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sharing god

The Truth about God and Interfaith Relationships

Can we share God?

Because for many of us, God is something that we refuse to share. In fact, human history shows that we will fight over God. God, after all, is truth. And we all like to think that we hold the Truth. But what happens when others claim that they hold the Truth about God? We get caught in a rivalry, even killing over who possesses the Truth.

But believing that we hold the truth about God is to turn God into an idol. That’s because we don’t hold the truth about God. None of us hold the truth about God. Rather, God holds the truth about us. And, according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Long Island, NY, the truth is that God holds us in the spirit of love, justice, and service.

Members of these three major world religions come together at Brookville Church to share sacred space. Brookville’s slogan is “Where our doors are always open.” Indeed, the church’s doors are open to Jews and Muslims. But they do much more than simply use the church building as a place of worship. At Brookville Church, Jews, Christians, and Muslims intentionally build friendships with one another. They learn from one another, they serve their community with one another, and they care for one another.

It’s a radical experiment, especially when we consider that leading presidential candidates are proposing to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and they are proposing to force police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Those candidates are the most vocal about their faith in God, but they worship an idol. They worship a god that erects political systems of fear, exclusion, and death.

But the true God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam doesn’t lead to fear, exclusion, and death. The true God leads to relationships like those formed at Brookville Church. The true God subverts the politics of fear, exclusion, and death. The true God transforms our relationships from rivalry into love.

In doing so, they show that they don’t hold the truth, but that the truth holds them.

Image: Flickr, Destination God, Hatim Kaghat, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

cross

Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance

Why was Jesus killed?

There is no more important question to ask on this Good Friday. Christians have come up with many answers throughout the last 2,000 years. Some of those answers claim that Jesus was killed by the Father to assuage His wrath or reclaim His honor in the face of human sin.

But that’s the wrong answer. Jesus wasn’t killed to appease God. Jesus was killed because he was a threat to national security.

That’s the answer that the Gospels give. The great religious and political leader of the day, the high priest Caiaphas, explained why Jesus had to die. During a debate among other leaders, Caiaphas said,

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

Caiaphas was right about one thing – Jesus was a national security threat. That’s why the political and religious elite killed him.

But let’s be clear – Jesus was not a threat to Israel’s national security because he was a violent revolutionary. No, Jesus was a threat because he challenged the whole political system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.

Caiaphas was a keen politician. Politics has always been based on the expediency of keeping people safe for national security. That’s their primary job. But in order to keep us safe, there has to be a threat, some enemy that has to be exiled or killed in order for us to be safe – lest the whole nation be destroyed!

Caiaphas wasn’t particularly evil. He was simply doing what humans have always done. He was channeling national fears and anxieties against a scapegoat. Two thousand years ago it was Jesus, but we continue the practice of political scapegoating today. Currently in the United States, we have presidential candidates who are channeling our cultural fears and anxieties against Muslims. In the wake of the Jihadist terror attacks in Brussels, leading candidates are suggesting that police need to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods,” because, you know, all Muslims are a threat to our national security…

Did you know that during the 15 years since 9/11, Jihadists have attacked the United States nine times, killing 45 people? My Muslims friends agree that those terrorist attacks are tragedies that never should have happened. But do those statistics reveal that Jihadists, let alone peaceful, law abiding Muslims citizens, are such a massive threat to our safety and security that police need to spend extra time and resources patrolling Muslim neighborhoods?

In comparison, “There are nearly 12,000 gun murders a year in the US.” American gun violence is a far bigger threat to us than Jihadists. But there’s an even bigger threat to our safety and security than guns. More than 30,000 people killed every year by car accidents.

If something killed 30,000 Americans a year, would we call it a national security threat? Of course we would! We would demand that police spend more time and resources patrolling neighborhoods, making sure people were safe from such a threat.

So, are Jihadist the great threat we are making them out to be? If so, the Obama Administration is doing a damn good job keeping us safe! But personally, I don’t think they are. After all, you have far more reason to fear the car coming down the street than any Jihadist, let alone peaceful Muslims.

Of course, it would be irrational for you to fear every car that came down the street. And it is just as irrational for you to fear your Muslim neighbor.

What do Caiaphas and our political leaders have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against a common enemy in the name of national security. But ultimately, they distract us from bigger problems. Our biggest problem is the cycle of scapegoating. Caiaphas blamed Jesus. Our politicians are blaming Muslims. And Christians should know better than to fall for the fearful suspicion directed against Muslims. Good Friday teaches us that when we live by fear, even fearing for our national security, we end up channeling our fear, anxiety, and violence against a scapegoat. In other words, we participate in the violent logic that killed Jesus.

On Good Friday, Jesus reveals that we don’t have to live by the politics of fear. In fact, he frees us from fear, even the fear of death. Faith in Jesus means that we no longer have to kill or exclude others for the sake of national security. Rather, faith means trusting in Jesus, the one who calls us to love and forgive our neighbors, including those we call our enemies.

Photo: Flick: Patrick Keller, Crucifixion INRI – St. Peter’s Cemetery, St. Charles, MO, Creative Commons Licence, some changes made

dupage united

Islam Does Not Hate Us. Muslims Want To Be Our Friends.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Donald Trump. But he’s not the only one for whom I feel sorry.

Donald Trump may be the loudest voice in politics right now, but his recent bombastic quip, “I think Islam hates us,” no doubt ineloquently utters what many others must think. For all the talk about the need to separate terrorists and extremists from the vast majority of Muslims, untold numbers of whom are active peacemakers, United States policy toward Muslims has been marked by suspicion at home and genocide abroad. Surveillance of mosques, closing Muslim charities on “secret evidence,” and racially profiling Muslims are regular courses of action here at home. And in at least 8 predominantly Muslim countries, drone strikes based on “patterns of behavior” —  without even knowing the identities of the targets —  obliterate human life. Up to 90 percent of the strike victims are not the intended targets, but, as long as they are military-aged males, they are obscenely deemed guilty unless posthumously proven innocent. Drone strikes are just part of a military policy that prioritizes profit over human life and is genocidal at heart, as it demonizes and denies the humanity of its victims. The treatment of Muslims as enemies must lead many people to believe that Muslims hate us. After all, if we wish to see our violence as noble, honorable and righteous, we must believe our enemies to be malicious, evil, and filled with hatred. And if United States policy does not make more than a lip-service effort to distinguish between most Muslims and terrorists (drones and missiles are certainly incapable of making such a distinction), then it stands to reason that many must believe the delusion Donald Trump himself seems to be under, that there is something about Islam that engenders enmity.

And I can’t help but feel sorry for anyone under such a delusion, because it is clear that anyone who believes that “Muslims hate us” is not blessed, as I and many others are, with wonderful, compassionate, inspirational Muslim friends.

To know Muslims like the dear sisters who have been among my closest friends for over 20 years is to know that Islam at its best is a faith that brings out compassion, mercy, thirst for justice, and love in its adherents. It is a faith that encourages kindness and respect, one that seeks peace and forbids compulsion. It has pacifist as well as militant interpretations, with most believers falling within the middle of the spectrum, but the vast majority of Muslims site the Qur’anic prohibition of war except in matters of self-defense. To know Muslims is to know that they are just like everyone else, and to understand that there is nothing about Islam that renders it incompatible or hostile to modernity. And to have good Muslim friends, for whom faith is an essential part of their identity, is to have friends who value mercy and compassion, as these are the two attributes of God most frequently cited in the Qur’an. Friendships like those I have with my Muslim friends are rare, nurtured by values we share generated by the same God, worshipped differently but mutually understood to be the author of compassion, forgiveness, and love.

To have good Muslim friends is to understand not only how wrong Donald Trump is, but also how very much he is missing out upon when he mistakenly says that “Islam hates us.”

And to have good Muslim friends is to understand that there are now unprecedented levels of Islamophobia sweeping the nation, higher levels than there have been in the 14 and a half years since the September 11th attacks. To have good Muslim friends is to be unable to ignore the devastation being wrought against Muslims at home and abroad. It is to understand the tragic counter-productivity of our violence, which, in the name of defeating terror, creates more terrorists out of desperate, drone-orphaned children or grieving, enraged parents. And it is to recognize the counter-productivity in policies and rhetoric and bullying and vigilante violence here at home that play directly into the hands of the leaders of ISIS.

ISIS uses the chaos and desperation wrought by over a decade of war to convince Muslims that the world is against them and spur violence. Islamophobic attitudes and policies that isolate Muslims do far more to help than harm ISIS, which feeds off of the isolation such policies engender. For the frontrunner of a political party to claim that there is something inherently hateful about Islam is to further marginalize and isolate Muslims. And the message that America hates Islam will be easier for ISIS to sell to Muslims who are shunned, insulted, and assaulted, as well as Muslims who have lost their dreams, their futures, and their loved ones. As Donald Trump expresses desire to mirror the tactics of ISIS to fight ISIS, he ironically mirrors the recruiting techniques of ISIS – spreading fear and hatred which will result in individual violence and support for institutionalized violence. And while he recruits against Muslims, he also recruits for the very extremists he wishes to defeat.

And in spite of all of this, the majority of Muslims in the United States and worldwide shun the recruitment efforts of ISIS and other extremist organizations using the veneer of religion to claim legitimacy for their violence. The majority of Muslims do not hate America, because they distinguish between the people and the policies, value our common humanity, and wish above all for peace. Muslims make an effort to distinguish American citizens from the leaders who call for indiscriminant bans on immigration, heartless deportation of refugees, and “making sand glow in the dark” from bombs that will kill civilians along with ISIS. (Yes, I know that was Cruz, not Trump. The point is that multiple leaders are ratcheting up the violent rhetoric.) Claims that it is hard to distinguish between peaceful Muslims and those with hostile intentions are as dangerous as they are lazy, because Muslims are among those who must be most vigilant against hate crimes, and they are still willing and able to befriend their non-Muslim neighbors.

In fact, Muslims around the nation are actively reaching out to befriend us all, in an effort to quell Islamophobia, show hospitality, and build bridges to peace and mutual understanding. I recently attended an event in DuPage County, IL, “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” which drew a crowd of over 1000 people, nearly evenly divided between Muslims and non-Muslims. Speakers included Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who spoke of the need for human solidarity across division. Illinois Institute of Technology Muslim Student Association president Mohsin Ishaq (pictured above) expressed the love his parents had for the United States and their faith in the American dream when they immigrated from India before he was born. And Rev. James Honig of Faith Lutheran Church exuded gratitude to the many Muslim friends who prayed for his newborn grandchild. Muslims and non-Muslims were seated side-by-side in order to come to know each other, just as the Qur’an stipulates (49:13). The event was a testimony to solidarity and peacemaking. And it is just the beginning. In my county alone there are at least 6 upcoming “open mosque events” to foster interfaith friendship. It is worth looking to see what kinds of similar events may be taking place in your area.

I hope Donald Trump and anyone who has yet to experience the joys of friendship with Muslims will take advantage of such events. Friends of all faiths and no faith at all are blessings. Friends who open us to new perspectives, through a different race or religion or culture or ideology, are treasures. Freedom from fear of the “other”—freedom to realize that there is no “other,” is the beginning of peace.

Muslims do not hate us. They are a part of us. We are incomplete without them. May we all come together in our common humanity, for the sake of this fragile world so desperate for love.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “We the People: Stand Together With Your Muslim Neighbor” by s khalil.

love and hate

Defenses Disarmed: Art, Islam, and Breaking the Silence

The images were raw, brutally honest, haunting, beautiful. And disturbing.

I was at the artist’s reception for Marwa Adel’s incredible photography exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, at the Burning Bush Art Gallery in Wheaton, Illinois.  Marwa Adel is an Egyptian artist on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and her photography, sometimes digitally manipulated or overlaid with calligraphy, tells a story through a taboo medium: the female body. In the description of her exhibit, Adel writes:

The physical body is a word surrounded by restrictions in Middle Eastern society.

Why do people express such a fear from the physical body? How could we fear ourselves? Our bodies are the medium that links us to this world and reflects our souls. … [E]very person develops a personal memory enriched by the unique human existence that reflects on the body through which one can realize dreams. There is nothing impossible to achieve as long as the communication and interaction between the physical body and the memory are existent.

The photos express confinement, repression, and sorrow, but also yearning, hope, and resilience. They are deeply personal expressions of Marwa Adel’s own experience – as an Egyptian, as a young wife (now divorced), and, to an extent, as a Muslim. She had felt restrained by the societal pressures and expectations of her tradition, culture, and religion. When I met her at the exhibit, she had recently shed her hijab, and she spoke of her work as an outlet for her soul, the song of a voice long silenced.

Confliction at first kept me from fully affirming the voice that cried out through the silence of those photos. It was not the female form, shrouded or exposed, that disturbed me. It was rather that the images and their titles, “Arab Prisoner,” “The Burden,” or the deep sorrow in the eyes of “Surrender” made me concerned that this exhibit could play into a prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, an Islamophobia already deep and deadly in the West.  Concern for a marginalized population was keeping me from fully hearing the voice of someone bringing herself out of the margins through her artwork, someone who, ironically, was a Muslim, a Middle Eastern woman, someone with whom I longed to share solidarity.

It was the eyes that pierced my doubt, captivating me, compelling me to listen to their truth. Marwa Adel told a story through these photos of a patriarchal society that imposes stifling demands and restrictions upon women, seeing their value primarily in their relationship to men. This wasn’t the story of the feminist Muslims I knew, for whom Islam means empowerment. This is a story, shared by women throughout the world, of being devalued and having to struggle for free agency, a story to which certain interpretations of religion have contributed.

It made me wonder, “How often does a concern for an overall cause or ideal keep us blind and deaf to the needs of individuals? What happens when we refuse to hear the truth of someone who doesn’t meet our ideal narrative, even when claiming to be working for justice?”

My inclination to defend Islam comes in part from seeing it at its best, reflected in good Muslim friends whose faith is the foundation for their compassion, their intellectual drive, and their hopeful outlook on life. Some of these friends voluntarily choose to wear hijab and loose-fitting clothing, arguing, like Dalia Mogahed, that such modest dress frees them from impossible beauty standards and focuses attention away from their physical attributes and toward their minds. Yet those who choose hijab and experience it as liberation come from different perspectives from those forced by law or social pressure to wear it. Patriarchy is embedded in both Western and Middle Eastern cultures, influencing societal pressure upon women to dress a certain way and conform to certain standards of behavior. Those who see hijab as freedom from the social pressure imposed upon women to conform to beauty standards from everything from weight to hair style come from a different angle than those from cultures that demand modesty, especially from women, as an obligation (beyond encouraging it as a virtue).

Adel’s photography shows how a patriarchal culture veils women with more than just clothing, and how in such a culture, the veil itself may be the physical extension of a spiritual stifling. Islam at its best mitigates patriarchy, but all too often is interpreted through a patriarchal lens to reinforce woman’s subordination. Thus, Qur’anic passages that could be read as explaining men’s responsibilities toward women are often instead read as ordaining men’s superiority over women. Passages that could be read as mutual obligations of modesty that are relaxed only in the presence of one’s spouse are instead read as a husband’s control over his wife’s body. In an article by Jyoti Kalsi, Adel explains the burden of expectations and demands upon women in marriage expressed in her photographs:

[A woman] has to be a good woman in the eyes of a man, not in her own eyes. And that is the root of the conflict in this relationship.

I want to stand in solidarity with hijab-wearing Muslimas as they express how their faith empowers them, but I also must stand in solidarity with those who have been stifled by misogynistic interpretations of religion within their culture and misogynistic cultural overlays imposed upon their religion. Even when their stories may appear to clash, they express truths that must be heard with compassion, understanding, and grace. This is true for people of all faiths, including my own. When I hear critiques of Christianity, my urge to defend my faith must not overcome my ability to listen, for if defensiveness in the name of faith prevents me from hearing a story of pain, of injustice, of victimization, then my faith has become an idol working against its own best nature.

The test for any expression of faith in the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful, is whether that faith can humble itself to hear criticism from those pushed aside. What has been revealed through the great Abrahamic faiths, through Jesus and the prophets, including Muhammad, is the character of the one God who stands with the oppressed, the marginalized, those whose voices have been silenced. Too often, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are used to reinforce the patriarchy of the cultures into which they were born or migrated. But at their best, these same faiths can help people transcend the patriarchy of their cultures. Voices critical of human practices of faith that fall short of God’s love for women and men and God’s affirmation of women’s agency are crucial to practicing Islam – peace through conformation to God’s will for compassion and mercy – in ever-growing degrees of fullness. The same is true for any faith. Listening to the critiques from the margins and the marginalized is essential for following the faith of the God who calls us away from marginalization, scapegoating, silencing and sacrifice – even when those critiques reflect on the practice of that same faith.

Middle Eastern society, and all societies, Islam and all religions, indeed all of humanity, need to hear the voice of Marwa Adel and all the other voices rising above social, cultural and religious pressures that once kept them silenced or stifled. The voices, faces, and whole lives of women emerging from the shroud of patriarchy are crucial to transforming a world dulled and dimmed by oppression into the full, vibrant dance ordained by Love, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Image: Love and Hate by Marwa Adel. Used with permission.

Marwa Adel’s exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, will be at the Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, IL, until March 10. The exhibit is sponsored by Caravan, “an international and interrrelgious peacebuilding arts non-profit (501c3) / NGO that originated in 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, addressing the increasing chasm of discord and misunderstanding that exists between the cultures and creeds of Middle East and the West.”

Wheaton

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.

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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.”