The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

4 Things You Need to Know About Terrorism and Religion

After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence. What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:

1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble, or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats, and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.

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Black Churches Offer Scholarships to Students at Michael Brown’s Alma Mater

They filed into the gym Jan. 12 for an assembly about graduation and applying for colleges — an intentionally vague description that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a senior class.

Instead, the seniors at Normandy High School learned that full-tuition scholarships would be given to 11 of them in honor of Michael Brown, who graduated just days before he was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer.

Ferguson’s death — and the subsequent grand jury decision not to charge the white officer with his death — set off protests and heightened racial tensions coast to coast, followed by a similar case of a unarmed black man on Staten Island who died in a police chokehold.

“The way we deal with this situation is we breathe life into you,” said George T. French, president of Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., which is offering two of the scholarships. “We believe in you, Normandy High School seniors.”

More than a dozen local and national church leaders sat in folding chairs on the gym floor, inside a high-poverty school south of Ferguson where opportunity runs short and paying for college doesn’t come easily for most.

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Singing in the Rain to Support Our LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

My first real participation with the tension that exists between the LGBTQ community and the church came when I was a freshman at Penn State University in the spring of 1996. As is the case on many campuses, there was a preacher who would stand outside one of the campus buildings on the green and preach sermons to students. Because he stood outside the Willard Building, he was ‘affectionately’ referred to as the 'Willard preacher.' One spring day, there was a large National Coming Out Day Rally scheduled to happen on campus on the steps of the theater that sat just opposite the Willard Building. When I walked out of my calculus class that day, I had no idea that I would be walking right into the middle of a real live demonstration of the tensions that existed between LGBTQ people and the church. On one set of steps stood a group of students and speakers calling on people to be true to who they were, to not be ashamed of their sexual orientation, and to be open and proud about it. On another set of steps, led by the Willard preacher, a group of students stood chanting, “Sodomy Is Perversion!”

I did not fully understand all that was going on in my heart that day, but I felt like I had to make a choice. One choice I could make was to join the chanters. Now, growing up I had been taught that God did not affirm homosexuality, but I did not feel good about the chanting and jeers that were happening, and I didn’t think I could do that. WWJD, right? I didn’t think this was it. A second choice I could make would be to join the gay pride group. It may seem like an easy choice, but at that time and at that point in my life, I felt that joining this group was a way of saying no to God. I was struggling in my faith, but was I ready to take this step away? I could not see a way that these two groups could peaceably co-exist, and I felt like my faith in Christ was on the line. In the end, I sat down with some friends in the gay pride group.

Fast forward to this past Saturday morning. This time the choice was easier for me. The Westboro Baptist Church had gathered with their signs in protest outside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., where the Gay Christian Network was holding their annual conference. As an act of solidarity, support, and protection, Christians from around the Portland area gathered to build a ‘wall of love’ so that conference attenders could enter with little interference from the hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist group.

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Which Terrorism Matters?

The real war on terror is not a war on Western values or American values. It is evil perpetuating crimes of power and control, and its costs are measured in real in human lives. Those lives are largely black and brown, and the focus on the danger to America with its resulting protectionism and cultural-centrism is endangering lives long term.

Church, let us not join in the narrative of self-preservation. Let us not value those who look and think like our own community more than those who are culturally different. Let us not value the wealthy more than the impoverished. Let justice-speech ring from our pulpits, and let love for the culturally different be reflected in our prayers and our financial endeavors. For the world to hear that in Christ all lives matter, we the Body must speak loudly and demonstrate that #blacklivesmatter #brownlivesmatter.

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To the Women: #MarchOn! — An Interview with 'Selma's Niecy Nash

I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.

A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.

I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.

Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. 

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A Complicated World Intrudes Upon an Ideologically Driven Congress

While a new Congress relentlessly pursued its ideological agenda to trim government and reward its big-money patrons, a vastly more complicated world intruded:

  • In Maryland, a bishop reportedly driving drunk struck a bicyclist, fled the scene while he lay dying and, according to some reports, returned only after a church official told her she had to do so.
  • In Paris, a handful of religious terrorists defended the Prophet Muhammad by slaughtering the staff of a satirical magazine.
  • In Nigeria, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram intensified its systematic massacring of Nigerian citizens.
  • In New York City, police officers wanting more respect from the new mayor waged a childish campaign of disrespect against the mayor and against the people of New York.
  • In Washington, the latest jobs report showed more jobs being created but no gains in pay. That means the lower and middle classes continue to be dragged down by up-with-wealth political actions.

All this in a week’s time, all while Congress was pursuing a stale ideological agenda dating back to the 1930s. In that agenda, legislators would gut Social Security (take that, FDR), reward big oil with a new pipeline (thanks for the patronage, Koch brothers), chip away at Affordable Care (gotcha, Barack) and appease social conservatives.

They would treat the world as a simple place where government must shrink, people must suffer and the precious few must get richer.

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Online Ordinations Aren’t Just For Weddings Anymore

Online ordinations are a fast-growing business, a way for ordinary people to play priest-for-a-day at their friends’ and family’s weddings. But these ordinations are also a 21st-century way of reaching into the metaphysical world.

Mandi Brown said she was 9 years old when she started hearing voices, which she said were the voices of her deceased grandparents. But it wasn’t until Brown was about 18 that she said she fully understood her paranormal abilities.

Now 29 and living in West Greenwich, R.I., Brown tries to channel her abilities into helping others, starting as an energy healer. But she said it was difficult to get clients without some kind of official stamp of approval. In 2010, she turned to the Internet for help.

“Online ordination actually opened a lot of doors as far as doing any type of spiritual work, including energy healing,” Brown said.

Brown is ordained through Universal Life Church in Modesto, Calif., and Universal Life Church Monastery in Seattle, both nondenominational (but separate) Internet churches. Universal Life Church has ordained over 20 million people alone and is seeing a 10 percent to 15 percent increase a year. Both online outfits allow a variety of ordination titles, ranging from cardinal to pastor to wizard, freethinker and more.

Brown was ordained as a high priestess but considers herself a spiritual reverend. She has performed weddings, a funeral, spiritual counseling, house blessings, cleansings, banishings, and crossings. She is also trained in exorcism rites but has yet to perform one.  

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A Challenge to My White Brothers and Sisters — Acknowledge Your Defensiveness and Learn to Listen

Our tenth anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented strife, most of which was circumstantial. My husband and I were homeschooling our three sons (all under the age of six), navigating multiple part-time jobs, and trying to manage my sudden health crisis. Both of us lacked sleep, energy, and patience. Prior to this time period, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We had them, processed them, forgave each other, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted. And it wasn’t for the better.

In retrospect, we regressed to deeply embedded patterns from our families of origin. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked — and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic may have worked for them but when my husband applied it to our marriage, he unequivocally trumped me. Unable to match his emotional output, I resentfully deferred.

In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than responded defensively? Based on his expression, this was indeed a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed — this time for the better.

When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable — which was certainly not all the time — and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.

This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Fourteen years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.

I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if is this same dynamic contributing to the racial tension that we are now experiencing in the United States.

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Top 5 Resources for Community Dialogue on 'Selma'

Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.

The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.

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Enjoy the Silence

Like many of my peers that weekend, I went into the retreat with some trepidation. Silence for 20 hours? What would we do? I had experienced long periods of informal silence during my 19 months of unemployment and had experienced the richness of God’s presence during that time. But that was different — I could escape the silence any time I went to a yoga class or turned on Spotify. Twenty hours of silence felt daunting.

Even more daunting? Twenty hours alone with just me and God. Sure, God had shown up and been with me during those long months of being alone, but this was different. Would I do it wrong? More importantly, what would happen? What would it be like to be alone with God without any distraction for that length of time?

Well, it felt like gazing into someone’s eyes for hours and hours and not having anything to pull you away. Which is exactly why, after that experience, I now actively seek out opportunities for silence.

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