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Bearing Fruits of Repentance: Wheaton College, Islam, and the Incarnation

The Advent season calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of these words since the season began, but they have taken on a further dimension for me within the last week as the news surrounding Wheaton College has turned national attention to a recurring question that is at the heart of my vocational journey: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

A brief recap: Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at historically evangelical Wheaton College, donned hijab – the headscarf worn by many Muslim women – as an Advent discipline to show solidarity with Muslims at a time of unprecedented violence and persecution of the Muslim community. In explanation of her gesture of solidarity, Dr. Hawkins said, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

It was her explanation, not her action itself, which led to Dr. Hawkins’ suspension from Wheaton College pending a review to determine if her words are compatible with the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith. Right now, the college administration believes that they are not. In their statement on the matter, Wheaton administrators insist:

The freedom to wear a head scarf as a gesture of care and compassion for individuals in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution is afforded to Dr. Hawkins as a faculty member of Wheaton College. Yet her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith.

There is so much to say that I don’t know where to begin. My proximity to Wheaton and my life in the community, my history with Islam and my love for Muslims, and my understanding of Christianity informed by mimetic theory, are all intertwined within my heart and mind in a network that is impossible to unravel.

I live down the street from Wheaton College. I love to hear the chapel bells ring from inside my house. I feel a great affinity for this community of Christians who are intentional about living their faith.

And living out the Christian faith is exactly what Dr. Hawkins is doing. I know the administration suspended her for her comments, not for wearing hijab, but suspending someone who embodies Christ — at Advent (a time when we are called to prepare for Christ) — speaks to a lack of a deep understanding of how Jesus interacted with those rejected by his religious community. Jesus, of course, was himself rejected by the religious community. At a time when the United States is waging war in 7 predominantly Muslim countries, when politicians and religious leaders are not only stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric, but proposing oppressive anti-Muslim legislation, when religious leaders are calling people to arms to “end Muslims” (an injunction which Wheaton students courageously denounced), when presidential candidates tout their leadership by noting their ability to kill Muslim children by the thousands abroad (to protect our nation, of course!), Muslims here are experiencing real violence: threats, harassment, abuse and attacks. Standing with them by wearing hijab is a risk that puts one in the position of Christ, who was himself an outsider and who was himself cast out. Putting one’s own self at risk to stand with those who are persecuted is what embodying Christ means. It is much more than a “gesture of care and compassion.” This is the context that must be understood in regard to Dr. Hawkins’ actions.

In light of the profound depths of that truth — that Dr. Hawkins was living out her Christian vocation to embody Christ – her suspension takes on a dimension of adherence to “the letter that kills” rather than the Spirit that gives life.

Nevertheless, I understand, intimately, Wheaton College’s reluctance to concede that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I have wrestled with this question from multiple angles. My history with Islam has been made public here. And I must admit that both when I converted to Islam and when I reaffirmed Christianity, I was chiefly concerned with getting God “right.” Even as both of these faiths have been simultaneously dear to my heart, I have struggled with deep questions and wondered how to be true to the revelation of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ while also affirming that Muslims, who deny the Incarnation, worship the same God. It is not an easy matter. While I believe whole-heartedly that the One God loves, guides, and hears the prayers of all worshippers, I understand the desire to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus as more than a prophet – as the full embodiment of God, the “structuring principle of reality” (as Michael Hardin so aptly defines the “Word” of God).

But as I continue to undergo repentance, to open my heart and mind to the love of God that is rebuilding humanity on a new foundation, a paradox I struggle to articulate becomes ever more clear to me. It is because, not in spite, of the Incarnation that I can know that Muslims and Christians worship the same true God when we affirm and embrace each other, and the same false god when we exclude and hate one another.

This is the truth that the Incarnation reveals: God is Love and Love itself is the language, the medium, the essence and content of worship. Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, people of all faiths and no faith at all, worship when they live in love that transcends boundaries, love that does not confine itself to family or faith or community but reaches out to embrace all. If worship can be defined as being in communion with God, and God is Love, then being “in love,” living into one’s place within Love in harmony with all of creation, is living in worship. One day worship and understanding will meet in full, when God’s kingdom is realized on earth as in heaven. Until then, all religions reveal in part what we will one day know fully, but also obscure the truth with false human understanding. Repentance, turning from the false human understanding of God – with all the violence, exclusion and victimization that comes with it – to the truth of God’s love and letting that truth restructure ourselves and our world, is our mission until we all embody our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Repentance means we will constantly have to re-evaluate our core beliefs in light of the continuing revelation of God’s love as it works on our hearts and minds. God’s love is revealed not only through scriptures, but through our relationships with people of all faiths who reveal mercy, generosity, compassion, and even – less comfortably – our own prejudices, blind spots, and mistakes.

Imagine being called to repentance at the time of Jesus. A marginal Jew – born poor in an unclean stable, taken to a foreign land (Egypt, to which the scriptures continually forbid the return), of questionable paternity, who eats with sinners, violates the Sabbath, embraces lepers, and rebukes the religious establishment – could this be the long-awaited Messiah from God? So many expectations are subverted and thwarted in Jesus, even as he fulfills the tradition of the prophets calling for compassion for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Jesus cuts through the tangled web of human prejudice and false understanding of God (which leads to exclusion) on the one hand and divine revelation from God (which leads to embrace for all, including those marginalized or deemed enemies) on the other that is intertwined in his own Jewish tradition, and challenges the religious leaders of his time to do the same when he says “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Ultimately his life and teachings – his wholesale rejection of the violence on which the world has turned – culminate in so deeply offending not only the religious establishment, but the world order, that he becomes the victim of the Romans and the Jews – rejected, in other words, by the whole world. Human violence killed Jesus; divine Love vindicated and raised him from the dead. Imagine the re-orientation, the re-evaluation it would take to acknowledge the crucified one as the Living God?

Jesus is not where most people would look for God. But if we believe that God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, and that people are made in God’s image, then we have to open ourselves to seeing God in all people. And we must acknowledge that the chief revelation of Jesus concerns not just God’s metaphysical nature (the Trinity did not become doctrine until centuries later) but God’s character. The wonder and mystery of Jesus is that a small community saw — in this poor, marginalized, crucified criminal – the truth of God. God was revealed not as the author of violence or violent order, but as its victim.

The truth that Jesus reveals about God, that God stands with the poor and marginalized, is the same truth that was revealed to Muhammad. Muhammad lived in a time of great wealth disparity and tribal warfare. He was distressed by the corruption, greed, and violence he saw, and the oppression of the weakest members of his society. He would go off alone to meditate, intuitively sensing a higher power than the warring gods. The compassion within him drove his heart to seek the God who is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful before he could articulate it. It was in tuning his heart to the needs of the vulnerable that Muhammad was able to discern a message from the true God.

There are differences between Christianity and Islam, but the message of God’s love for the weak and vulnerable, those once thought forsaken, is the same. The faith of both Jesus and Muhammad is in the God who loves those deemed unloveable. Their chief messages concerning care for “the least” come from the same Source of Love. Furthermore, all who love across human divisions are guided by God, whether they understand themselves to be or not, for God is Love. Both Jesus and Muhammad had an intuitive knowledge of God that transcended (in some ways encompassed, but in other ways defied, and in any case went beyond) the understandings of their societies because they dared to love outside the box.

And to undergo repentance, we too must dare to think and love outside of our own theological boxes. So, while I agree with Dr. Larycia Hawkins that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I also agree with Wheaton College that her statement is in contradiction to the Wheaton College Statement of Faith. I respect the right of Dr. Hawkins and members of the Wheaton community to interpret that statement differently, but as I understand it, the Wheaton Statement of Faith displays a hermeneutic that interprets the life, work, and message of Jesus in a way that confines God’s salvation to an elect rather than understands the Incarnation as God’s revelation of unconditional Love to all. The Wheaton Statement of Faith can be supported by scripture, but it is not the only way to interpret scripture, and a hermeneutic that begins with Jesus’s boundary-breaking love renders a different perspective. The process of repentance will keep us open – heart, mind, and spirit – to God’s incomparable love, which will mean continually re-evaluating our statements of faith and theological understandings. Statements of faith are wonderful maps, helping us articulate where we are on a path, but they should never be confused with the destination, which is Love. I believe Wheaton College should reinstate Dr. Hawkins not because they should agree that her statements are in accord with theirs, but because we are all called to repent, to let our hearts, minds, and understandings evolve, to open them continually to God, who we will find revealed in wondrous ways in all people.

And when we do repent, we will bear fruit worthy of repentance. Standing in visible solidarity with Muslims, recognizing their dignity in the midst of a culture of disrespect and violence directed toward them, and declaring that they worship, love, and are beloved of the same God whose love we are called magnify. Dr. Larycia Hawkins is bearing fruit worthy of repentance. May we all find the courage to do the same. Amen.

Image: Photo by Lindsey Paris-Lopez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

morally bankrupt

What Should We Do About Donald Trump?

Nothing.

That’s right. Do nothing. Stop talking about him. Ignore Trump.

I know what many of my fellow progressives are likely thinking, “But Adam, we have to do something about Trump! We have to stand up for justice and against his vile speech that is fomenting hatred against Muslims throughout the United States!”

I know. I get it. But there’s a huge problem in our strategy to be against Donald Trump. Every time we stand up against Trump he uses it to his advantage by claiming that he’s actually the victim of liberal political correctness. Whether it’s responding to his attacks on Hispanics or Muslims, it just adds fuel to his fire. He loves it! Heck, he even mocked a journalist’s disability – and somehow he gained in the polls!

We can’t win by being against Trump. We can’t win by shaming him. He has proven that he’s a professional shamer. He knows how to play the game by turning it against his accusers. First it was the Mexicans. Then it was a disabled journalist. Now it’s the Muslims. Who’s next? It really doesn’t matter because whomever he scapegoats next, his supporters will follow Trump down that path.

And the more we stand up against him the more we feed his insatiable appetite for scapegoating.

But even worse, when we move against Donald Trump, we mimic his spirit of hostility. Here’s the thing, Donald Trump is against Muslims and Hispanic immigration. We are against Donald Trump. Both sides may think we are complete opposites, but we share at least one thing in common. Each side is devoted to a posture of being against the other. And that makes us very much alike.

In mimetic theory terms, this is called “negative mimesis.” It refers to a reciprocal relationship of negativity. Now, there are times when it’s important to be against something, but being against is a very dangerous posture to hold. We can get stuck in that negative posture and, because it is mimetic, that posture can start to infect every aspect of our lives. Spending so much time being against Trump can make us on edge; it can make us quick to anger and it can begin to affect our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Quite frankly, it’s dangerous to be against Trump, but more than that, it’s not enough to solve our problems. Paying so much attention to Donald Trump is distracting us from what matters at this moment in US history. In fact, our problem is the spirit of being “against.” In order to remedy that spirit, we need to emphasize what we are for.

The alternative to negative mimesis is positive mimesis. If the specific problem is that Trump is fomenting a posture of being against Muslims, then we need to create a posture that is for Muslims

So let’s start a movement that says Muslims are welcome here in the United States. Let’s seek friendship with Muslims. Let’s listen to what Muslims have to say. Go to a Mosque and talk with Imams. Follow or befriend Muslims on Facebook. You might start with Sofia Ali-Khan, who recently wrote this open letter to non-Muslim Allies that provides practical things we can do to support our Muslim sisters and brothers. I’ll leave you with her words:

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: “be sure that your passport is in order.” It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election. When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.

I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:

If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.

If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say “peace” if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.

If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.

If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.

Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.

Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.

Set up a “learn about Islam” forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.

Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.

Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.

Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.

Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you. Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts.


Photo: Flickr, IMG_2567, by Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The Posture of Yes

Our posture matters. In fact, it potentially makes all the difference. If our initial stance or attitude toward a new ideology, whether religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise, is negative, then we will experience the universe dissimilarly than if our posture is positive. As I see it, there are essentially two types of people. On one hand, there are those who are open to new ideas—new ways of seeing and being—and they will often experience the world with wonder. It becomes a magical place; an ever-intriguing mystery that never becomes dull or stale. On the other hand, there are yet others who are too quick to label, good or bad, positive or negative, in or out, us or them, and they inevitably see the world through a glass, dimmer even yet (1 Corinthians 13:12). Their ego becomes fed by the delusion that they possess “capital T truth.” Often, and sadly, this “truth” is simply the product of promulgation by others—a parent, pastors, et al—but rarely, if ever, is it the product of a 40 day quest in the desert.

We witness this sort of short sightedness, most obviously, within the confines of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists, regardless of faith tradition, relies on pieces of information—sometimes great, sometimes small—that are derived from sacred texts but not on a posture that is positioned toward saying yes to the universe that was created by God. And if there is but one true God of the universe, and I believe there is, to have faith in God is to say yes to God, yes to his creation, and yes to experiencing both. True knowledge is tacit after all. Many fundamentalists, though, do not live by faith in God but faith in their correct knowledge about God. And so, they are postured in such a way that ensures they interpret themselves as elect, as chosen. What better than to “plainly” read one’s self as a sheep and others a goat? As a vessel of mercy and not a vessel of wrath? As Jacob and not Esau? This is to say: the fundamentalist is always “saved.”

Contrary to this type of thinking is one who postures herself toward discovery, not defending truth with mere bits of information (as if truth resides in mere information), but remaining open to it, wherever it presents itself. Faith, then, is built upon this posture. Faith is allowing the Christ in all of us (John 1:1–5), to lead where it may and to trust the Spirit is to trust the wind, for it blows where it chooses (John 3:8). The only way to experience this is to have a posture of openness, to be a pasture void of fences . . . the human constructs that they are!

In Christianity, we have a name for the Spirit that moves through all things. We call her the Holy Spirit and she indeed goes where she pleases. She transcends cultures, languages, and religions and no matter what label we give her, she is never bound by our human constructs. She cannot be contained in a box made of words and ideas. She is indeed free.

This is why, when you listen to the mystics of the various faith traditions—those whose posture is affirming—they all say compellingly similar things, albeit through their own cultural lens. Islam has the Sufis, Judaism has Kabbalah; Buddhism and Christianity has their respective mystics. They all say that the Divine runs in and through all of humanity, nay, through the entire cosmos. Unanimously, God is said to be always merciful, always gracious, always compassionate, and always, always, always loving.

Let me point to a few of the more prominent voices from a few of the various traditions. Gandhi, who was not a born-again Christian and probably would not affirm the Nicene Creed, not only read the Sermon on the Mount daily, but he, more importantly, followed the path of life in the Way of Jesus. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk, teaches: “the practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” It seems that he understands the mission of the Christ as well as anyone. Sufi Islam author M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadden teaches: “Be good, have love, and be patient. Never think of harming others. Only think of helping people. Think that others should be made better and that you should be made better.” Indeed, as I have said, the Spirit moves as the wind and goes where she chooses. She always speaks the word of peace. Jesus used the word shalom. In Islam, they say salaam. The Buddhist may use the word “sāma,” or a derivation thereof. But it is all the same message. It is always affirming reconciliation, peace, and unity among humankind.

Brothers and sisters, remember to pay attention to your posture toward life, toward God, toward humanity, toward love . . . which is the reason for our very existence. Open your mind and heart to hear what the Spirit is teaching, for she is the most gracious of instructors. She will never let you down, just as Jesus never lets us down. In unity, the Son and Spirit reveal the Father’s plan for us as John 20:21 testifies to. Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The peace of Jesus will triumph and through the power of the Holy Spirit will continue to move through all of us until all declare that “Jesus is Lord.”

Salaam

 

Image: Via Pixabay.

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 123rf.com

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Ahmed’s Clock: Islam, Mimetic Theory, And The Hope For A Better Future

Last week, Ahmed Mohamed proudly brought a clock he made to his school. Ahmed, a Muslim 9th grader at MacArthur High School in Texas, was excited to show his clock to his teachers. Despite the fact that Ahmed has never been in trouble, one of his teachers became suspicious and thought it was a bomb.

That teacher complained to the principal, who called the police. When the police officers arrived, they and the principal pulled Ahmed from his classroom and interrogated him for almost an hour and a half. During the interrogation, Ahmed asked if he could call his parents. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Ahmed describes the following experience,

“They told me ‘No, you can’t call your parents. You’re in the middle of an interrogation at the moment.’ They asked me a couple of times, ‘Is it a bomb?’ and I answered a couple of times, ‘It’s a clock.”

And if your heart hasn’t broken for young Ahmed yet, it gets worse. He continued,

“I felt like I was a criminal. I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called … In middle school I was called a bomb-maker just because of my race and religion.”

After the interrogation, the police handcuffed Ahmed and took him to the police station. The school suspended Ahmed for three days. He was soon released without charges, but the mayor, principal, and police all defend their actions against Ahmed. Chief of Police Larry Boyd claimed, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to schools.”

Fortunately, in the face of such fearful absurdity, Ahmed has received an outpouring of support. Social media posts with hashtags #IStandwithAhmed and #EngineersforAhmed have gone viral. Mark Zuckerberg, MIT, Harvard, even Barack Obama has supported Ahmed through social media.

The support lifted Ahmed’s spirit. But this is much bigger than one Muslim boy in Texas, and Ahmed knows it. He told ABC’s Good Morning America that,

“I was scared at the moment, but now I feel really happy. I’m getting all this support from all over the world. And the support isn’t just for me but for everyone who has been through this. I will fight for you if you can’t stand up for yourself.”

Ahmed’s Clock, Mimetic Theory, and Being Human

There are two important strands that run through this story. Both strands teach us about what it means to be human.

According to mimetic theory, humans are created in the image of an “other,” who become the model for our identity. James Alison calls this the “social other.” We become who we are through the eyes of an “other.” We receive our identity, our “selves,” through others.  For example, when we are constantly told by others that we are dangerous and to be feared, then we begin to learn that we are dangerous and should be feared.

Human identity is so interdependent that we begin to live into the expectations that others have for us. So, in a sad and tragic way, Officer Larry Boyd was right. We do live in an age where smart and proud Muslim boys can’t bring their clocks to school to show their teachers because a significant portion our society lives in absolute fear of Muslims. It’s not just mean middle school kids who demean Muslims with names like “bomb-maker” and “terrorists.” Those mean middle school kids learn that type of racism and Islamophobia from their models who gave them that fear. In other words, their identities are formed mimetically to fear Muslims as the “other.”

But we don’t have to be formed by negative and fearful models. We can choose to be formed by more positive models. Ahmed gives me hope because he is choosing to be formed by those models who support him. He is choosing to receive his identity from those who look at him through the eyes of compassion and support. The support he is receiving from around the world will do wonders for this boy’s sense of self. If every child was seen through the eyes of compassion and support, the world would be a much better place.

But there’s another step that we need to make in this story. Ahmed is a victim of a culture of fear. The teacher, the principal, the police officers, and the mayor have all been formed by that culture. They are simply fearful pawns in a chess match that is much bigger than themselves. What makes this story even more tragic is that as they turned against Ahmed, many in our culture have turned against them.

But aren’t we justified in turning against them? After all, aren’t they guilty scapegoaters? Yes, but treating guilty people with hostility doesn’t help. Scapegoating the scapegoaters doesn’t help because what’s true about Ahmed is true about those who turned against him. They are formed mimetically, by the social other. If we unite in hostility against them, they will learn that they are hostile people and our hostility against them will only reinforce their sense of fear.

Islam and the Solution to Evil

Fortunately, there is a solution. Those who turned against Ahmed need a better model – one that doesn’t reflect their fear and hostility back to them. And we find that model in Islam, Ahmed’s religious tradition. The Qur’an provides the answer to the negative cycle of fear that we can easily fall into when it states, “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (surah 41:34).

Repelling evil with evil, violence with violence, hostility with hostility, only makes the world a more evil, violent, and hostile place. It will only lead us to a future of destruction.

The clock is ticking. We had better start repelling evil with what is better – with grace, mercy, and forgiveness – before it’s too late. That is our greatest hope for a better future.

Image: Ahmed Mohamed handcuffed at his school. (Photo: Screen capture from MSNBC’s Youtube Channel)

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#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.”

Ouch!

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.”

 

 

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Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

Mimetic theory teaches us that we learn by imitation—whether you have studied the work of René Girard or not, you have probably noticed this. For example, when we teach, we not only use words to explain how to ride a bicycle, throw a ball, or do a push-up. More importantly, we model. We actually get on our bicycle, pick up a baseball, and drop to the ground and “give ‘em twenty.” Because of our mimetic nature, we also tend to embrace the belief systems of our parents and/or dominant culture.

My personal background is no different.

My parents had an Arminian theology and as such, told me that I had the “free choice” to accept Jesus Christ as my “Lord and Savior” or not. Of course, given the eternal consequences of an incorrect choice, I “freely” chose to be a Christian. However, even as a kid, in the back of my mind was this sickening feeling that others’ choice did not seem as free as mine did. Why was I so fortunate to be born into a Christian family? What if I had been born into a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu family? What would have been my eternal fate then? I would often think something similar to the following:

“Why am I afforded more detailed information about this eternal ultimatum than a Hindu or Muslim? How is this fair and how can people be held accountable for such a decision?”

Of course, all of this presupposes this “choice” actually being the correct one. Should those in the other faith traditions who believe in a similar “hell” be correct, why are they afforded more insight into the “choice” than I?

What seems even more unfair is that there are those who have been molested by those who claim to profess the love of God—whether Christian or otherwise. There are those who have put their faith in clergy, only to be violated in the most painful of ways. There are countless of individuals who have had to experience a version of Jesus that is actually anti-Christ. And this is the only Jesus they may ever meet! And yet, they are supposed to “freely choose” Jesus or face eternal condemnation?

When I meditate on these questions and those similar, I cannot help but have empathy. What if I were molested by a “follower” of Jesus? What if one of “God’s elect” raped me when I was younger? Would my eternal choice not, in some very large and distinct way, be affected by such a terrifying event?

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

Take a look at Genesis 4:9. After God asks Cain about his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain sarcastically snaps back at God and rhetorically asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, Cain did not believe himself to be the keeper of Abel, but the implied answer from God, should the Lord have answered, would have been “yes.” There is an implied oneness in this passage between Cain and Abel.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes such oneness when he writes: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9: 2 – 3)” For Paul, it makes no difference if another or himself is cut off from Christ. Both options would cause “unceasing grief” for him.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains our interconnectedness when he says what we do to the least of our kind, we do to Jesus himself. Because all things come into being through Jesus (John 1:3) and he thus, “enlightens every person” (1:9), Jesus is truly saying that what we do to our brothers and sisters—even the least of our fellow human—we are doing to the one we claim to worship.

We are all responsible for each other, because all humans came to being through him!

All people. Not some. All.

When we look at our eschatology, we need to have some empathy. Jesus sure did! That is one reason he brought peace. That is a part of why he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” He recognized that we have no idea what are doing to each other. We had no idea what we were doing to Jesus.

This ignorance runs through each and every one of us. Because of this, God shows all of us mercy (Romans 11:32). I must take the stance that I am responsible for my brothers and sisters, which, according to how I interpret things, includes everyone. Should one lost sheep perish (apollumi), to follow Christ is to desire to save even one. To follow Christ is to rejoice over finding the last lost sheep—those sinners who repent of their ways and choose the path of the non-violent Christ. I believe once every lost sheep is found, then and only then can “every tear be wiped from our faces.” (Revelation 21:4) As interconnected interdividuals, I simply cannot foresee any other way.

Image: Photo by monsternest via deviantart.com. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 

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ISIS’s Anti-Islamic Theology of Rape

My blood boiled with rage as I read the New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” ISIS has been promoting the systematic rape of women and girls, some girls even younger than 12. The article starts with a horrific description,

He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her. When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

I have a daughter who will soon be 12. I’ve also been the youth pastor of teenage girls. Although I’m a staunch supporter of nonviolent action in the face of evil, and I don’t believe in hell as a place of torment after death, there is a significant part of me that wants to blow those bastard into a million pieces, sending them to the hell that they so richly deserve.

But there are two points that I would like to make in response to the article. First, ISIS is not Islamic. We need to stop calling ISIS a form of “radical Islam.” ISIS and other terror groups don’t deserve to have the name “Islam” attached to their identity.

As a Christian with many Muslim friends, I cannot allow ISIS to set the theological terms of Islam. When an ISIS fighter prostrates himself in prayer before and after raping a woman or a girl, he is not praying to Allah. He is praying to the devil.

Who Is Allah?

In Islamic terms, Allah is not a god who justifies rape and murder. Rather, Allah is the God of Mercy and Compassion. The chapters of the Qur’an begin with the phrase, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.” In Islam, mercy is God’s fundamental nature and Muslims are to imitate God’s mercy by acting in the ways of God’s mercy.

God states in the Qur’an that, “My Mercy and Compassion embrace all things” (7:156), but just what is God’s mercy like? The Arabic word for mercy is rahmah. It is intimately related to the Arabic word rahim, which means “womb.” In his book The Heart of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr claims that the connection between mercy and womb indicates that, “the world issues from the womb of Divine Mercy and Compassion.”

In Islam, Allah is like a Merciful Mother who loves and cares for her children. Now, one might claim that Allah’s children are only Muslims, and thus, only Muslims deserve mercy and compassion. But that would be false. As the Qur’an states, God’s “Mercy and Compassion embrace all things.” All that exists is embraced by God’s mercy. It doesn’t matter whether we are believers, polytheists, or atheists. In Islam, Allah responds to all things, including all people, with Mercy and Compassion.

Mercy and Compassion are so integral to Islam that Nasr states, “It is impossible for a Muslim to pray to God or even think of God without awareness of this essential dimension of Compassion and Mercy.”

Which leads me back to heinous acts of rape committed by ISIS. Their “theology of rape” has nothing to do with Islam. In fact, it is anti-Islamic because it goes against the very Mercy and Compassion that is the nature of Islam’s theology of God. True Islamic theology doesn’t lead to rape; it leads to compassion and mercy. ISIS is anti-Islamic because, as Nasr claims, “There are numerous teachings in the Quran and Hadith emphasizing the importance of having compassion toward the people who are one’s neighbors and being aware of their needs. Then beyond one’s neighborhood there is society at large, in which the same attitude of compassion and kindness must exist even beyond the boundary of one’s religion.”

Responding to ISIS: Violence or Mercy?

This leads me to my second point. As much as I’d like to blow those bastards away, if we are to take seriously the fact that God’s “Mercy encompasses all things,” then God’s mercy might extend even to ISIS. Will bombing ISIS stop their violent quest? Well, it might stop their violent quest, but as we’ve seen during the last 13 years in the “War on Terror,” when we violently destroy one enemy, another more dangerous enemy emerges.

In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that the mismanagement of Iraq by the United States has “encouraged thousands of skilled Iraqis to take their expertise to the anti-American insurgency that eventually became the Islamic State.”

We don’t need more bombs. The “War on Terror” has taught us that attempting to solve our problems with violence only reinforces a worldwide culture of violence. It teaches us and our enemies that violence is the only real solution to our problems. It reveals that we don’t really believe in God or Jesus or Allah. We and our enemies believe in the same god. And that god’s name is Violence. Our faith in the demonic god of violence will only lead us to a future of mutually assured destruction.

I believe that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would have us look reality in the face. Violence is mimetic; it only leads to more violence. We must lay down our weapons and find more creative ways to solve our problem of violence. We have wasted enough money on war that will only doom us to a future of apocalyptic violence. I’ll end with a quote from Jean-Michel Oughoulian, who describes a better and more merciful way to solve our worldwide problem of violence in his book Psychopolotics:

Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace.


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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 123rf.com.

Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

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