This past week, in sacred spaces ornate and simple, tiny chapels to grand cathedrals, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. Across America, diverse Christian congregations worshiped alongside each other the birth of a man they worship as savior of mankind and Son of God.
Such moments of celebration are normally opportunities to share with all people stories of love, peace, joy and worship of the Beloved. This year, however, I believe such moments have been diminished and challenged, roiling our nation and exacerbating differences between America’s communities of faith.
So today I write to renew a call to engage in conversation about shared privilege, context and responsibility — about the sacredness not just of all of America’s diverse religious traditions but of the sacredness of America’s Public Square, a place where no American should be excluded on the basis of faith, race or tradition, or on the basis of how some followers of a faith tradition may act.
This year began for many of us on Jan. 7, when 2,000 Nigerians were killed by Boko Haram. That same day two French terrorists killed 12 fellow Frenchmen at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, followed by more killing at a nearby kosher deli.
This year approached its end with more terror when, on Dec. 2, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 and wounding 22.
It was a bad year — a bad year today being cynically exploited by pundits and politicians who wish to scapegoat Muslims for personal profit, and who are elevating terrorists like Daesh (Islamic State) beyond criminality, endowing them with unwarranted, unjustified status and prestige.
Even as they legitimize Daesh, it’s important to acknowledge that while Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others may employ inflammatory racist, repugnant and appalling rhetoric, they have the right to be so offensive and ignorant — just as the Charlie Hebdo publication has the right to be racist and exploitive.
It’s equally important that people of faith who stand for social justice acknowledge that such rights often come at the expense of disenfranchising the isolated and vulnerable, which is wrong and dangerous. Not only does it risk fracturing bonds upon which national security is reliant, it’s a breach of the covenant that brought this nation together.
It’s equally important, I believe, to speak out against those who do not heed truth, who don’t responsibly follow the injunctions of scripture, prophets and scholars to care for the weak, the lame, the vulnerable and dispossessed.
It’s important also to speak out against those exploiting fear, racism and ignorance, against those who ignore the lessons of Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston, Chattanooga, Umpqua Community College and San Bernardino.
We must recognize that the majority of those who radicalize and respond to Daesh are most often those who have struggled to find meaning in their lives at home — ethnic Somalis from Minnesota, Pakistanis from England and North Africans from France — those who are shunned, reviled and disenfranchised, those without jobs or hope, some dispossessed, some criminals and psychopaths.
We ignore such truths at our own peril. The dispossessed won’t be defeated by “boots on the ground” or by “religious profiling”; ultimately, they’ll be defeated by honestly confronting the conditions that breed disillusionment, rage and terror.
When the West — as personified by much of today’s GOP — buys into Daesh’s theological conceit because it comports with their nativist Orientalist perceptions of what Islam is — an irreducibly primitive, monolithic community perpetually at war with itself and with the West — it also buys into a false racist nativist narrative that Republicans and xenophobes have constructed to promote a political agenda based on ethnic and racial privilege.
That narrative must be rejected, not only because it’s intellectually flawed and dangerous but because it denies to all Americans equal access to the richness of the human and American experience.
The Quran speaks of those who are stubborn in their arrogance and in their denial of the truth, those who in their arrogance marginalize and deny the truth of the angry and vulnerable, who in their arrogance would seduce us with false promises of power and profit.
Heed Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann, who wrote of 9/11 in “Awed to Heaven, Rooted on Earth:”
“And then we are drawn up short; by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane; by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being; by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality; by smoke and fire … We are bewildered, undone, frightened… and then intrude … the sounds of justice and judgment; the images of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the imperatives of widows and orphans.”
Whether witnessed in Torah, Gospels, Quran or Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” freedom, dignity and justice — the imperatives of all humankind — “are not ideals located outside of man; they are the indispensable conditions for the quest for human completion.”
This column appeared originally in the Keene Sentinel.