it wasn’t my central theological struggle, and Islam’s doctrine of Tawheed, the oneness of God, was so much clearer to me than the Trinity that I embraced it, and struggled to be faithful to the One God of all. I was striving to work through my doubts, trusting that God would eventually make things more clear to me. I struggled to live with the disconnect between my heart, which wanted to be an open ally of the LGBTQ community, and my religion, which (as far as I knew, before recognizing Islam’s more complex and multi-vocal history with homosexuality), told me that homosexuality was at best a pathology and at worst willful disobedience. I was new to Islam. I had much to learn. I wasn’t willing to disconnect from it or from the sense of relief it had given to my theological doubts over an issue that wasn’t even central to my life.

But the issue was about to become a lot more significant to me.

I had been somewhat taken aback when I learned that my new friend was a lesbian, because we had been alone together. I’m embarrassed now by how I might have jumped or flinched at the news, but it wasn’t because I felt any animosity toward her. It had more to do with Islamic purity codes, as I understood them, and how I would have to readjust my interactions with her to fit them. She had watched me pray with my covered posterior in the air, after all, and women stand behind or separate from men in the masjid to avoid that very situation! I recalled the hadith “When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, Satan is always a third companion.” We would have to keep the doors open when we visited each others’ dorms, I told her. I tried to tell her about how I was trying to keep up with my faith and how that meant I would try to interact with her as I would with a man, keeping my modesty.

I was almost embarrassed, and somewhat apologetic, as bumbled through an explanation of why I felt a need to change the way we interacted together. I have no idea what I said. But I remember my friend’s kindness as she listened, and her eye contact when I shyly looked back up at her, and she said the words to me that I have never forgotten:

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”


I tried to explain that I wasn’t homophobic, or that I really didn’t mean to be. I wanted to acknowledge that I understood and deeply regretted if what I had told her was hurtful, and that Islam’s position on homosexuality was not something I loved about my new faith, but it was something I was trying to understand. I told her I knew it wasn’t my place to judge what was homophobic since I wasn’t the one hurt by it. I said that I wanted her to know that in my heart and mind, I thought she was a wonderful person, and that, if anything, I was a little troubled that her sexuality didn’t bother me, and troubled that I was troubled by that! She understood. And then we probably changed the subject to our mutual love of Disney, or a class we shared, or whatever. She quickly became my best friend. And as an agnostic, she appreciated the beauty that she found in my faith and my faith journey, and she herself became a part of it, as important relationships always become a part of one’s faith.

I eventually let the modesty codes of Islam, insofar as they separated me from my friend, fall away. I believed in modest dress and humility, and that hasn’t changed, but I didn’t want to keep my friend at an emotional or spiritual distance, so I didn’t.

At the time, I sometimes felt as if I was putting my friendship above God, but I was also able to explore my understanding and relationship with God through that friendship. My friend’s thoughts and questions sparked my own and expanded my heart and mind. Still, I had occasional pangs of doubt that I was doing wrong by God. What I didn’t realize then was that my doubts and struggles, and eventually my putting my friendship not above my faith, but above certain interpretations of religious tradition, was a path to a deeper understanding and a deeper love for the God who is Love and wants humans to relate to one-another in love.

Even after reaffirming Christianity because of a deeper understanding of the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation and crucifixion (while remaining ever grateful to Islam and still desiring to keep my love and respect for it), it took a while for me to come to the understanding of homosexuality that I have today. My understanding of scripture, my hermeneutical lens, is still coming into focus, but it is much more clear now than when I was struggling in the midst of fears.

My fear wasn’t really homophobia. And I didn’t want to admit that it was a fear of God, because I was trying, and sometimes succeeding, in believing that God is Love, though I did fear disappointing God. What I really suffered from is what I coin “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome,” or FHS, and I empathize with anyone who struggles with it or holds it as yet undiagnosed.

I was frightened of disappointing a God whom I believed would be disappointed by a violation of purity codes. I believed that this God was merciful and loving, and that this God would even forgive homosexuality, but not approve of it. But the more I came to know my friend, the more I could not understand God being disappointed in her for something that — not only could not be changed, but had no need to be changed. If anything, I realized that if I considered her potential to fall in love and build a family was at all sinful, that would hinder my compassion toward her, and that was a sin. Loving was not a sin. I came to understand that, and it opened my heart to a deeper understanding of God.

I now see sexual orientation and gender identity through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice. The words of Hosea, repeated twice by Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” does not just contradict certain elements of the Bible in which God clearly does demand sacrifice. It contradicts an entire understanding of scripture, an understanding that distinguishes in from out, clean from unclean. Coming to the understanding that scripture is multi-vocal, that it speaks of human projection of violence onto God as well as God’s revelation to humanity in the form of Jesus, has made all the difference in the world to me. Every word of scripture is important, but some of it reveals the depths of human sin, including the violence that we were deluded into thinking was from God. Jesus definitively shows that God’s love encompasses everyone. There is no way to hold mercy and sacrifice “in tension” within God. Perfect mercy casts out sacrificial systems that exclude and marginalize, just as perfect love casts out fear.

Among the marginalized in today’s world are those who belong to the LGBTQ community. Some use scripture to justify this marginalization. I really believe they are trying to obey God as they understand God. Yet Jesus embraced those whom the scriptures of his own time marginalized, in order to heal us of our delusion that God excludes people the way we do.

I believe that Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the national legalization of gay marriage, is trying to follow her religious convictions. She does not have the legal right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and I feel compassion for those whose lives she has made more difficult through her noncompliance with the law. I lament the pain she has caused them, pain that may be compounded by other voices that marginalize them. But I also feel compassion for Kim Davis, because I have been her. I believe she is suffering from Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome, and it is not an ailment to be taken lightly.

Kim Davis may or may not feel assured of God’s love for her. I sincerely hope she does. But I also know that we will never know the extent of this love until we come to grasp the fact that God’s love embraces everyone, and that God desires abundant life for everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community. This abundant life often includes a relationship with an intimate partner, which is a human reflection of the depths of God’s love, and God’s love can be equally revealed in a partner of the same sex as in a partner of the opposite sex. I believe this, partly because theologians such as James Alison have successfully debunked the “clobber texts” for me. But more importantly, I believe this because I know that God is Love, that love is relationship (hence the Trinity that so baffled me in my younger days), and that being made in the image of God is to be made for love. Nothing reflects God’s image more beautifully than mutually self-giving love between two people. Knowing this, I understand Kim Davis’s struggle for the sanctity of marriage. Marriage is worth struggling for. But the LGBTQ community has known this all along, which is why they now celebrate their legal right to marry.

I pray that Kim Davis eventually recognizes that right, not just according to the law, but according to the God who is Love, who demands mercy, not sacrifice. Because I truly believe that if she stops trying to prevent others from embracing one another in love, she will find herself embraced in a divine love that is so much greater than she now imagines it to be.

For more on God’s all-embracing love as it relates to this issue, see Adam Ericksen’s article, “‘God’s Authority’: Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk.”




Religion As A Drug And The Authenticity Of Jesus


About a month and a half ago, Raven friend Michael Hardin, author of The Jesus Driven Life and director of Preaching Peace, asked me, among others, to contribute to a volume he is editing about religion and addiction. As an icebreaker, he shared with us essays in which he critiques destructive elements that he finds within particular Christian denominations, particularly Charismatic Christianity. Although I agreed, I was a little hesitant. While it is exciting to be invited to contribute, I am not especially familiar with the Charismatic Christianity that Michael critiques, nor have I been trained to help people cope with addiction from either a medical or a pastoral point of view. However, I have dealt with addictive tendencies of my own. What I write, therefore, is observation and analysis from my own experience, filtered through an understanding of human behavior guided by mimetic theory.

There may be certain denominations or practices of Christianity that encourage and nurture addictive behavior more than others. However, I wish to focus on another angle and discuss the ways in which anyone can be vulnerable to using a religious belief, practice, or community in an unhealthy or addictive manner. I look back on my life and recognize ways in which I have done this. When I am honest with myself, I also recognize a continuing vulnerability to the temptation to “use” faith in a way that falls short of God’s intention for this amazing gift. The gift of faith should help us to magnify the love of God and recognize that love in others, to form relationships in the image of God whose Triune essence is the ultimate relationship of Love. However, all good gifts can be abused, and sometimes faith can be twisted in our minds to assert ourselves above others, providing us with temporary gratification that ultimately leaves us hollow. “Corruptio optimi pessima;” the corruption of the best is the worst, and when faith becomes an instrument of self-gratification and ultimately scapegoating, one of God’s greatest gifts operates against its intended purpose. I think if we are all honest with ourselves, our faith is at best on a continuing journey toward the ideal, with the pitfalls of temptation to use it as a drug or a weapon continually before us. This is my story of stumbling into those pitfalls, climbing (or being lifted) out, and keeping my eyes open, that I may avoid stumbling again.

My Story

Addiction could be seen as a misplaced search for wholeness. I can look back on my adolescence and see times when I have used certain religious groups to fill what I perceived as voids in my life, to feel a sense of belonging and boost a shaky self-esteem.

I cannot attribute these voids to any tragedy or trauma; my childhood was pleasant and I am close to my family. Yet from my childhood I had a complicated relationship with “the Church,” both in the sense of the Body of Christ as a whole, and in the more immediate sense of my place of worship. My home church was a place where I felt safe and loved, among true friends. It was also, however, a place of anxiety, where I would wrestle with doubts and fears I didn’t dare fully articulate. I attribute my experience of the church as a source of comfort and confusion to being the daughter of a faithful Christian and a stark atheist.

I mimetically desired the conviction of faith I perceived in the people I knew from church, including my mother and grandmother and their friends. But my desire was mixed with more than a little fear. It wasn’t my church, much less my family, that taught me to fear a “wrathful God.” The myths I came to believe about a God who dispensed punishment on his own Son and a hell of eternal torment were not my church’s teachings, but they are so embedded in our culture that unless they are directly refuted, they may become internalized anyway. For me, living with a doubting daddy “outside” the boundaries of the Christian faith, absorbing his intellectual disconnects with stories of floating zoos and parting seas, men walking on water and divine mathematical equations that didn’t add up (1+1+1 = 1), I couldn’t help but be doubtful. And my doubt terrified me, and kept my heart as well as my mind from embracing the God who, on the one hand was Love, but on the other hand, was ready to cast my father, me, and countless others into a pit of eternal fire if we didn’t believe.

I think the commingling of deep-seeded fear with the palpable aching for genuine faith kept me from walking away from God. Yes, part of me was afraid to make a real break from religion, because of what I perceived God might do to me if God existed! But another part of me deeply yearned to fully embrace and be embraced by the love that I knew was there, because I saw it in my mother and my church. This is the context of my faith journey, and it is in this context that I can say that there were times when religion could, at times, be like a drug to me.

Looking back, I can see that I was always looking for belonging, for validation, and ultimately for a sense of unconditional love. I found that love from my family, but I questioned it in God, and my doubt was reflected in all kinds of anxieties. I struggled with my self-esteem, sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe, and sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just embrace unbelief. I don’t know how many of my social or emotional insecurities could be traced back to this self-doubt, but certainly some of them could. The various faith communities I tried to embrace in turn embraced as much of me as they could – as much as I would let them. But rather than express my full self, I tried to suffocate my doubts under obsessive behavior, behavior that might have been harmless, had I not been using it to try to hide my doubt from myself. I threw myself into Christian music, decorated my walls with Bible verses and hymn lyrics, and made a grand and futile effort to redefine myself to myself as well as hide my weakness (as I perceived my doubt to be) from the world. I must stress that it was not the faith communities that fueled my addictive behavior. Rather, my addictive behavior was fueled by fears that I absorbed and pieced together, in spite of the love that I now realize ultimately saved me.

I repressed my doubts and fears in order to feel a sense of belonging. I wondered, if I tried hard enough, would I find God? Would God find me worthy enough to bless me with faith? I developed my identity around being faithful, hoping to live into it someday. “Faking” would be the wrong word. The longing for God was very real, and everything I learned and thought and said came from a place of truth. But repressing my doubts and fears, from myself at times and also from my friends, stunted my relationships. Even so, in spite of doubts that hindered me, I made genuine connections. Looking back, I now understand that the God I was so desperately seeking was in those connections – with Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, everyone – the whole time.

When I finally found the courage to express my doubts and fears honestly, I was able to open myself to the love that had been waiting for me the whole time. I was blessed in my college years to find friends with whom I finally dared to be fully honest about joys and qualms I had within my meandering faith journey. The acceptance I received as I gradually let down my guard was a grace I slowly came to perceive. I found my anxiety fading as I relaxed into the love of my friends, and the theological questions that swam through my mind lost the baggage of fear that had long clung to them like a parasite. It was in finding myself loved that I began to understand the meaning of “God is Love,” and gradually trust that Love was holding onto me and surrounding me. My trust continues to grow and mature, and my love for Jesus is ever deepening, a reflection of his own love, magnified to me in the people who make me who I am.

The Authenticity of Jesus

 “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus tells us. The truth is that we are all deeply, truly, unconditionally loved, and understanding that truth is essential to being healthy and whole. Because love is a relational quality, we cannot be “whole” as isolated individuals. We are made in the image of the divine relationship of Love, the Trinity, designed to live in authentic relationship with one another. Addictions and addictive behaviors, I believe, are false paths to fulfillment that collapse us into ourselves and preclude authentic relationships in all of their messy, vulnerable complexity.

A faith community at its best can be a wonderful place to nurture authentic relationship, magnifying the love of God. But to repress fears and doubts to fit into such a community is to be disingenuous to one’s self and others, and stifle true relationship. If we truly seek to serve God and one-another in our faith communities, we must make sure we are contributing to an environment in which we are encouraging genuineness, accepting faults, listening to doubts, providing safe space for fears, and welcoming honesty. There is room for even the best churches to grow in this respect, helping those who go to church in search of belonging to recognize that such a search is joyfully unnecessary, because we already belong with God.

Of course, there are many faith communities that fall short of this vocation. There are churches that, whether unconsciously or deliberately, prey on the human desire for validation rather than preach that God’s unconditional grace is sufficient and universal. Churches that teach that God’s love is limited, erect boundaries between who is in and who is out, and effectively preach sacrifice over mercy, will inevitably mold some parishioners who either cling to a veneer of faith out of fear, or use faith as a source of pride over and against others. Both of these extremes are mirror-images of one-another, because both fear and self-righteousness inhibit intimate connection with God and neighbor. As in any other addiction, any sense of fulfillment in such an environment would be false.

When Paul instructs us to imitate the humility of Christ in his great hymn to the Philippians (ch 2, vs. 5 – 11), he is not giving us a formula for earning God’s approval. He is inviting us to consider Jesus Christ as a model not only of humility, but of confidence in the unconditional love of God that makes such humility possible. It was assurance of the love of God and a mission to share that love with the whole world that drove Jesus to “empty himself” and “become obedient unto death.” What drove Jesus to death was pushing the boundaries of what was considered to be God’s favor. Authorities and powers that thought God’s grace was bound to certain rules, certain people, and ultimately a certain sacrificial system, condemned Jesus for going beyond such boundaries. He embraced lepers and sinners and taught a love of enemies, drawing those on the margins into the circle of grace that some had thought to reserve for themselves. That is how Jesus emptied himself, forsaking the temptation to cling to human measurements of piety or prestige to embrace the marginalized. That is how he obeyed unto death the voice of Love. The consequence of such obedience was incurring the wrath of a humanity that had operated on exclusion and sacrifice. To defy a world order based on sacrifice, Jesus took a risk on the love of God. The resurrection was not only Jesus’ vindication, but the revelation of God’s love embracing the whole world, including those whom we would exclude.

Jesus’s assurance of God’s love allowed him to live authentically, free from searching for the validation of others. Rather than seeking identity in people or objects of obsession, Jesus knew himself in the love of his Father, in the love of the heavenly Father of all. To know ourselves to be in that love and to live it out in giving to others is to fulfill our vocations as image-bearers of God.

Jesus, indeed, is not a drug. Jesus is the true human and the perfect model of authenticity. Following Jesus is not “using” him; it is not seeking a euphoric experience to wash away loneliness. Following Jesus is about embracing the vulnerability necessary to be fully honest and fully open to others, embracing those who think themselves beyond the bounds of love, and receiving such an embrace when you feel beyond love yourself. Jesus is not a quick fix for our ailments but the Way of abundant life, because he models for us the freedom to embrace the love in which we are created. To follow him is not to “become high” but to undergo metanoia, to gradually relinquish the mythology of a world that compels us to seek our identities in objects and the approval of others, and compete for a limited share of prosperity. As we serve others and allow ourselves to be served, letting fear and pride fall away, the grip of such lies loosens its hold on us. The truth of Jesus, made known to us in our imitation of him, shows us that in relinquishing our fruitless searches – our addictions and obsessions – to the love of God, we find ourselves already found.

Image: Photo by Billy Hathorn. Available via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how many within “mainstream” Western Christianity believe the LGBT community—more specifically, the recent SCOTUS decision on marriage equality—is to blame for the imminent judgment on America. In this entry, I would like to mention how those in the Muslim faith appear to be included among those charged with causing the “fall of America.”

The hyperbolic rhetoric used to talk about over 1.6 billion Muslims is just as head-scratching as that which is used to describe the roughly 9 million LGBT Americans. Radio host Rick Wiles recently stated that “millions of Americans will die in one day in this country” at the hands of Muslim-Americans, whose only goal is “to slaughter the people who do not convert to Islam.” We hear statements like this over and over, predominantly by those on the Christian right. I do not wish to demonize those who make such claims, but what I do want to do is shed light on the fact that this is nothing more than extreme hyperbole. Sure, there are those for whom that statement would be true. However, as I will point out in the following paragraph, this is not the goal of the Muslim faith. Furthermore, a statement like Wiles’ is a double-edged sword. Given his logic, one could point to recent Lafayette shooter, John Russell Houser, who, in 2013 tweeted, “The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed [sic])” and conclude, “the goal of Christianity is to slaughter the people who do not accept Christ.” Both claims are nonsense.

The goal of any religion, broadly speaking, will depend upon how one interprets matters. Some religions have sacred texts. Some don’t agree on what is supposed to be “sacred text.” Some religions have varying views of God, or gods, if the case may be. The Muslim faith, then, is no different. Sure, on one extreme, is ISIS (and groups similar). They have a specific goal in mind, which involves radical violence. On the other hand, however, you have a group like the Sufi Muslims. One such Sufi is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, whom I mention in my forthcoming book, All Set Free. His understanding of Islam is beautifully summed up in the following:

Peace, unity, equality . . . when we are in one place, when we live in one place, eat in one place, sleep in one place, and when we finally join together in heaven in one place, that is unity. Even when we go to that (final) place, we all live together in freedom as one family, one group. In this world and in the next world we live together in freedom, as one family of peace. This is Islam. If we find this way of peace, this is Islam. – (Muhaiyaddeen, God’s Psychology, 218)

There should be no denying the plain truth that within various faiths, there are debates among adherents as to what constitutes “correct theology.” Just because a Christian makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs a “God-mandated” action, does not mean all Christians are in agreement. Likewise, just because a Muslim makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs an “Allah-mandated” action, does not mean all Muslims are in agreement either. (“Allah,” it must be noted, is an Arabic word simply meaning “the One God,” and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims). There seems to be a more accurate common denominator for the violence.

It does not matter if God is named YHWH or Allah, Zeus or Athena, if s/he is believed to be violent, then those who follow will likely be more tolerant of violence. In fact, in more extreme cases, followers of that god will eagerly engage in violence themselves. One problem with this belief is that when violence is justified—when an eye for an eye is how those religious interpretations operate for individuals and nations—they will, in reality, often ramp up the violence. (See the studies done by the University of Texas—sourced from Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, 142–43).

This leads to all manners of madness!

This also seems to be the case with the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

So, what is the answer to this conflict that seems to never end? Well, I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that question—do not engage in retributive violence. Or, directly in his words: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39).

Although the blame for the violence should be equally shared with all who engage in the violence, the supposed “Christian nation” should at least model what a Christ-like foreign policy looks like. Should it not? Yet, the United States seems to be right in the middle of the violence—not “set apart” from others who are involved. If leaders truly want the United States to be known as a “Christian nation,” should they not “turn the other cheek?” Should the United States not love those labeled “enemy?”

I realize the relationships between nations are not simple. But, shouldn’t nations who claim to desire peace not at least consider that one’s belief in God literally will be a matter of “peace” and “war?” If we can recognize there is a correlation between violence and our theology, shouldn’t we begin to take more seriously the idea that God is not violent? It seems that belief might then lead to more peaceful interactions between nations. I think there is enough experiential evidence that one’s faith dictates one’s ethics. We witness it over and over—history seemingly repeating herself ad infinitum.

One should not blame the entire Muslim faith in the same way one should not blame the entire Christian or Jewish faith for the violence and acts of terrorism. The common link between the violence is the belief in a violent God—one who vanquishes enemies and blesses those willing to die for the cause. At some point, someone is going to have to end the cycle of violence. My hope is that it will be those who claim to have the very model to do just that. Jesus had legions of angels to unleash on the Romans, yet he kept them at bay (Matthew 26:53). A “Christian nation” should follow suit.

Don’t we see where perpetual war has taken us?

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

Image Credit: Stock vector of world religions connected by international peace symbol. By casejustin via


American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part I)

All cultures scapegoat others. It is just something we do, unfortunately. Our religions are founded on scapegoating—Christianity included. The scapegoating that is currently taking place in America, much of it from within the church, is astounding. Just take a look at some of the recent rhetoric regarding the LGBT community from some self-declared Christians.

You’re going to see gunfire . . . “ Preacher Rick Wiles, comparing the recent SCOTUS decision to the institution of slavery.

When homosexuals begin lining up to adopt those children, they will literally disciple them into an early grave called Hell.” – Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough

Personally, I believe from a perspective of reading Romans 1, that this nation is under judgment from God ( . . . ) The wrath of God revealed against those who rebel against him in Romans 1. And one of the signs of even God judging a nation and withdrawing the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, one of the signs is the sign of homosexual behavior, as it says in Romans 1. And I believe we’re seeing that in this nation, I believe this nation is under judgment.”Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum (I will save my comments on how to exegete Romans 1:18 – 32 for another time.)

So, in the minds of these men and countless others, because of the LGBT community and our compliance with their desire to share in the same rights heterosexual couples enjoy, judgment and wrath will befall this “Christian” nation. I would like to make a few comments regarding this type of thinking.

First, for sake of argument, let’s assume that homosexual behavior is sin (I do not believe that, but hear me out.) Even if the citizens of this nation allow this “rampant sin” to enter her borders, is this the first time? Is this the first instance within the past 50 years where the United States of America enacted laws that many would find immoral? Well, let’s take a look…

“Jim Crow” laws (1890 – 1965) stated that black and white segregation is a mandate when it comes to public schools, transportation, restrooms and water fountains, and even restaurants. And no judgment befell this” great” nation.

Interracial marriage was only legalized in 1967. Prior to that, blacks and whites could not marry. Yet, no judgment came . . .

How about current drug laws? In a piece from July 1, 2015, I discussed the current drug laws in American and how racially biased they are. However, we see no one thumping a bible from a pulpit, warning of some terrible judgment. I know, I know: drugs are bad so God is okay with these laws.

I could drone (pardon the pun) on and on about which laws I find “biblically objectionable” but I think you see my point—and I didn’t even go far back in history. I need not remind anyone of the institution of slavery. The fact is: the laws of this nation have little to do with Christian values. Never have, never will.

My second point is this: if you want to use the bible as an authority on how to enact law, at least begin with Jesus Christ. If someone wants to view homosexual behavior as “sin,” then are they not to view that “sin” as a speck, and their own sin as a “plank”? (Matt. 7:3 – 5) Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be “great,” they must be servants. (Matt. 20: 25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on “biblical values” not “lording over another?” In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

I cannot help but cringe when I hear the justifications for stopping the oft-used pejorative, “homosexual agenda.” All too often, “protecting the sanctity of marriage” seems more important than living “at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18)—“voting for God” more important than being “last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

If the bible makes anything clear, it is that we are called to love—called to serve others as Christ loved and served. Those who take a Christocentric worldview will not wage war with the LGBT community. Rather, we will follow Jesus and treat all with love, kindness, and compassion—just as we want to be treated. Christians who take Jesus seriously will work diligently toward ceasing scapegoating others. The LGBT community will not be to blame for the wars and rumors of wars brought about by an “over and above” foreign policy. They will not be to blame for the blowback due to rampant nationalism. They will not be to blame for future terrorist attacks that are exacerbated by the expanded drone program or our propensity toward “nation building”. The scapegoat never is to blame for the problems of the community, the culture, the nation. Our violence is.


Image Credit: The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt. Public Domain. Available through Wikipedia.


Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.


The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

Book Feature Friday: Undivided: How a Christian Mother and a Muslim Daughter Find Reconciliation

0529113058.jpgUndivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace is essential for anyone interested in interfaith dialogue. It is written by Alana Raybon and her mother Patricia Raybon. They write honestly about their faith, their passion, and their hope for reconciliation.

This book is important because increasingly the world seems to be divided upon religious hostility. Many in the US are suspicious of Islam. We are fed a constant diet of “Islamic extremists” on the news. That diet includes a poisonous main course that claims Islam is inherently violent. And if Islam is inherently violent, then Muslims are, too.

We need to stop eating that poison.

Just as the US is divided when it comes to religion, so were Patricia and Alana. Undivided invites the reader to glimpse into the life of a mother and daughter that seek reconciliation amid religious division. Like many mother-daughter relationships, the division and hurt between them is intense and painful. But Undivided also reveals that there is hope.

Patricia, a devout believer in Jesus, felt betrayed by her daughter’s conversion to Islam. She’s heartbroken because she believes that Alana has rejected Jesus in a “defiant choice of faith.” And in rejecting Jesus, Patricia feels rejected, too. She “feels the hurt of a daughter who turned the Lord down without spending even one second to ask her give-it-all mother what I thought.”

A little motherly guilt trip, there? Yes. Patricia “pounds” on Alana, in hopes of bringing her back to Jesus. “A few Christian friends of mine want me to keep pounding on Alana” she writes. “Even more want me to keep pounding on Satan. To take authority and pray Satan back to hell and Alana back to Christ. Jesus, instead, asks me to step out of the boat.”

But throughout most of the book, Patricia continues to pound on Islam. She writes about her steady diet of news stories claiming the Islam is violent and experiences with Muslims that are negative, putting Alana on the defensive. Alana defends Islam against the barrage of the news stories that emphasize violence in the name of Islam. She pleads that her mother stops watching the news and begins to understand that “I know firsthand about Islamic peace, through my own life and from the people who surround me every day.”

As I read Undivided, I noticed a general truth about family dynamics. The more a parent pursues, the more the child creates distance. Patricia’s pursuit to convince Alana that she needs Jesus only backfires because she talks past Alana. Alana distances herself by going weeks without responding to her mother. claims that her choice in converting to Islam wasn’t a “defiant choice of faith”; rather, Islam gave her a passion for God that she never felt before. Islam “holds me together when life seems to pull me in so many places.”

Patricia and Alana’s relationship was divided because they both insisted on being right about their religion. And in being right, the other had to be wrong. The religious battle between this mother and daughter is indicative of the religious battle of truth that seems to be playing out between Christianity and Islam on a global scale.

But not all Christians and Muslims are fighting that battle. In fact, Undivided is an important book because it reveals how this mother and daughter moved from an interfaith battle of right and wrong to walking hand in hand down the interfaith road to peace. Our religions aren’t the problem; it’s our shared desire to prove ourselves right and another wrong that divides us. This dynamic creates a mimetic rivalry because the more I want to be right and prove you wrong, the more you will likely respond by wanting to be right and prove me wrong. Fortunately, Patricia and Alana are no longer consumed by that rivalry. “We’ve moved past the point of needing to prove each other wrong,” writes Alana, “and I’m so grateful for that.”

I’m grateful for that, too. In fact, Alana states, “I find myself not offended” by statements that used to offend her. The spiritual maturity of becoming less offended is crucial for our future. We are so easily offendable, which leads to resentment, bitterness, and violence. If our society would read this book, we would discover how to better manage ourselves when we feel offended. We would discover that despite our interfaith missteps, the point of our religious traditions is not to be right by proving each other wrong, but to step out of the boat. To stop pounding on each other. And to seek reconciliation as we love one another as we would love ourselves.

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

Farkhunda: Their Scapegoat… And Ours

Image from Flickr.

Image from Flickr.

A month ago, a brutal and horrific tragedy took place in Afghanistan. A woman by the name of Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry men. This is the story of a scapegoat, but it is also much more. Beneath the surface of this incident lies many layers of violence and humiliation. Reflexive rage against the killers, while understandable, would simply deepen the dark abyss of ignorance and refuel the caldron of hatred that can bubble over again at any time. As I mourn for Farkhunda, I have pondered many issues related to her death that I would like to share. It is my hope that as we reflect on Farkhunda’s courage and the violence heaped upon her, we will take meaningful steps toward peace and reconciliation. We all have work to do, for I believe her blood is on more than the hands of the mob; it is upon all of us.

Farkhunda’s Story

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old student of religious studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had visited the Shrine of the King of Two Swords the day before her death, bringing clothing for the poor. Upset by the superstitious practice of selling charms and amulets outside of a historic shrine, which went against her understanding of Islam, she criticized the shrine attendants and dissuaded visitors from buying. With business threatened, one attendant, Zain-ul-Din, sought to protect his livelihood by undermining Farkhunda’s credibility. He accused her of being an infidel who had burned the Holy Qur’an. Within moments, a mob descended upon Farkhunda, berating and beating her as she denied accusations and begged for mercy. Her cries fell on hundreds of deaf ears as the men continued to pummel her to death. Her bloodied body was then set on fire.

Rush to Judgment

Farkhunda’s story has all the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, complete with a false accusation and a mimetically-propelled mob. The mob was not made up of criminal thugs but regular, mostly young, men. They did not beat and kill her out of a sadistic desire to inflict harm; rather, they were propelled by a sense of righteousness as they struck her. We are most dangerous when we are convinced of our own goodness over and against someone else, especially when caught up in a crowd where self-righteousness is released like a drug into the very air we breathe. Many reading Farkhunda’s story in horror could easily be caught up in the same mob mentality; it is not endemic to Islam or Afghan culture but epidemic across humanity. Even so, such explosive violence can erupt spontaneously but not unconditionally. Tension, insecurity, and a buildup of hostility fuel a mimetic crisis for which the scapegoat is an outlet. Long-damaged by war and corruption, Kabul was a powder keg waiting to be ignited by Farkhunda’s false accusation. In some ways, her murder was more than thirty years in the making.

30 Years of War

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for over three decades. According to Political analyst Helena Malikyar,

Afghans are often praised for their resilience. In reality, they are a nation of survivalists. They are survivors of the communist regime’s brutalities in the 1980s, the mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, tortures, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and loss of loved ones. They are damaged goods.

Of course, all of this describes the state of Afghanistan before 2001 and the never-ending “War on Terror,” but the United States bears some responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan even prior to September 11th. The United States supported rebel Afghan groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, but the weapons we supplied turned against the Afghan people as civil war broke out in the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet retreat. During these years of war, not only did American weapons remain in Afghanistan, killing people on all sides, but the eyes of the American government remained upon Afghanistan as well. According to an article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Afghanistan’s geographic location is strategic to America’s interest in controlling the oil of Central Asia by way of an oil pipeline. Needing a “stabilized” nation through which to build the pipeline, the United States originally supported the Taliban takeover of the nation in spite of their brutal human rights violations, only turning against it when it was clear that the Taliban would not be asset to U.S. oil interests. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has never been in the interests of Afghan citizens but rather in the interest of profit at their expense.

Since American troops began occupying and bombing Afghanistan in 2001, many “official” casualty counts have underestimated the death tolls of Afghan civilians. According to another article by Nafeez Ahmed, the Washington DC-based Physicians For Social Responsibility have estimated that, since the 1990s, US interventions have been responsible for between 3 and 5 million preventable Afghan deaths. Night raids and drone strikes have made a vulnerable citizenry fearful, restless and insecure. In such an environment, Helena Malikyar writes that “today’s survivalist mentality … has no room for vital human virtues of compassion and tolerance.” We bear much responsibility for this environment. It is hard for compassion to take root in soil that has been blown apart by bombs and polluted by blood.

Thus, while individual soldiers may have good intentions, motivated to fight for humanitarian concerns, it is clear that American interests do not align with Afghan interests. The Afghan people have been suffering on behalf of American foreign policies, which have exacerbated corruption and civil unrest. The United States has helped to weave and is deeply entangled in the web of violence that has ensnared Afghanistan.

With the blood of so many Afghans on our hands, the mimetic crisis that fueled Farkhunda’s murder is largely on our hands as well. As my colleague Adam Ericksen said, we may not have cast the stones, but we did cast the bombs.

 The Role of Religion

 There are many who use this tragedy to denounce Islam, claiming that only an inherently violent faith could inspire such violence on its behalf. But any religion can be interpreted either peacefully or violently, and Helena Malikyar’s article makes it clear how a rigid, violent interpretation of Islam could be born in a climate of fear and insecurity. She writes that, “While [pre-war Afghanistan] was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity, tolerance and a code of honour. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, was moderate and tolerant of the “other”.” Yet a steady diet of war, deepening poverty, and exploitation can morph the shape of a communal faith from an arm of outreach to a fortress of refuge. Clinging to one’s faith as a defense against an enemy other can turn a religion that encourages tolerance and hospitality toward others into a pillar of identity that helps define oneself against others.

I believe this destructive use of religion as a defense in a time of insecurity fueled the hostile spirit of the mob when it focused its rage on Farkhunda on that terrible day. Unable to vent their frustrations against heavily-armed military occupiers or corrupt war lords, the men of the mob saw in Farkhunda a threat to Islam and all they held dear, not necessarily because of what Islam is, but because of the way Islam separates them from the enemy “other.” The role religion plays in forming our identities over and against others is insidious and often unconscious, but under certain conditions, it can be deadly.

The spirit of scapegoating violence can easily hijack any religion, for religion can easily be abused. When we claim to have possession of the “Truth,” we can easily be roused to judgment and condemnation over others. Lest we think Islam is unique in this terrible regard, we need not look far into Christian history to see the cross presiding over Crusades, pograms and lynch mobs. Any religion can be twisted against its own teachings of humility and compassion, just as the mob in their ignorance twisted Islam.

True Islam

Farkhunda, on the other hand, represented true Islam – true submission to God – when she put herself at risk to expose economic and spiritual exploitation masquerading under the guise of piety. Angered at those who would take advantage of pilgrims and worshippers, she spoke out, most likely knowing that jeopardizing a business would put her at risk (yet probably unaware of just how much of a risk she was in fact taking).

In speaking out against such exploitive and superstitious practices, Farkhunda was not only following her conscience and her understanding of God’s will. She was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who received the revelation of Islam when he searched out a place of solitude and refuge to pray on behalf of the poor. He saw the corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable and knew intuitively that the true source of life could not be the tribal gods invoked on behalf of the rich against the poor. In a world in which the strong and rich were thought to be favored against the poor and weak, the intuition that God cares the poor could only be born of exceeding compassion. This compassion prepared Muhammad’s heart for the revelation of Allah as the One, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, God of all humanity, rich and poor, weak and strong alike. And this compassion lies at the heart of true Islam.

Faith that bolsters our own identities against others is deadly. Faith that leads us beyond ourselves to the God of mercy and compassion is life-giving.

The tragic irony of Farkhunda’s death, then, is not simply that she was killed while upholding Islam by fellow Muslims who mistakingly thought they were defending the faith. It is also that in their rush to defend Islam and their identity as Muslims, they distorted the faith of Islam, submitting not to the will of the God, but to the principal of accusation, the satan.

The Shape of True Justice

Yet the challenge for those of us looking on from outside the borders of Afghanistan and Islam is not to define ourselves over and against the mob, falling prey to the same spirit of scapegoating and hostility, but to take responsibility for our own role in the violence. Just as the mob destroyed an innocent life in their defense of Islam, distorting their faith in the process, our tax dollars fund the destruction of innocent life in the names of security and freedom, perverting both beyond recognition. In both Farkhunda’s murder and the wars we fight, greed wears a mask of righteous virtue. Just as bystanders allowed the mob to run rampant, we too often stand silently by and allow injustices perpetrated by policies carried out in our name. Our violence feeds a spirit of mistrust and hostility that can erupt in tragedies like Farkhunda’s murder. Then we see barbarity in the “others” and further define ourselves against them. The cycle of violence churns on.

True justice would seek not the destruction but the repentance of the violent. Calling for executions, while understandable, would only further erode compassion where it is needed the most. Reparations should be made not only to Farkhunda’s family, but to the nation of Afghanistan torn apart by war and corruption. Our hands are all stained with blood, and the more we identify ourselves as good over and against the brutal, barbarous “others,” the bloodier they get. The members of the mob have much to learn about compassion and women’s dignity in Islam (a subject worth exploring in full but beyond the scope of this article). We, in turn, must learn that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war,” acknowledge our destruction, and rededicate our time, talent and treasure from warmaking to peacemaking. For the sake of Farkhunda, for the sake of victims of violence everywhere, for the sake of ourselves and for God’s sake, we must all turn from our self-righteousness and submit to the will of the One who is Love, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.