December 9, 2013 Leave a comment
Last week I preached the first Advent sermon of the season at Federal Way Church of Christ. The sermon can be heard here.
Religion. Politics. Social Ethics.
December 9, 2013 Leave a comment
Last week I preached the first Advent sermon of the season at Federal Way Church of Christ. The sermon can be heard here.
September 4, 2013 Leave a comment
The face of war is my face.
The face of war is your face.
Is the face
Brown, black, white -
Your face and my face.
Death is the broom
I take in my hands
To sweep the world
I sweep and I sweep
Then mop and I mop
I dip my broom in blood,
My mop in blood -
And blame you for this,
Because you are there,
It’s hard to blame me,
Because I am here -
So I kill you.
And you kill me.
Like your name,
Langston Hughes, “War,” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, eds. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 559.
Wisdom and War
We do not care -
That much is clear.
Of us care
We are not wise -
For that reason,
Is much against
And easier -
Give Us Our Peace
Give us a peace equal to the war
Or else our souls will be unsatisfied,
And we will wonder what we have fought for
And why the many died.
Give us a peace accepting every challenge -
The challenge of the poor, the black, of all denied,
The challenge of the vast colonial world
That long has had so little justice by its side.
Give us a peace that dares us to be wise.
Give us a peace that dares us to be strong.
Give us a peace that dares us still uphold
Throughout the peace our battle against wrong.
Give us a peace that is not cheaply used,
A peace that is no clever scheme,
A people’s peace for which men can enthuse,
A peace that brings reality to our dream.
Give us a peace that will produce great schools -
As the war produced great armament,
A peace that will wipe out our slums -
As war wiped out our foes on evil bent.
Give us a peace that will enlist
A might army serving human kind,
Not just an army geared to kill,
But trained to help the living mind.
An army trained to shape our common good
And bring about a world of brotherhood.
We passed their graves:
The dead men there,
Winners and losers,
Did not care.
In the dark
They could not see
Who had gained
August 12, 2013 Leave a comment
The essay includes such provocative lines as:
“The meek, in short, have not inherited very much of the earth. Indeed, the West’s global dominance for most of the past millennium is in large part a function of its capacity for violence.”
“Thus, like it or not, violence often is the answer to our political problems.”
The argument of the essay can be summed up in this paragraph:
Violence is politically important for several reasons. Two of those—at the risk of stating the obvious—are the dominance of violence as a form of political action, and the fact that violence is, in the end, politically transformative.
I would like to make three comments regarding the essay:
First, his caricature of the strategic use of state violence in the US Civil Rights Movement/Southern Freedom Movement, while containing some truth, overstates the degree to which it supports his thesis. This trope – the “nonviolent” civil rights movement was actually very violent! – blurs the distinction between political pressure and physical violence. It also seems to blame the violence of others, including the state, on the justice-seeking actions of the oppressed. Somehow the violence of Bull Connor is Martin Luther King Jr.’s fault! It is true that the violence protestors endured was used strategically, but it is wrongheaded to say that the civil rights movement was violent in the same way that warfare or violent revolutions are violent.
Second, he speaks in vague generalizations about the prevalence and effectiveness of violence in politics, as advocates of nonviolence are prone to be in describing the effects of nonviolence, and therefore seems to be, at least in this essay, unaware of the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works. Their work demonstrates that, on the whole, nonviolent political action is actually more effective than violent political action. If he is grounding his argument in the effectiveness of violence he will need to engage this quantitative research much more directly.
And that is the third problem with the essay: his argument is grounded in “effectiveness,” rather than any approach to political ethics other than “power-politics” or utilitarianism, but does not provide hard evidence that violence is more effective than violence. My read of the literature suggests that this assumption which undergirds the essay is a false assumption. However, even if his assumption were correct I am not convinced that it would be sufficient to defend violence. The moral argument needs to be made.
And it may be made in the book; this is a short essay after all. I hope he is able to make a more detailed argument in the book which overcomes these weaknesses in the essay. In any case, I am already looking forward to including the book alongside Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s book (as well as the principled defenses of violence and nonviolence in the writings of Hobbes and Gandhi, for example) on a future syllabus.
The strong argument for violence needs to be heard so that the (better!) argument for nonviolence can be convincingly made.
July 4, 2013 Leave a comment
The most recent issue of Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace is a special issue focused on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of the editors is a colleague and friend, and there are several interesting essays in the issue which tackle relatively under-studied areas in transitional justice and peacebuilding. For instance, there is an essay titled “Reconciliation and the Web” and another titled “Pentecostals and Transitional Justice in Liberia.” There is also a review essay I wrote titled “The Ambivalence of Peacebuilding: Theories and Contexts” which reviews three texts related to post-conflict peacebuilding. Using R. Scott Appleby’s influential claim that religion has an ambivalent role in promoting violence and/or peace in contexts of conflict as a jumping-off point, I argue, in reviewing the books, that every approach to peacebuilding (especially the conflict resolution, human rights, and liberal peacebuilding approaches reviewed) are ambivalent when applied too heavy-handedly or in isolation. Thus, we should move toward an intentionally integrated approach to peacebuilding; I find the “strategic peacebuilding” approach to be most appropriate here.
Please do check out the issue and my essay. I’d love to hear your feedback!
December 20, 2012 7 Comments
The words “unimaginable,” “unspeakable,” and “unbelievable” have been used countless times to describe the killing of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, my good friend Brad East has said, “This is not intelligible. This is not comprehensible. It is absurd. It is evil. It is not a genus of a species (whether this be “evil things” or “mass murder shootings”); it is not an instance of a larger nameable phenomenon. It is entirely dumbfounding.” And, while I understand the sentiment behind such statements (which are almost always ironically followed by thousands of words of commentary which make it clear that they believe it is none of those things), I believe they are mistaken and actually hinder our ability to respond appropriately to Newtown. In reality, someone did imagine Newtown, we all now believe it can happen, and we have been speaking about it for nearly a week. And if we continue to act as if this is not the case and that it is truly unintelligible and incomprehensible we will be saying the same words in a few months when the next Newtown occurs. Instead, we should admit that, sadly, Newtown was to be expected in contemporary America.
Perhaps one of the saddest facts about the massacre, other than the dozens of deaths, is that what so surprised most of us was that it was children who were the primary victims in a mass school shooting and not that there was another mass school shooting in the US in 2012. Part of the reason for that is that in so many ways Newtown was so ordinary. And it is the ordinariness of Newtown that so troubles me.
I’ve written before about the peculiarity of American male violence. Ours is a culture which shapes boys into young men who see violence as an organizing principle of life in the world. We are formed by our society to be violent. Prof. James Garbarino’s research has consistently made this clear. In a recent CNN op-ed, “How a Boy Becomes a Killer,” he says,
We start by recognizing that many young Americans (and other young people around the world) develop and carry with them a kind of moral damage, which I have come to call “the war zone mentality.”
However it develops, they grow up with a damaged sense of reality. They view the world as if they are soldiers confronting a hostile environment that they perceive to be full of enemies. Once they get fixated on this damaged world view, they may hatch the delusion that even teachers and young children are their enemies. For Adam Lanza, apparently even his mother was an enemy who had to be destroyed.
There is no one cause. It is as if they are building a tower of blocks, one by one, that can get so high it falls over, with innocent people dying. These building blocks can be found in a dangerous neighborhood or a school rife with bullying…through the internet and mass media…web sites and videos that promote paranoid views of the world…in pervasive and intense playing of video games…
But moral damage and a misperception of reality usually are not enough to lead to murder. The typical killer is emotionally damaged and has developed mental health problems, perhaps exacerbated by being bullied and rejected by peers, or abused and neglected at home…
The crucial point is that even “crazy” people operate in a particular culture, a particular society, a particular time and place, and within a certain world view of how to manage your rage, your hurt, and your sadness. While not uniquely American (it has happened in recent years in Europe and the Middle East), the mass murder that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, is especially American.
Our socially toxic culture promotes paranoia, desensitization to violence, almost unlimited access to lethal weapons, opportunities to practice mass murder via realistic “point and shoot” video games and games that justify violence as a legitimate form of vengeance in pursuit of an individual’s or group’s idea of justice.
And, in a related op-ed Prof. Michael Kimmel says,
Why are angry young men setting out to kill entire crowds of strangers?
Motivations are hard to pin down, but gender is the single most obvious and intractable variable when it comes to violence in America. Men and boys are responsible for 95% of all violent crimes in this country. “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation” is how the National Academy of Sciences summed up the extant research.
How does masculinity figure into this? From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. However the belief that violence is an inherently male characteristic is a fallacy. Most boys don’t carry weapons, and almost all don’t kill: are they not boys? Boys learn it.
They learn it from their fathers. They learn it from a media that glorifies it, from sports heroes who commit felonies and get big contracts, from a culture saturated in images of heroic and redemptive violence. They learn it from each other.
In talking to more than 400 young men for my book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” I heard over and over again what they learn about violence. They learn that if they are crossed, they have the manly obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.
In other words, our culture intentionally creates people – overwhelmingly men – who commit violence, and in the extreme mass murder. From the violence we inflict on children to the violence we teach them to inflict on others and the violent definitions of masculinity we insist they conform to we create young boys and men who believe it is natural and right for them to commit acts of violence. This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates had so many stories of men committing violence against women to draw from in his recent commentary.
And, while Garbarino and Coates are correct that better mental health care and stricter gun laws would help curb potential violent perpetrators from committing specific crimes, these legal and political restraints will not help us form nonviolent citizens instead of the violent ones we now create. For that to occur, as Prof. Garbarino also points out, we need a radical change in culture – from entertainment to parenting to politics to religion. We must become a different people if we are to avoid future Newtowns. Because – and it hurts to write this – we are a violent people for whom domestic violence, inner-city youth violence, constant warfare, and even mass shootings are our way of life.
In basketball they say “ball don’t lie.” In other words, at the end of the day the ball goes in the hoop or it doesn’t, and the winners are the ones who put the ball through the hoop more than the other team. We could say when reflecting on our common life together, then, that “bullets don’t lie.” And the bullets keep flying. And they keep killing. Because this is who we are.
Bullets don’t lie.
August 16, 2012 2 Comments
Yesterday, Deepak Sarma, in a short and biting essay, basically dismissed interfaith/interreligious dialogue as a waste of most people’s time. Naturally, there were folks who have invested much time, energy, faith, and blood, sweat, and tears into the work of such dialogue who found his argument wanting. Though I think he overstates his case, I generally agree with Dr. Sarma.
In reading his article I was reminded of my time in Bulgaria last summer with the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. Afterwards I was invited by the school to write an article for them. That article eventually became “Rejecting Utopias, Embracing Modesty.” One of the points of the article is that perhaps interfaith/interreligious practice is a better tool for overcoming religious intolerance, hatred, conflict, and violence than interfaith/interreligious dialogue is.
Now, generally speaking I am a “fan” of interfaith/interreligious dialogue. I think that it can and has been an activity that promotes and creates understanding, friendship, tolerance, and even a positive peace. However, as the years and years of such dialogue in Israel-Palestine or India so clearly show, it is by no means a cure-all for interreligious strife. And it has its own set of issues.
For example, choosing either “interfaith” or “interreligious” as the adjective is a loaded decision. One (interfaith) presumes the issue at stake is what one believes or has faith in. While sometimes this might actually be the case, in most cases the causes of conflict are economic, political, social, personal, or some mix of these factors. To choose “interreligious” assumes one can identify what counts as religion and that commitments to such things are the problem. Again, this may be the case but often is not. Thus, from the start, interfaith or interreligious dialogue proves to be a potentially helpful tool only for certain people and in certain situations.
In addition, one must ask, Why “dialogue”? This seems to be an especially western, if not Protestant Christian, way of addressing issues of religious conflict. And, of course, such sessions are often hosted by liberal Christians or those living in such an environment. Again, dialogue can be good, but it can too easily become theoretical, abstract, or about something other than actual conflicts. “Dialogue,” then, is only a limited tool for addressing religious conflict.
Thirdly, interfaith/interreligious dialogue is often critiqued for drawing those who are already like-minded and liberal leaning. Those who are often at the root of a conflict that exists for explicitly religious reasons are often those least likely to participate in such a session. Again, interfaith/interreligious dialogue is only one, and a limited one at that, tool in addressing religious conflict.
Finally, the biggest limit of interfaith/interreligious dialogue is when it actually achieves its goal of teaching those participating about another religion, but that truth turns out to be offensive. For example, while I can understand the wearing of headscarves by Muslim (or other) women as an act of devotion, piety, and modesty, I cannot understand the burqa as anything other than an act of oppression of women. I find it to be more than offensive; I find it to be unjust. In a like manner, I have “dialogued” with several Muslim women who insist that the immodesty of American women is truly offensive to them and they pray daily that their daughters will not be corrupted by this ungodly aspect of American culture. There is no bridging this gap, or “understanding” one another. I want burqas to cease to exist. They want women to cover up in public. We disagree and have reached an impasse that cannot be overcome. (This is just one example of many religious differences that can be uncomfortable, obnoxious, offensive, or distasteful.)
So, what do we do? Have some more dialogue? No. We must live together. Peacefully. And this is the rub. Dialogue can’t bring us to this point.
Well, I think that certain liberal legal provisions – like freedom of religion and speech – can help. But I also think that, perhaps, interfaith/interreligious practice might hold more promise than dialogue does.
For example, the American Civil Rights Movement (and the South African anti-apartheid movement) was, for its time, a remarkably interfaith affair. The shared practice of marching, prayer, and promoting justice enabled people of different faiths to live together. (Admittedly, the CRM was primarily a Christian movement, but the primarily Hindu movement for independence in India is another example.) I truly believe that shared work for justice is a better tool for bringing interreligious peace than dialogue is.
Or, shared rituals – like national holidays, though I worry about the ways that can fuel international conflicts, or local community gatherings – can build tolerant communities. Maybe caring for a community garden could bring together Christians who care about food justice, Jews and Muslims who have certain food requirements, and secularists who care about sustainability to invest in a common good and goal.
The point is this: Dialogue will not overcome all difference – and there are real differences, not all religions preach the same thing using different words – and some of those differences might very well be offensive, but we must still live together peacefully in those differences (especially when they are offensive). To do this, it seems to me, we must go far beyond talking to practicing life together. I’m really not sure what such practices might be in this or that particular community, but I am hopeful that such practices can take us farther than dialogue has or can.
May 3, 2012 1 Comment
Over the last year several colleagues and I have worked diligently on putting together the fifth issue of Practical Matters. My fellow ethics student here at Emory, Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, and I have served as the editors of the issue. For those who are unfamiliar with the journal, Practical Matters is an online multimedia journal that focuses on the intersection between the study of religious practices and practical theology. We are convinced at the journal that there is much potential for mutual learning across these disciplines and have found our work enriched through this intentional interdisciplinary work. For instance, our third issue was one of the first comprehensive academic collections that focused on the emerging use of ethnography in theology, and our fourth issue focused on the intersection of religion and theology with health and healing. In addition to exploring this growing area of interdisciplinary scholarly study, the journal also takes pride in the fact that it is open-access (no burdensome subscription fees here!), seeks to integrate new and multimedia forms of scholarship that move beyond traditional academic articles, and publishes works from religious practitioners as well as scholars of religion and theology to encourage conversation between the academy and the “real world.”
In that spirit, we as editors were intentional about including as much multimedia work and practitioner contributions as possible alongside the highest quality scholarly work on the field(s) of religion, violence, and/or peacebuilding. In the end, we are quite happy with the result.
As far as the scholarly contributions go, alongside our three peer-reviewed pieces (including PM’s first peer-reviewed video ethnography), we have included two state of the field essays from scholars at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies on religion and violence and religion and peacebuilding. The first essay, “Religious Violence: The Strong, the Weak, and the Pathological,” is written by a leading voice in the field, R. Scott Appleby. The second essay, “Religious Peacebuilding: The Exotic, the Good, and the Theatrical,” is written by Atalia Omer. In addition, three scholars from different fields (sociology, ethics, and history) have written responses to the essays. These essays and their responses are intended to give readers a sense of the past, present, and potential future shape of the field of religion, violence, and peace, and we believe they serve that purpose quite well. Along these same lines, Joe and I have included a 30+ page annotated bibliography of significant works in the field. Finally, along with these works we have included a syllabus from a team-taught course taught across multiple universities through the Boston Theological Institute along with a reflection from some of the professors, authored primarily by M. Christian Green, on the experience of teaching such a course in an impressively interdisciplinary manner. The combination of these resources, we hope, should serve as a helpful resource for those putting together a syllabus for a course on religion, violence, and peace, or as a helpful jumpstart for those who are unfamiliar with the field but would like to begin working in it.
Alongside these more traditional academic resources we have included reflections from practitioners on topics as diverse as the difficulties of, and lessons learned from, organizing a food program for a summer school devoted to interreligious tolerance (International Summer School on Religion and Public Life), a spiritual-meditative practice known as “The Compassion Practice,” and a grassroots reconciliation program in Zimbabwe.
Finally, our multimedia pieces include two documentaries, two video interviews, and a photo essay. The two documentaries include one titled “Peace for All,” which documents the sharing of a sacred shrine by Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Macedonia, and one titled “Good Coffee,” which documents the difficulties and triumphs experienced by an Ethiopian refugee now living in the United States. The two interviews include an interview with Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, in which he reflects on his and his church’s activism on behalf of the now deceased death row inmate Troy Davis, and an interview with influential theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas reflecting on his newest book, War and the American Difference. Finally, we also include a photo essay, from Ryan Rodrick Beiler, visually demonstrating the ambiguous impact of religion on the politics of Palestine and Israel.
There are many more excellent contributions to the issue, including peer-reviewed articles and a wonderful selection of book reviews, that are not included in this blog post. Please see the introduction to the issue for a more in-depth account of all that is included within its pages. However, I hope this has piqued your interest enough to go and check out this new (and free!) contribution to the study of religious practices and practical theologies of peace and violence.
Go check out the entire issue here. I would love to hear your feedback here or on twitter!