Don’t use your religion to justify your discrimination


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How ideology covers a multitude of sins

If you’re still wondering how to make sense of why lots of people (including most GOP politicians) still support Trump even in the midst of all of the blatant lies and cheap fabrications, not to mention his sheer ethical nihilism and possible (likely) connections with Russia, the moral of the story has become pretty clear: people will put up with all manner of things if it means (1) preserving the power structure of traditional white male supremacy in the U.S. (this is why his supporters hate PC culture and love that he “tells it like it is,” it’s why there’s been a huge resurgence of Confederate flags and the scapegoating of black and brown immigrants, etc. etc. etc.); and/or (2) the possibility of getting richer and richer off the backs of the poor (e.g., the AHCA, tax reform proposals, etc.), including deregulating everything in order to make windfall profits at the expense of others, not to mention the planet (e.g., DAPL). 

And because those of us who benefit from this don’t want to acknowledge our depravity (you look selfish and cold-hearted and ungodly if you wish to preserve white supremacy or pursue idolatrous greed at face value), we invent all kinds of narratives and ideologies to mask these truths, so that we can convince ourselves we aren’t bad but are actually operating under the guise of the good: “the free market” (AHCA), “the rule of law” (ICE), religious beliefs that provide cover for your discrimination against LGBTQ persons (80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump; notice how the right wants to preserve freedom of religion as enshrined in the Constitution not in order to, say, support local mosques, but to have a legal means to discriminate against gay and transgender persons), etc. etc. It’s not surprising that the Religious Right began as an effort to preserve racial segregation. And its roots remain deep in today’s GOP — it is literally its lifeblood (it’s no wonder that Jerry Falwell Jr. recently said that Trump is the evangelical’s dream president). As my friend Tad Delay once said in a sermon that got him in hot water a few years ago:

“Let me begin with a word about ideologies, paradigms, and communal beliefs. These are terms I’m using for whatever authorizes views and behaviors that legitimate our prejudices as being okay even when they’re unhelpful and unhealthy for everybody involved.

I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. We still talk about the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School in 1957. The Supreme Court had struck down ‘separate but equal’ in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. By the time the city submitted a plan to
integrate, segregationists stood ready to protest. On the first day of the school year in September 1957, nine African American students approached the school to learn Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized the National Guard—men with assault weapons—to block the entrance to the school. The mayor petitioned the White House to intervene, and President Eisenhower commandeered the troops, ordering them to stay at the school to ensure the African American students could enter the school safely.  

The problem only escalated. There are unbelievably vicious pictures and horrific stories from those days, pure hatred doubtlessly disguised in the esoteric language of religious people angry at a government contravening God’s moral order of segregation. One African American girl was locked into a restroom stall while her white classmates set the stall on fire. Acid was thrown in a student’s eyes. And instead of continuing with the integration, the governor shut down the entire Little Rock school district for the 1958 year. 

Listen: Do you think anybody experienced themselves as racist? [No.] Bigotry is not typically something we consciously experience in ourselves. Our ideologies, paradigms, and communal beliefs justify it
for us. We see bigotry in others, in actions, and in the systemic operations of society. But nobody
thinks of themselves as a horrible person with an irrational hatred of others.”

That’s what ideologies do. They hide the traumatic truth of our existence, so we don’t have to face our real (cold and selfish) motives (the desire to preserve current power structures so that wealth and power in the U.S. remain concentrated where they’ve always been). It’s why the Confederate flag is about “heritage, not hate,” or why the Civil War was waged because of states’ rights, and not the states’ rights to own slaves, or why not helping the poor and vulnerable is about preserving the free market, believing that if everyone worked hard enough the free market ensures that everyone can access the American Dream, when in fact there are millions of people working 60-80 hours a week at low wage jobs but somehow the American Dream still alludes them, and instead they’re living the American Nightmare…

And, of course, those who benefit from the current system don’t recognize the ideology that masks their true motives. That’s why the self-professed Christian GOP can rescind the AHA with a straight-face, even as their replacement (the AHCA) would destroy the lives of the poor and the sick. Listen: Do you think those who voted for the AHCA think they don’t care about the poor and the sick? No. But they’ve bought into a narrative that justifies what cannot be justified at face value.

In other words, ideology covers all multitude of sins. So perhaps the most important move — as the Hebrew prophets and Jesus knew all too well — is to expose ideology for what it is. 

If there’s any solace to be found — and at risk of buying into the narrative that reinforces the idea that individual efforts are solely responsible for fixing systemic sins — I turn to stories about people like John Newton. He was a slave ship captain, making money off of one of the most horrific practices known to humanity. It was just business for him. And he bought into the narrative that it was for the greater good — after all, the European white Christians could civilize the primitives and give them a chance to convert. Well, he at least told himself that until he couldn’t tell himself that anymore. One day he was confronted with the traumatic truth of what he was actually doing, and he realized that all of the reasons he was given to justify his occupation was actually a bunch of hogwash. So he quit, and worked to abolish slavery. He looked back on what he did, describing himself in the famous hymn he wrote as a “wretch.” Only when he confronted the traumatic truth of his existence was he able to change. He “once was lost, but now is found; was blind but now can see.” What I wouldn’t give for more leaders to do the same, including politicians and leaders connected to the religious right who must surely be familiar with John Newton and Amazing Grace. Because it begs the question: Is benefitting from ideology truly better for you — not to mention others — in the end? Is it truly better to be lost than to be found? After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?


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On biblical interpretation

Lately I’ve been asked how I can so adamantly draw on the Bible to support my views that the poor and sick should be treated with dignity and respect, yet at the same time seemingly ignore the Bible’s teachings when it comes to my affirmation of LGBT+ persons. Isn’t that conflictual? Isn’t that inconsistent? After all, doesn’t the Bible condemn LGBT+ persons?
Well, I’ve written at length about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, it’s important to point out that the Bible says a lot of different things about a lot of different issues. And people have to choose what criteria to use when interpreting the text. And for me and many others — because God is revealed in Christ as love — the most responsible way to proceed is by interpreting the text through the lens of love. To proceed otherwise is to begin with a God that is not revealed in love, which is (literally in this case) an absolute non-starter for me, representative of a faith not worth having. Which leads to a few observations:
(1) This is actually a pretty conventional (and hardly radical) approach. To paraphrase the fairly orthodox theologian Karl Barth, “The Bible is the word of God insofar as it conforms to the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.” 
(2) Contrary to popular accusations, this isn’t just some modern “liberal” propaganda. It has an ancient pedigree. As Gianni Vattimo reminds us, if you read “the gospels or the fathers of the church carefully, at the end, the only virtue left is always that of charity. From Saint Paul we learn that the three greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love, ‘but the greatest of these is love.’ Even faith and hope will end at one point or another. As Saint Augustine instructs, ‘Love and do what you want.’” And it was Saint Augustine who said that “If when reading scripture you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, you have not yet understood scripture…. [For] if love is the only measure, the only measure of love is love without measure.” (paraphrased)
(3) We mustn’t confuse that which tries to point to God (the Bible) for God, anymore than we mustn’t confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself (from an orthodox Christian perspective, the living Word of God is Christ, not a book). As a product of many different authors writing over hundreds of years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Bible contains lots of different perspectives. Not all of them are great. I highly doubt anyone today would want to say that slaves should obey their masters, as both Paul and Peter instructed. Or that women should be treated as property, etc. etc. Instead, we understand that at times the Bible reflects the prejudices of its day. In the same way that at times it got it wrong about slavery and women as property, it also got it wrong at times in terms of human sexuality. What we take for granted today (slavery should be abolished, women shouldn’t be treated as property, etc.) was once viewed as heretical. But reinterpreting through the lens of love helped get it right, even though it took a while and even though there’s still a long way to go. 
(4) Interpreting through the lens of love helps distinguish which passages from the Bible are helpful and healthy, and which are problematic. So, to turn to the original questions in this post, it’s pretty clear that standing with the sick and the poor, as Jesus did, is an act of love, conforming with the law of love. And so is standing in affirmation and solidarity with LGBT+ friends and family. This too conforms to the law of love. So in the end, such a stance is intrinsically consistent, not conflictual. The actual conflictual stance would be to say that God as a God of love punishes and condemns people for being LGBT. This is inconsistent and conflictual, not the other way around. And for those who say that condemning LGBT+ persons is actually a loving thing to do, because it helps them in the long run flee from the sin that hurts their lives, all I have to say is that there is zero evidence that backs this up, and it’s a terribly myopic point of view, and the precise opposite of this is actually the case. A lot of times I hear people say something like “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,” followed by equating a person who is LGBT as being on par with an addict or adulterer (or some other pronounced vice). Yet the difference here is crucial. Think about it. If sin is that which hurts lives, you can easily see that being an addict can hurt your life and the lives of those you love, just as being an adulterer can hurt your life and the lives of those you love. In contrast, however, what hurts the lives of LGBT+ persons is the condemnation that our society and religious groups have heaped onto them, conditioning them to believe they are less than, or not equal to others in the eyes of God and society. And the most liberating thing that can lead to their well-being is by being able to embrace who they are, as they were created to be. If sin is that which hurts lives, then, in this case, the sin lies with the societies and religious groups that condemn rather than affirm — and *not* with LGBT+ persons. Again, the law of love. 
(5) Lastly, when I say I interpret through the lens of love, I’m not simply understanding love in some warm fuzzy sentimentalist kind of way. There are lots of different ways to understand love, but the kind of love I’m getting at here is better defined as unconditional courage and risk forged in solidarity with others for the sake of justice.

* I originally wrote this on Facebook but copied it here so I can more easily locate it down the road. 

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Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (Review)



by Carol Howard Merritt

Have you ever been afraid in the hallways of your high school because you couldn’t find any of your friends from church, and you thought the rapture had occurred and you were left behind?


Have you ever been inclined to “come forward” to the altar just one more time, to make sure your heart is sincere, even though you’ve already committed your life to Christ on multiple occasions yet somehow can still never feel secure in your salvation?


Have you ever questioned the things you’re supposed to believe, like the idea that someone who never accepted Christ—or even heard of Christ—is suffering eternal torture at the hands of a God who feels more like a childish despot than a loving parent?


Have you ever quietly wondered why the Bible seems to frequently contradict itself, yet you’re too nervous to voice these concerns in church out of the fear that you might be rejected?


These examples may seem trite, and perhaps silly. But if you grew up in conservative branches of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, as I did, they may just as easily be par for the course. After all, I vividly remember wandering my high school hallways looking for friends from youth group to assure me the rapture hadn’t happened—and I was so relieved to find them! I remember going to the altar countless times on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights—not to mention every evening during summer church camp—in order to make sure I was saved. I remember sitting on the Bible college bleachers during a basketball game, thinking to myself how unfair it was for Gandhi to be burning in hell forever. I remember trying my best to ignore the haunting suspicion that the Bible was neither inerrant nor infallible, which later led me to question everything I believed.


And even though I’ve been in the mainline Protestant liberal church for over two decades, I still cannot fully shake the visceral feelings of fear, guilt, and shame that were part and parcel of my adolescent religious experiences. I might have taken myself out of the fundamentalist church, but the fundamentalist church never quite took itself out of me.


Over the years, I’ve worried that my faith as an adult has been reduced to little more than a reaction against the fundamentalism of my youth. In other words, I know where I’ve been, but I don’t always know where I’m going. I know what I’ve rejected, but I don’t know what I’m accepting in its place. I know what has diminished life, but I’m not always quite sure what gives life.


That’s why I’m immeasurably grateful for Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds. Not only does she understand the fundamentalism of my past (it’s like she was reading my journal), but she provides a beautiful way forward, full of healing and hope.


I wish I could go back in time and give my twenty-year-old self this book. I doubt it would’ve shaken off all of my insecurities, but I would’ve encountered images of God, faith, and church that I didn’t know were possible at the time. And I wish my forty-three-year-old self would’ve read it sooner too, for it provides a check against the reactionary cynicism that has marked too much of my post-evangelical life. (This isn’t to say there isn’t room in Merritt’s book for a healthy cynicism, but it is to say that a much more constructive path—one that isn’t paralyzed by the wounds of the past—is possible.) I’m also reminded that liberal churches can inflict hurt as well, and that it’s far too easy for progressives to associate religious trauma only with problematic belief systems, and not personal actions—and structural systems—that remain deeply flawed, despite rhetoric to the contrary.


The themes that emerge in Healing Spiritual Wounds are both spiritual and embodied. Merritt connects us to that which is most ultimate, beyond time and space, yet somehow still connected to time and place. She evokes what cannot fully be described—the wonder of love and the call of justice—in a way that only materializes when love and justice take on flesh (otherwise they are just idealized abstractions). Instead of taking the conventional progressive view of reducing the gospel to nothing more than ethics and good works—which are no doubt important in her mind—she also leaves room for the mystery of grace and the balm of redemption. Her vision solicits and compels, harboring a vision of God that isn’t caught up in superstition and magic—which many exiting the church rightfully resist—but instead exudes transformation and possibility.


As a pastor, I’ve read all of Merritt’s books, and I keep up with her column in The Christian Century. From a vocational/pastoral perspective, I’ve always been grateful that she writes about authentic faith and meaning, as opposed to market-driven approaches on “How to Fill the Pews with Lots of Millennials.™” Even her books on church leadership are filled with the same kind of thoughtful questions and heartfelt honesty that make frequent appearances in Healing Spiritual Wounds. At the same time, however, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a very different kind of book, and it is a gift to pastors in ways that Tribal Church and Reframing Hope—for all of their strengths—simply are not. This is because Merritt has now written a book for a general audience that pastors can readily give to those who have been hurt by damaging voices operating in the name of Christianity and the church, and are in dire need of a fresh understanding–not to mention experience–of the sacred. Her book couldn’t be more timely, especially in light of the increased authoritarianism, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, and heteronormativity that dominant religious and cultural voices are all too frequently associating with the church in the United States.


As an adolescent, I thought the sole purpose of being a Christian was in order to find life after death. But Merritt shows that the gospel is every bit as interested in life before death. And if “being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence,” as Paul Tillich once described, then Merritt’s responses offer an entry point into a religion that I will gladly follow. I’m just waiting for the altar call.

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To my Christian friends who consistently misunderstand Islam

I would like to begin by acknowledging there are some troubling verses in the Qur’an, which at first glance can seem quite violent.

I will fill your mountains with the dead. Your hills, your valleys, and your streams will be filled with people slaughtered by the sword. I will make you desolate forever. Your cities will never be rebuilt. Then you will know that I am God.

Make ready to slaughter [the infidel’s] sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants.

Then I heard God say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.”

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

A [holy man’s] daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death.

Everyone who would not seek God was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.

But if [a girl wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night] and evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against God’s people by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.

If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you.

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the [holy man] who represents God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged.

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

All [who are disobedient] will be thrown into the everlasting lake that burns with fire and sulfur.

Of course, those of you with a discerning eye know that none of these quotes come from the Qur’an. Rather, they come from the Christian Bible.

Over the course of time, Christians have found ways to explain these texts of terror away: “Well, these are part of the ‘old law,’ so they don’t apply anymore;” or, “These were written for a specific context within a certain time and place, but aren’t to be taken literally for all time,” or, “These are passages about ancient warfare; they’re only about how to act on the battlefield;” or “These should be taken figuratively, not literally,” etc. etc.*

Yet for whatever reason, numerous Christians don’t allow Muslims the same courtesy when it comes to interpreting and understanding the Qur’an — despite the fact that Islamic scholars have shown time and again that the violent passages in the Qur’an pertain to certain contextual circumstances that do not apply in the same way today. There are responsible interpretations of the Qur’an, just as there are responsible interpretations of the Bible. I won’t do all the work for you, but see here and here and here and here for a simple introduction.

When we as Christians naively assume that the vast majority of Muslims interpret the Qur’an like ISIS interprets it, we ignore the tens of thousands of Islamic clerics who condemn ISIS as being anti-Islamic. The truth of the matter is that virtually all religions have problematic scripture verses and extremist factions. It’s not a matter of determining which scriptures are the most violent, then correlating such a response to the question of which religions are the most violent. When Christians think about religion and violence, we often forget about–or compartmentalize–the Troubles in Ireland (between Catholic and Protestant Christians), or the white Christian KKK militia types in the U.S., not to mention the Third Reich, which was avowedly Christian in its antisemitism and white supremacy. (This list goes on and on: For example, were any of these domestic terrorists Islamic? How about these domestic terrorists? Why is there such a discrepancy between the Right’s treatment of white terrorism and Islamist terrorism?).

I’m not sure why a significant percentage of Christians won’t give Muslims the same interpretive courtesy we give to ourselves. My anecdotal experiences indicate that such Christians are either (1) innocently misinformed but open to new information, or (2) willfully ignorant of anything that would threaten their desired prejudice or bigotry against Muslims. And one of these options is clearly more ethical than the other. I’m just one of many people who wonder the same thing:

Why is it that these anti-Muslim ideologues allow theological and textual acrobatics when it comes to the Bible, but meanwhile they forbid the contextualization of Quranic verses? Certainly it is much easier to “constrain” the violent verses of the Quran than it is for the Bible, since the Quran itself almost always cushions these verses in between mitigating verses. This contrasts quite considerably with the Bible, which has violent verses wrapped in violent passages.

prothero-relEver since I published a letter that encouraged Americans not to discriminate against their Muslim sisters and brothers, I’ve received a barrage of messages, emails, and texts from Christians who simply show an extreme lack of education and understanding when it comes to their operative assumptions about Islam. I don’t mean this pejoratively; it’s just that if the same understanding and logic was applied in a research paper about the rich hermeneutical traditions and practices of Islam, it would easily earn an F. That may not be a huge deal in the classroom, but when we are trying to make informed judgments about the way to navigate the complexities of this world, it’s imperative that we proceed with as much understanding and education as possible.

So, to my fellow Christians: You obviously aren’t required to view the Qur’an as sacred scripture. Nor do you have to say that Islam is as valid as your religion; or that you worship the same God. Those are all big theological questions and I encourage you to think through them the best you can. But one thing I do ask: When you form your opinion about 1.6 billion people on this planet–over three million of whom live in the United States–please don’t resort to caricatures based largely on fear, ignorance and manipulation, especially when such caricatures are no more accurate than having people assume that your version of Christianity and your interpretation of the Bible supports and condones the KKK.

It should be noted that while lots of Christians interpret the Bible based on its “inerrancy and infallibility,” this method is not shared by all religions, nor by all Christians. Judaism has a long history of interpretation that doesn’t in the least bit resemble Christian versions of inerrancy and infallibility, and thus Jewish interpreters approach their texts (including but not limited to the Torah) differently than many Christians do. Jewish interpreters have long offered responses to problematic texts that Christians would do well to follow. god-said-itHowever, the long history of Christian supersessionism, combined with the “inerrant and infallible” approach to the Bible, leads to all kinds of problematic and inconsistent interpretations. When Christians want to support verses from what they call the “Old Testament” as still being valid, then they will quote verses like Matthew 5:17-19, in which Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them (“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”). Likewise, Christians utilizing this approach will say that Jesus Christ (as part of the Trinity) is still also the God of the “Old Testament,” hence God is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). When you take this into consideration, it’s striking to note how quickly Christians will distance themselves from these claims when they encounter a text they do not wish to support, often imposing and incorporating major interpretive leaps that the text doesn’t even apply to itself. (For the record, there are much more responsible approaches to biblical interpretation from a Christian perspective that aren’t reduced to inerrancy and infallibility.) I say all of this just to point out that interpretation is always at work when it comes to sacred texts. Many Christians say they wish to distance themselves from their texts of terror, but they do not give Muslims the same room to do so. These Christians should therefore follow Jesus’ instructions and take the log out of their own eye before pointing out the speck in their neighbor’s eye. Perhaps the simplest way to understand this dynamic is by recognizing that Christians are familiar with their book and their religion, so they’ve developed ways to compartmentalize and understand these verses in ways that don’t stand out to them, even if at times their official ideology (mode of interpreting) would undermine their conclusions. Personally, I like to recall the words of St. Augustine, who said (I paraphrase): “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.” And here’s another gem from Augustine, for good measure: “If love is the only measure then the only measure of love is love without measure.” Which probably means it’s not a terrible idea to treat refugees fleeing from violence humanely, or to treat Muslim sisters and brothers with respect.


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Inauguration Day Comments from the Interfaith Prayer Service

My reflections on unity and justice from this morning’s Standing with Our Neighbor interfaith prayer service are posted below. Now that I’ve heard Trump’s speech, I would amend my comments from this morning to add that true unity is rooted in justice, not allegiance.

I’m grateful to each of you for your presence here today, and the desire for unity expressed by your presence. Thanks also to the NAACP and Faith Voices.

In times like these, a commitment to unity may seem overly naive or idealistic. Part of this is because, a lot of times, we understand politics to be a zero sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. When it comes to political contests, winning and losing can carry the euphoria of victory, or the agony of defeat. In some ways it’s like the spectacle of a sporting event, when fans live or die with each play of the game, but with much more intensity, because of very real life implications.

​When it comes to elections, there are times when I’ve felt like a winner, and there are times when I’ve felt like a loser. I will say that as someone who believes in equal rights, economic dignity and race equity, this last election cycle has made me worry about the rhetoric—about the way we treat one another—in this nation.

For if we truly seek unity, then we have a responsibility to never normalize the disparaging treatment of anyone, including but not limited to women, the poor, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, or people in the LGBTQ community. This is not a partisan issue; this is a human issue. Unity never takes as its starting point a fundamental disrespect of the other. Indeed, to normalize a fundamental disrespect of other human beings is precisely what precludes unity.

Even if we are nice to one another in interpersonal exchanges, that’s all well and good, yet if we are nice to one another in interpersonal exchanges yet all the while support governing policies that do immeasurable harm to one other, then, fundamentally, we are still disrespecting one another.

If we are serious about unity, then we must also be serious about fairness and dignity and equality, justice and respect and compassion. True unity is only possible when everyone has an equal place at the table –> otherwise it’s just hollow, cheap, superficial rhetoric that masks hidden power structures in society that privilege some (the dominant group) at the expense of others.

And no matter which political party we may or may not identify with, no matter what our religious tradition may or may not be — If we live in a world with political winners and losers, let us be sure of one thing: we are in this boat together. We may love the euphoria of winning, but if winning means throwing out principles of fairness and dignity and equality, justice and respect and compassion, if winning means throwing all of these things out, then, in the end, all of us lose. The pledge—the one we teach our children—is for liberty and justice…for all.

Thank you very much.

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“An Open Letter to Muslims in America” — a response

I wrote this in response to a letter to the editor that appeared in today’s News-Leader, “An Open Letter to Muslims in America.”


It’s possible to share Bob W. Rush’s concerns about threats made against our nation, but it doesn’t mean we have to share his imprudent fear of Muslims (“An Open Letter to Muslims in America”).

When Mr. Rush paints the Islamic community with broad brush strokes and says that all Muslims are “subject to suspicion” until they can “teach us how to unmistakably distinguish a ‘good Muslim’ from a ‘bad Muslim,’” I wonder if he is aware of the tens of thousands of Islamic clerics around the world who’ve repeatedly condemned the actions of extremist Islamists? Contrary to Mr. Rush’s statement, they do not offer their “behest and approval” of “killing innocent people.” (See here or here.)

I wonder if he knows that, according to the U.S. Counter Terrorism Center at West Point, Islamist terrorism kills more Muslims by far than it does adherents to any other religious tradition, including Christianity? (Between 82-97% of victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslim.)

I wonder if he’s ever had a Muslim classmate, colleague, or neighbor? I wonder if he’s been part of the Interfaith Alliance of the Ozarks, which provides numerous opportunities to build bonds of friendship and solidarity with Muslim sisters and brothers in the Ozarks?

To be sure, extremist versions of Islam are a real problem and threat. Religious extremism in all its forms is a real problem and threat (for an excellent analysis, I recommend When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball). There aren’t any good reasons to sentimentalize such evil, for extremist Islamist groups have been responsible for mass acts of terror, in the U.S. and abroad.

But here’s the thing. To think that the vast majority of Muslims are supportive of extremist versions of Islam is as myopic as thinking that the vast majority of Christians are supportive of the Ku Klux Klan (or similar white nationalism groups), whose adherents identify as white and Christian.

And lest we think violence in Christian guise is just a thing of the past (to say nothing of the long-lasting effects of avowedly Christian colonization and the historic legacy of slavery and institutional racism and misogyny), let’s recall the murders in 2014 at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park by Frazier Glenn Miller, a KKK white supremacist from the Ozarks who said he “wanted to kill Jewish people before he dies.”

Let’s recall that Dylan Roof, who murdered nine black members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—all with the Confederate Battle Flag sown onto his jacket—was a member of a Lutheran church.

Let’s remember that just last year two major plots were uncovered in the U.S. that exposed white nationalists plotting to kill “scores of Muslims,” ranging from a radiation device described as “a weapon of mass destruction that would slowly and painfully kill anyone who walked near it” (the man who planned the attack, Glendon Crawford, is a member of the KKK); to a trio of white-militia terrorists in western Kansas who “were part of an anti-Muslim group called the Crusaders that plotted . . . to blow up” an entire apartment complex that housed Somali immigrants. According to USA Today, “the men openly discussed their hatred for members of the Muslim community, referring to them as ‘cockroaches.’”

Given these events, perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that over the last fifteen years, right-wing militia groups that largely identify as Christian have murdered more people in the United States than extremist Islamists have.

What’s more, from 2004-2013, the number of Americans living in the United States killed by all forms of terrorism is 313, compared to 316,545 deaths by firearm, which equates to more than a hundred 9/11s. But that’s a different topic for a different day.

I do wonder: How is it possible to tell the difference between a “good Christian” and a “bad Christian”? Were the Christian slaveholders in the antebellum south, who quoted the Bible to say it was their divine right to own slaves, “good Christians”? Or the founders of the KKK, responsible for the sweeping terror of lynching that still haunts our society today? What about the Christian segregationists, who said that God’s natural order demands that the races not mix? Or Steven Anderson, the contemporary Arizona pastor who preaches that “all gays should be killed”?

If a Christian responds, “Of course I don’t support any of the these things, nor the modern-day murderous actions of right-wing militia groups and/or members of the KKK,” then doesn’t one owe the same courtesy to the millions and millions of Muslims who don’t support Islamist extremism either—indeed, those who are much more likely to be the victims of Islamist terrorism?

It would be the height of naivete to try to determine which religion is responsible for the most violence. Down through the ages people have used religion to justify all kinds of terrible actions (e.g., the Crusades), just as they’ve used religion as inspiration to do great good (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr.).

But one thing is certain: The worst atrocities in the history of humanity—whether committed in the name of religion or not—have occurred when misguided assumptions and prejudices have been hurled at entire groups of people based on their particular religion, ethnicity, nationality, or race.

And this is something that all of us—regardless of religious beliefs we may or may not hold—have the responsibility to resist.



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