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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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Eid: A Promise Of Hope And A Celebration Of Empathy

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified and updated version of last year’s Eid al-Fitr message.

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Eid Mubarak from the Raven Foundation to all of our dear Muslim sisters and brothers! The holy month has drawn to a close, and all around the world, the ummah, or Islamic community, is celebrating the culmination of 30 days of fasting. Long daylight hours, at least in the northern hemisphere, have made this Ramadan among the most challenging in decades, with faithful Muslims refraining from food, drink and sexual intercourse while the sun is up – about 17 hours a day here in Chicago and similarly long hours around the world!

The hunger in the belly, the dryness of throat during the heat of the day, the restraint against urges of desire, are all meant to invite the soul into deeper relationship with God and neighbor and train the heart in the ways of compassion and civility toward friends and adversaries. In recent years, the sacred intentions of Ramadan have been further challenged by the heartbreaking violence raging throughout the world and devastating Muslim communities in particular. This violence is ravaging places like Afghanistan, where our 14-year-old war has all but been forgotten by media, Iraq, where ISIS is hypocritically and violently undermining the spirit of Islam in the name of Islam, Libya and Syria, where ISIS also has strong footholds, and Gaza, where the rubble from Israel’s latest bombing campaign one year ago, which killed over 2000 people, still has yet to be cleared, and none of the 17,000 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. These are just a few examples of the violence and aftermath of violence devastating predominantly Muslim countries around the world. For many, this day of celebration must instead be a day of mourning. So in the midst of this devastation and chaos, it is important to remember the promise of hope that is Eid al-Fitr (literally, “the lesser holiday,” the holiday after the fast).

Let us first ponder the meaning of Ramadan, the 30-day fast meant to tune the heart, mind, and soul toward God and break down walls and build bridges of compassion and solidarity between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed from God through the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an describes itself as a mercy and a guidance, and just like our world today and all times and places throughout history, mercy and guidance were desperately needed! My friend Adam Ericksen explains the world of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya, or Age of Ignorance, as a time when “fate” was thought to determine the rich from the poor, the winners from the losers, leaving little incentive for compassion or generosity. It was a world in which tribal gods were invoked in violent raids of conquest, and the wealth of a few created a world of desperation and misery for the poor, particularly the widow and the orphan. Sadly, this sounds very much like our world today. But it was in the midst of this violent and bleak hopelessness that Muhammad, tuning his heart and his mind to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, was able to hear the message of God: a message of ultimate peace, which is the meaning of Islam.

So it is appropriate that the month in which the Qur’an was revealed is a month of fasting, a time when the faithful enter into solidarity with the poor and hungry. As stomachs growl, those who are normally well-fed get a taste of the hunger 1 in 8 people worldwide experience (according to the 2013 statistics of the World Hunger Education Service). This voluntary material poverty is reminiscent of the world of Jahiliyyah into which the Qur’an was revealed, as faithful Muslims share the experience of the poor and suffering. Nothing dispels ignorance more than the active empathy that Ramadan requires.

This year, beyond connecting with the hungry, another profound way that active empathy was displayed was through a tremendous gesture undertaken by a coalition of Muslim networks working together to raise money for at least 8 African American churches that burned in the wake of the Charleston massacre. At a time when worship is brought into even sharper focus for Muslims, when spiritual connection and brother and sisterly solidarity is even more greatly pronounced, Muslims felt a desire to reach across faith boundaries. The burning of African American churches is an attack on the last, most sacrosanct refuge of the black Christian community, but Muslims reached out with an empathy deeply rooted in their faith experience and augmented by the holy month of Ramadan and raised over $30,000. In an interview for Al Jazeera America, spokesperson Linda Sarsour elaborated on the solidarity between Muslims and African Americans. This solidarity exists not only because the Muslim community includes African Americans, but also because Muslim Americans of all races are subjected to distrust and profiling on account of religion and the state of permanent US warfare in the Middle East. As Sarsour says,

We’re working on a lot of solidarity issues, including working against police violence, surveillance of political movements, building solidarity across the country. There’s so much more we can do together, and we’ve been able to do that in the past few years and it’s been remarkable.

The building of interfaith solidarity in the midst of the holy month is a powerful living example of Islam’s profound respect for the Abrahamic traditions and its tradition of peaceful interfaith relations. While the violence in Muslim countries gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, positive interfaith relations especially among the Abrahamic traditions are integral to Islam. This year, Ramadan has been a connection to those in times of struggle and turmoil, a time to build people up and provide a refuge of compassion and love – not just for fellow Muslims, but across religious lines.

Furthermore, in this month of spiritual renewal, desires are reoriented from human concerns to divine will. As Muslims find themselves sustained throughout the day not by food but by the loving God and supportive community, they liberate themselves from things that society tells us we need. Negative mimetic desires for material possessions, which can lead to envy and conflict, are tuned out as Muslims become models for one-another of positive mimesis. Turning away from selfish desire to following the desire of God, whose will is for all to love one-another, Muslims during Ramadan find mutual support as they strive through the day to renounce wants masquerading as needs, instead focusing their hearts, minds, time, and resources on those most in need. As food intake decreases, prayer, charity and compassion increase, and the empathy born from this experience extends past the imposed 30 days. The hope is that after the fast comes to an end, Muslims will continue to choose to spend fewer resources on themselves and more in the way of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, relying always on God’s abundant providence.

Eid is a festival of this abundance. It is a holiday that symbolizes that the mercy of God’s message, lived out among the faithful, dispels ignorance. It is a reminder that the same God who sustains us through hunger and poverty generously provides us with a rich and beautiful world to enjoy and share.  Eid is the promise of light after darkness, fulfillment after hunger, celebration after tribulation.

So many people worldwide, not only Muslims but people of all faiths and people who have lost all faith, are still in the midst of this tribulation and losing hope. Some have no food for a feast; some have no home to gather inside; some must bury their family instead of celebrate with them. May they be on the hearts and minds of all of those who can enjoy the feast today, and indeed all of us regardless of religion. As Muslims around the world come together today to celebrate the triumph of God’s mercy, abundance, and love, I pray that all of us may learn the lessons of Ramadan – empathy for the victims of violence and greed – so that we may all work toward a future Eid in which we invite all to the table – rich and poor, friend and foe, Palestinian and Israeli – to share the rich feast of God’s boundless love.

Image Credit: This image was generously created by ihsaniye and labeled for reuse.

 

ramadan kareem

Happy Ramadan! Encountering God’s Care through Islam

Happy Ramadan!

Ramadan Kareem means “Generous Ramadan” and points to the generosity of God in Islam. God’s generosity encourages Muslims to be generous people.

In the video below I discuss the importance of Ramadan. Ramadan critiques the popular misunderstanding that the God of Islam is a God of power, might, and conquest. Rather, Ramadan claims that the God of Islam is the God who cares about the poor, hungry, and marginalized of culture. Muhammad critiqued the pre-Islamic Arabian view that Fate was in control of life. The Jahaliyya, or Age of Ignorance, believed fate controlled who was rich and powerful and who was poor and marginalized. There was little incentive for the rich to care for the poor. Muhammad challenged this view, and fasting during the month of Ramadan forces Muslims to identify with and care for the poor, weak, and hungry by living in a generous way towards them.

I created this video during Ramadan a few years when Ramadan began in August, which is why I stated that Ramadan starts in August. This year it begins in June. The beginning of Ramadan changes each year because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar phases, not on solar phases.

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.

Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

Image from Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kabulpublicdiplomacy/16728443007/

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Ways Mimetic Theory Can Help Create Interfaith Empathy – A Panel Discussion

adam empathy 2I was delighted to be invited to an international discussion about creating more empathy between people of different religions. The panel consisted of a Christian (that was me!), an atheist, and three Muslims.

(You can watch the video by scrolling down.)

The producer of the panel was Edwin Rusch, who is the founding director for the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Edwin’s goal is to create “a worldwide culture of empathy and compassion.” Through articles and videos, the website explores the arts, sciences, religion, and much more.

Sheima Salam Summer brought the panel together. I was introduced to Sheima about a year ago through our mutual friend, Lindsey Paris-Lopez. Lindsey suggested that I read Sheima’s book How to Be a Happy Muslims. As I state in the video, it’s a wonderful book that has taught me to be a happier Christian. I’m grateful for Sheima’s friendship, her book, and her blogging at howtobeahappymuslim.com.

Our other panelists were my new Muslim friends Amal Damaj and Eric Abdulmonaim Merkt. Amal enjoys studying the Quran and discovering connections between some of its verses and modern research findings in science and sociology. Abdulmonaim is a Sufi Muslim. He has a master’s degree in religion and a degree in philosophy.

I brought René Girard and mimetic theory into the discussion. Although not always explicit, I soon discovered that the principles of mimetic theory were permeating our discussion. So, from the conversation, I decided to make a top 10 list of the ways that that mimetic theory can help foster empathy across our religious and atheist traditions:

  1. Girard’s mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, help us better understand empathy as a natural process, but that there are positive and negative aspects to it. For example, in the same way we can imitate a smile, we can imitate a scowl.
  2. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition leads us to empathize in a positive way with the poor, weak, marginalized, and scapegoats of human culture.
  3. Atheism’s empathy comes from underlying values in our common humanity.
  4. Islam’s empathy is based on receiving the abundant mercy of God who has infinite empathy for creation.
  5. Christianity’s empathy is based on God in Jesus walking in human shoes/sandals. Since we recorded the discussion during Holy Week, I discussed Jesus empathizing with our pain and suffering on Good Friday.
  6. Empathy can help us overcome the scapegoat mechanism.
  7. To “know thy self” is to “know thy self” in relationship to others.
  8. The function of Satan the Accuser plays a similar role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – to encourage us to mimic the satanic accusation against our scapegoats.
  9. We can avoid creating an identity “over-and-against” another group by creating an identity that is “with” another group.
  10. Creating interfaith empathy and an identity that is “with” another group can be fostered by bringing people together to work for a common good. This is a form of positive mimesis and empathy. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core is a good example.

We talked about so much more! I’d love to know if this discussion stirred up any comments or questions for you about empathy in relation to mimetic theory or interfaith dialogue. Please leave your comments below!