Friday, June 26, 2015

What Should Christians think about Today's Historic SCOTUS Decision?

Actually, I don't intend to answer that question here. I can't. To do that, I'd need to write a book--well, probably more than one. (And I intend to.)

What I can do here is warn against certain sweeping claims about what Christians should think. More precisely, I want to warn against an all-too-common practice among Christians today when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage: The tendency to think that all Christians, to be truly Christian on this matter, must agree with us.

First, an obvious point: While Christianity might have something to say about who we should and shouldn't have sex with, it isn't a religion about who we should and shouldn't have sex with. Christianity is about who God is and what God has done, who Christ is and what Christ did. Christians are followers of Jesus. And Jesus said nothing about gay sex.

The Christian debate about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not a debate about the heart of the faith.

Beyond this obvious point, Christians need to move past false or overgeneralized claims about the motives of their Christian opponents.

Conservatives have a tendency to portray Christians who are progressive on this issue as sell-outs to secular culture. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves sits at the heart of progressive Christian arguments on this issue.

By contrast, I have liberal Christian friends who dismiss conservatives on this issue as ignoring both Christ's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and Christ's call not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves. But in offering such a sweeping assessment, they ignore my Christian friends who earnestly wish they could support the intimate relationships of their gay friends, who are pained by what they see as a divine requirement to condemn those relationships--who wish it were otherwise, but who can't see another way to interpret what they take to be God's word.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of conservative Christians who are not motivated by love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There are plenty who invoke the slogan "Love the neighbor but hate the sin" without paying any attention to what comes before the "but". There are plenty of Fred Phelpses in the world. Many are just less honest and open about their bigotry.

But this doesn't mean that all conservatives on this issue are homophobic in their hearts. It doesn't mean that every conservative is insincere about the desire to love their gay and lesbian neighbors.

I believe, and have argued, that their belief about homosexuality operates as an impediment to their expressing that love properly--that they are unwittingly feeding their gay and lesbian neighbors poison based on the false belief that it is medicine. But I also believe that these Christians would weep and repent were they to realize that the doctrines informing their relationships with gays and lesbians really are as soul-crushing and anti-Evangelical as my experience with gay and lesbian friends teaches me they are.

Where I disagree with these Christians isn't at the level of their intentions and their sincerity. And while I take today's ruling to be a cause for celebration, I don't think every Christian who believes otherwise is therefore a bad Christian. I think they're mistaken, but that doesn't mean they aren't striving to live by the law of love as best they can.

Likewise, let me be clear that there are surely plenty of progressive Christians who haven't wrestled deeply with the issue of same-sex intimacy in the light of their Christian commitments and values, who are just going with the flow, following the prevailing trends. But to treat such motives as the core of the progressive Christian stance is to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand what progressive have been arguing for years.

The birthplace of progressive Christian support for same-sex marriage isn't found in secular culture. I would argue--and in fact have argued--that the causation moves in the opposite direction: Secular culture has come to see same-sex relationships differently because the spirit of agapic love has taken root there.

Gays and lesbians are not only a minority, but an easy out-group to scapegoat and marginalize. If you're straight, then a prohibition on gay sex is no prohibition at all. Hence, such a prohibition has, for the majority, the effect of offering easy righteousness. "I can feel morally superior without expending any effort, because whatever I do at least I'm not one of those fa**ots."

If there's a reason why our broader culture has moved away from this, it isn't because of an anything-goes secular permissiveness that would allow the heterosexual majority the moral freedom to have sex with people they have absolutely no desire or inclination to have sex with. It's because of empathy. It's because, over the last forty years, gays and lesbians have been really heard for the first time in history. People have put themselves in their shoes. They have asked themselves the question at the heart of the Golden Rule: What would I want done to me, if I were in their place?

Christian reformers on this issue argue that when we really pay attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, it becomes increasingly clear that "How do we love the sinner while hating the sin?" is the wrong question.. The right question is this: What can we take to be a sin while still loving our neighbors as we should.

And loving attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches us that calling all same-sex intimacy a sin is doing harm to them, the kind of real harm that love must stand against. Contestable biblical interpretations and natural law arguments must give way before what loving attention teaches, or we end up loving our own beliefs more than we love our neighbors.

This progressive view isn't about selling out to secular culture. It's about trying to live by Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians may disagree with my take on these issues, just as I disagree with them. But these lines of disagreement can't and shouldn't be treated as the dividing line between real Christians and sell-outs, or between real Christians and homophobic bigots wearing the cloak of Christian righteousness to justify their prejudice.

All Christians should strive to love their gay and lesbian neighbors as themselves, and should wrestle sincerely with what that call to love demands. All Christians should strive to rise above the whims and vagaries of secular culture, informing their life and values in relation to God, not Hollywood.

But there are Christians celebrating today's SCOTUS decision who embrace both of these things. There are Christians bemoaning it who embrace both. Recognizing these facts should be a starting point for any serious attempt to decide what Christians should believe about today's historic decision.

If we don't start there, we will model pugnacity and prejudice instead of Christian love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism and the Charleston Shootings: Individual and Collective Responsibility

Over the last few days I've seen the following meme reappear on social media. It shows up every once in awhile, usually when someone has done something horrible. This time, it's resurfaced in reaction to discussions about the tragic mass shooting at a black church in Charleston. Here's the meme:


This meme troubles me a lot. I'm a fan of individual responsibility and accountability. My worry is that this meme, in the name of accountability, functions to immunize us from it.

Let me explain. Clearly, the person directly responsible for the deaths in Charleston was the shooter, Dylann Roof. And he should be held accountable. He should be put on trial and, when convicted (which he presumably will be), sentenced harshly.

But when this Reagan quote resurfaces, as it has a tendency to do in the wake of horrific crimes, its purpose is not to encourage holding the agent of the crime accountable. It's purpose, rather, is to point the finger away from ourselves. "Hey, everyone! Look over there! Look at that deranged racist, that agent of horror."

If the trick works, we avoid having to look collectively towards ourselves and the ways in which we as a society contribute to the conditions that breed such agents of horror.

In Matthew 7:3, Jesus offers the following rhetorical question, intended to inspire us to look to ourselves, to see our own sins and not just the sins of others: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Of course, Dylann Roof's sin is more than just a speck or sliver. People are dead because he pulled the trigger of a gun, again and again and again. He shattered lives. And none of us did anything as bad as that.

But there is a sense in which Dylann Roof is just a speck of sawdust. Because there is in America today the plank of racism, and what Roof did is a sliver off that plank.

"But I'm not a racist! I'd never do anything like what Roof did! What he did horrifies and outrages me!"

I like to think that every reader of this post thinks these very things, and thinks them sincerely. But racism isn't something that springs up in the hearts of individuals all by itself. Racism is learned. Racism isn't an individual thing but a cultural and systemic thing that takes root in individuals.

And all of us play some role in shaping our culture, for better or worse. All of us can take responsibility for fighting to make our society less racist, for identifying the subtle social forces that marginalize black Americans every day, for working to dismantle the hateful ideologies that make them targets for overt acts of violence.

I'm resistant to saying things like, "All of us a racists," because I think this sort of statement generates more heat than light. But even if we aren't all racists, racism is first and foremost a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Social structures and cultural patterns conspire to make life harder for black citizens than for white ones--and these structures and patterns are bound up with implicit racial biases that most people don't even know they have. These biases are planted in our subconscious minds by broad cultural forces, coloring our choices and our thinking in ways we aren't aware of, ways which are at odds with our conscious values and commitments.

The grim truth is that many white people who aren't racist, who abhor racism, are victims of systemic and cultural racism in a different way than blacks are victims. White Americans who want to promote equality and justice are too often infected, against their wills, with cultural forces that compromise their own best intentions. That's why I prefer to say that those who harbor implicit racial biases are victims of racism, as opposed to being racists. But implicit racial bias is a problem, even if those who harbor those biases aren't individually responsible.

The evidence of this is clear all around us, and documented in study after study: Well-meaning preschool teachers who earnestly read "Martin's Big Words" to their students on Martin Luther King Day are nevertheless more likely to perceive black and white children differently in the classroom without even knowing it. They are, especially, inclined to perceive them as more responsible for their misbehavior. Liberal college professors who preach against racism in the lecture hall are nevertheless less likely to respond to inquiries from prospective graduate students if they think they're black. When I step on an elevator with a woman, she never unconsciously clutches her purse more closely to her body. But this happens to a black friend of mine regularly.

Why does this happen? What are the cultural forces in play? And how are these forces related to the forces that still today perpetuate the more overt forms of racism, like what we saw on display in Charleston? Dylann Roof didn't spring out of the ground. His racist ideology didn't come out of nowhere. What stew of social influences made him ripe for the more overt racism that found voice in his hateful manifesto and eventually drove him to kill? And what can we, collectively, do to change those forces?

These are questions that we need to tackle. If we want to stop tragedies like the Charleston shooting, we need to wrestle with how individual hate crimes are related to broader social patterns, patterns that won't go away just by punishing individuals. Unless we all take collective responsibility for the social force that is racism, that social force will keep giving birth to new Dylann Roofs.

Quoting Reagan may make us feel like we're off the hook. And that's the problem. We didn't shoot those people. And we may not harbor racial prejudices ourselves. But racism is a collective, structural, ideological, and cultural reality. And the only way to end it is if all of us take responsibility for asking the right kinds of questions, for listening to the stories of our black neighbors, for tackling the complex, thorny social issues that keep racism alive.

There's a plank in America's eye. We need to work together, all of us, to pull it out.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Draw Muhammad" Contest Draws Fire

Yesterday in Garland, Texas, a "Draw Muhammad" contest was targeted by two gunmen, who were promptly shot and killed by police after injuring a security guard at the event.

According to Islam, images of the Prophet Muhammad are taboo, and such images are deeply offensive to most Muslims. So why host a contest in which the whole point is to produce such offensive images?

It was touted as a free speech event. Events of this sort have occurred several times recently, and appear to be part of a response to highly publicized terrorist acts--most notably the brutal attack of Charlie Hebdo--in which Islamist extremists have responded to violations of their taboos with deadly violence. This event was sponsored by the so-called "American Freedom Defense Initiative," whose executive director had this to say:

"This is a war. This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?"

I struggle with what to say about cases like this. Clearly, people should be able to mock what others find sacred without being the targets of violence, without being murdered for it.

But that doesn't mean we should mock what others find sacred, at least not without excellent reasons. Standing up for free expression, something we in the West find sacred, might be an excellent reason to do something offensive. But I worry that this reason serves as cover for some who just want to indulge in sticking it to their Muslim neighbors.

Islamophobia is a real issue in this country. Muslims I know worry about being the targets of Islamophopic attacks--if not of violent ones, then of more subtle assaults on their dignity as human beings who wish to live out their faith tradition in peace. The vast majority of Muslims are not going to strike out violently against a "Draw Muhammad" event. But they will be offended by it. In part, they will be offended because it violates what is sacred to them. But the deeper issue here is that figuring out what offends someone and then doing it just because it offends them is a gesture of disdain. It is a way to say, "I do not value you."

An event like the one in Garland offers the perfect context in which bigots can indulge their Islamophobia while feeling self-righteous about it.

Apparently, two men decided to strike back with violence. In so doing, they didn't just die. They valorized the participants of this event. While I fear that many of those participants were motivated more by Islamophobic nastiness than by any real interest in standing up for freedom of speech, the attempt to violently target such an event helps to transform them into symbols of the latter. At the same time, such an attack reinforced the prejudices that lead to the false vilification of all the Muslims who, in silence, endure without violence the mockery of their deepest values.

This is the absurdity of violence in all its blatant and subtle forms. It feeds what it aims to stop, producing feedback loops of violence and abuse. The overt acts of violence of a few are invoked to justify organized programs of mockery in which what a whole group finds sacred is belittled. This triggers a few more to act out with brutal violence (or attempted violence), triggering even more in-your-face, mean-spirited, and self-righteous mockery.

And there is collateral damage--emotional as well as physical--on all sides. A wounded security guard. Thousands of peaceful American Muslims who feel as if their neighbors are symbolically spitting in their faces.

Where can this lead? Nowhere good.

The right to free speech includes the right to mock. But just because we have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, pressing up against what offends people, may be necessary in a struggle to affirm our deepest values. But sometimes offensiveness moves beyond what is necessary and become gratuitous.

Being new to Twitter, I attempted to express these feelings with a tweet that went like this: "You have the right to mock what I hold sacred just for the sake of offending me. You shouldn't die for it. Also, you shouldn't do it." Not sure if anyone got the reference. So here it is in blog-post form.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Before You Talk About Baltimore...

...read this open letter (especially if, like me, you're white):


..and read this historical overview of how urban black ghettos were born, and why the problem is so much bigger than we like to admit (worth reading for context and understanding no matter who you are):


I believe in an ethic of love, and central to such an ethic is attention to the neighbor in need, the neighbor who is crying out. It is about listening with empathy and compassion. As Julia Blount puts it in her open letter linked above,
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away.
Sometimes, when people don't hear me, I resort to shouting. Sometimes, when the privileged don't listen or listen with only half an ear, the frustration of Black Americans who are suffering under oppressive and marginalizing conditions grows to a point where they find themselves doing the collective equivalent of shouting.

When they do, modern white America often invokes the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the attempt to chastise their black neighbors and urge them to quiet down--as if King's nonviolence were not about shouting, about disrupting the status quo, about becoming so loud that the established powers were forced to hear if not to listen.

King has been sanitized for White America in a way that doesn't do justice to his radical strategy of relentless nonviolent resistance. While he thought rioting was strategically unwise, he understood the motivations behind it. While he found rioting to violate the highly demanding ethic of love that he claimed as his own, it was not nearly as morally problematic as the social and legal and economic forces that drove communities to that breaking point where outrage turns into shattered glass.

What King proposed wasn't that the black community set aside its sense of injustice, its frustration, its impatience. What King proposed was a strategy for channeling all of that into a shout that could not be dismissed or ignored, that forced the privileged majority to reflect on their own moral failings rather than hide from them by pointing fingers at the people throwing rocks.

Before you talk about Baltimore, listen to these words by Martin Luther King:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots"I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.... There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior. And their ultimate logic of racism is genocide... we've got to get rid of two or three myths that still pervade our nation. One is the myth of time. I'm sure you've heard this notion. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And I've heard it from many sincere people. They've said to the negro and/to his allies in the white community you should slow up, you're pushing things too fast, only time can solve the problem. And if you'll just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out. There is an answer to that myth. It is the time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively....Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.Now there is another myth and that is the notion that legislation can't solve the problem that you've got to change the heart and naturally I believe in changing the heart..."-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Full video: http://youtu.be/zB4STFkXIk4Full synopsis: http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/
Posted by Afrikkan Unification on Monday, April 27, 2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Delinking" Marriage from Procreation: Some Thoughts on Weasel Words

I had a professor in graduate school who had a problem with "weasel words." By this, he meant words that are so imprecise that they interfere with clear thinking. They lend themselves to equivocal reasoning: they shift meaning in a way that obscures the unsoundness of an argument.

Yesterday, as I listened to the NPR report on Supreme Court arguments on same-sex marriage, I found myself thinking about weasel words--because the lawyer defending discriminatory marriage laws, John Bursch, used a doozy of a weasel word in his arguments: "Delinking."

What Bursch argued is this: If we extend marriage to same-sex couples, we are "delinking" marriage from procreation. And if we delink marriage from procreation, then it's only "common sense" that we will see an increase in out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Got that? If not, here's the argument in a bit more detail: If our society recognizes same-sex marriage, we thereby indicate that procreative potential is not necessary for marriage. Thus, we "delink" marriage from procreation. But people who have babies out of wedlock are also "delinking" marriage from procreation--not in the same sense, but ignore that in favor of the fact that the word "delinking" is imprecise enough that it can be used in both cases. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to assume that if our society officially stands by delinking in the former sense, we should expect to see more delinking in the latter?

John Bursch seems to think so, which just goes to show that lawyers sometimes need refresher courses in basic critical thinking. In fact, I'm tempted to use this argument when I teach critical thinking in my classes.

Here's the thing. One thing, P, can be "linked" to another, Q, in all sorts of ways. For example, P might be a sufficient condition for Q, the way that being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US. Then again, P might be a necessary condition for Q, the way that being born on planet Earth is necessary for being born in the US.

Notice that things can be linked in one way but not linked in another. While being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US, it isn't a necessary condition. You could, like me, have been born in California. Or Texas. Or Rhode Island. (You get the idea). That being born in Oklahoma isn't necessary for being born in the US tells us nothing about whether it's sufficient.

Being born in one of the 50 states is a necessary and sufficient condition for being born in the US. But suppose we were to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union. Then, we would be "delinking" being born in the current 50 states from being born in the US--by making the former no longer necessary for the latter. But the two would remain linked in another way: being born in one of the current 50 states would still be sufficient for being born in the US. The one kind of "delinking" does not lead to the other.

Of course, whatever link there is between marriage and procreation is going to be different from what we find in the examples above. Infertile couples have been allowed to marry in this country for a long time. For even longer, unmarried people have been making babies. So if there is a link between the two, it isn't that one is necessary for the other. So what is it?

Maybe it's this: We think that a stable, long-term intimate partnership supported by society and the law provides the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal). Hence, it is best if fertile heterosexual partners restrict sex to marriage, because this would ensure that children are consistently born into the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal).

If this is the link, we might express it as follows: If you're going to make babies, it's best that you do it within a marriage. Let's call this a normative link: If P, then it's best that Q.

This is, for example, the sort of link many see between being a gun collector and having a gun safe in your home: If you're going to collect guns, then it's best to have an appropriately-sized safe in which you can store them.

But notice that if we allow people who don't collect guns to own large safes suitable for putting guns into, we have in no way severed this normative link. Letting a non-gun-collector own a gun safe--because, say, it's good for storing the person's priceless collection of ancient scepters--does not threaten in any way at all the link described above. It remains true that gun collectors would be well advised to have a gun safe even if we make gun safes available to people who don't collect guns.

Put simply, if you think that all gun collectors should own safes, you'd be pretty silly to believe that letting non-gun-collectors own safes too will threaten this principle and lead to fewer gun-collectors buying safes. It isn't remotely "common sense" that by "delinking" safe-ownership from gun-collecting in this way, you will end up with more gun collectors lacking safes in which to store their guns.

Likewise, it isn't remotely common sense that if you extend marriage to a new class of non-procreative pairs (we already extend it to non-procreative heterosexual pairs), you will have more out-of-wedlock childbirth. "Procreation should be restricted to within marriage" articulates a different kind of link between procreation and marriage than "Marriage should be restricted to couples who can procreate." If we reject the latter, that has no direct implications for the former.

The only way to make it seem as if it does is to use a weasel word like "delink." Reference two different kinds of connections with the same word, and you can proceed as if they were the same. By this reasoning, I hope to convince you to bury all your money by the edge of Stillwater Creek. I'll tell you where. Trust me, it'll be safe.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Chasing the Illusion of Closure: Capital Punishment and the Aurora Shootings

I think most of us have felt it: hunger for the death of someone who's done something awful.

The trial of James Holmes, who shot up an Aurora, CO movie theater not quite three years ago, is about to begin. Driving to work this morning, I listened to an NPR report that included brief interviews with the parents of one of the shooting victims--a young man who chose to shield his girlfriend from the bullets. I imagined what it would be like to be the father of that man, to learn how he died saving the life of his beloved. I imagined it was my own son, several years from now.

I felt the hunger for death. But the father and mother of the dead young man were at best torn in their feelings about the impending trial. Whatever their hungers, they knew that the trial would not restore to them their son. They knew that their deepest longing wasn't for death but for restored life. And nothing anyone did to James Holmes could satisfy that desire.

They wanted closure. They knew the trial wouldn't give it. They knew the death penalty wouldn't give it. They knew that the delay in the trial was making it harder--was ensuring that whatever steps they'd made towards moving on were threatened by the demand by the court that they now go back. Perhaps they even understood that the court delays were in part caused by the death penalty itself. In cases like this, defense attorneys see it as their job to prevent their client from being put to death--and every delay is another day of life. Perhaps they knew that if James Holmes is sentenced to die, the appeals could continue for decades.

But still there is the hunger for death. And support for the death penalty in America is largely fueled by that hunger. There are other things driving that support, of course: views on deterrence, more dispassionate ideas of what justice demands. But the hunger for death that we call vengeance is what leads death penalty supporters to set up a grill outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester whenever there's an execution...and fry bacon as a human being dies.

Revenge stories play on that hunger. I can remember seeing some of the Death Wish movies as a teen, and feeling that distinctive kind of pulse-pounding satisfaction as Bronson's character pursued his murderous vigilantism.

But I've always been suspicious of that feeling. If it has a cognitive content, it's this: While a person's premature death is ordinarily one of the worst things there is, it is rendered intrinsically good when the one who dies is a murderous villain. Intrinsically good. Not a tragic necessity, but good in itself.

It's as if the villain's death can somehow fix what the villain has done. But of course it can't. A murderer's victim stays dead. The hole left in the world by the loss of someone beloved can't be filled by tearing another life out of the stream of history.

While hate can flood into the place where love once lived, hate is a poor substitute for love. It can't complete you the way love can. It can't expand your sense of self, making you bigger than your narrow ego. It can't bring joy. It doesn't gesture to the transcendent.

In the grip of hate, you don't feel as if you're on the cusp of understanding the meaning of it all.

Loss can lead to hate, which sparks the hunger for death. But feeding that hunger doesn't restore what was lost. That can't be done. What can be done is this: We can endeavor to live so that the loss doesn't kill what is best in us.

What's best in us is the power to love. And the cancer-spread of hate is the thing that most surely kills in us this power. To indulge the hunger for death is therefore inimical to realizing the most significant sort of closure. What brings real closure isn't death but forgiveness, because forgiveness is the victory of our power to love over the urgings of hate.

At least that's how I see it. And this is why I don't believe in the death penalty. I understand the death penalty, at least to the extent that someone who hasn't had a loved one murdered can understand it. I can vicariously appreciate the emotions that could drive someone to long for the death of the person who's torn their lives apart.

But closure is about healing. It isn't about feeding hungers born of hate.

I've heard the stories of people who have sought revenge, chasing the closure they think they'll find when the person who wronged them suffers in kind. Some of those stories were told to me by killers in prison, when I volunteered as a nonviolence facilitator in intensive prison workshops. Weeping, they told me how they hungered for the death of those who'd wronged them. Full of rage and hate, they struck out--sometimes at the real target, sometimes at a vicarious victim who represented those who'd tortured and tormented them.

But the act didn't bring the closure they were hungering for. The hunger for death tells us that closure will come by turning a living human into a corpse. But the hunger lies. It misdirects our energies, obsessively driving us away from what will really satisfy.

Some of these murderers eventually realized the truth. Some of them saw the futility of their path and knew that letting go of hate and vengeance was the real path to healing. Some realized that until they forgave the father who abused them, the drug-addicted mother who neglected them, the pawns of the system that marginalized them because of the color of their skin, they would have no closure from their anguished past. Rather, they'd be ruled by it. To move on, you must let go. And hate is about clinging on tight.

These are lessons I've learned from murderers, from the stories they've told me. And it didn't miss my attention that these murderers, when they killed, were motivated by the same psychological forces that drive our cultural enthusiasm for the death penalty.

The people who fry bacon outside the prison walls during an execution are closer in spirit to the one being killed than are those who stand a candle-lit vigil to oppose what's being done. The latter repudiate the spirit that led the murderer to kill. The former, unwittingly, stand in solidarity with the killer they revile.

They have allowed the spirit of hate, which tore their lives apart, to be a spirit that helps define them. This is like seeking to close a wound with a knife rather than with stitches.

I don't mean to suggest that forgiveness is easy. Nor do I think that victims can let go and release hate right away. I think that there are things we can do as a society to make it easier for the victims of horror to move forward with their lives, and that we aren't doing those things.

There are things the perpetrator of horror can do to make forgiveness a more real possibility for the victims. I think they have a duty to do these things, but to do them requires that they confront what they've done honestly and without excuses or illusions. And there are things a justice system can do to help make this happen.

Victims need to understand why. They need to know that the why wasn't good enough, and that the perpetrator knows it wasn't good enough. They need to witness the perpetrator's genuine cry of remorse, the anguished realization that they are responsible for horror. And they need to see the perpetrator take on penance, a sincere project of reform and restitution that can never restore what was lost but can express the depth of their remorse through endless efforts to do good.

I say "need," but I have witnessed victims of horrific abuse perform the miracle of forgiveness in the absence of these things. I've seen it happen in prisons: Inmates who were violently molested for years, forced to abuse siblings, thrown into foster care only to be sexually molested by foster parents--these same victims found ways to let go of hate and to forgive. I have seen the trajectory of lives change. I have followed their course in stunned wonder.

To witness it is to witness a miracle. It is a reason I believe in God.

I'm tempted to say, "If criminals in prison can do it, then so can we." But public policies can't be built around miracles. And such miracles happen most often after people hit bottom. So I suppose these miracles are more common for those imprisoned for their crimes than they are for the victims of crime who are trying to move on.

What we need is a criminal justice system that focuses more of its attention on meeting the needs of victims. And to do that, we have to stop assuming that victims' needs are best met just by punishing offenders. Victims have a right to confront perpetrators, to demand the things described above. They have a right to the help of trained facilitators who have the skills to challenge offenders to really hear their victims--without excuses or rationalizations, without hiding behind emotional walls.

In short, they have a right to something like the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. The death penalty offers the illusion of closure. But the deeper truth is this: What victims get from the execution of a loved one's murderer is not closure but the opportunity to finally begin to pursue closure--an opportunity that has been deferred because they've believed that erasing the murderer from the world is what was needed. But they begin this pursuit of closure when much of what can help provide it--a confrontation with the killer culminating in the killer's remorse and repentance--is no longer possible, because the killer is dead. And so all they can hope for is the miracle.

For the survivors and families of the Aurora shooting, I wish for something more satisfying than the death of James Holmes, than years of deferring the search for closure while they wait for an execution that will not meet their needs. And if our justice system can't or won't help them pursue their deepest needs, then I hope they get the miracle.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"F**k Your Breath": Mistakes in Law Enforcement

The other day, another police shooting of a black man made headlines--this one in Tulsa, so it hit close to home.

It was all captured on video: An officer tackled a fleeing suspect, Eric Harris. While he was ordering Harris to roll onto his stomach, a reserve deputy--a volunteer with full law-enforcement authority--decided to subdue Harris with his Taser. Except that he wasn't holding his Taser. He was holding his handgun.

You can barely hear the "sorry" on the video. It's swamped by Harris's cries: "Oh my God, he shot me! He shot me!"

But if you listen closely you will hear that soft "sorry," and it has an oh-shit quality to it. So I'm confident the Taser story is true. The guy didn't mean to fire his gun. It was a mistake.

A fatal one. Harris died later at the hospital.

Another feature of the story isn't included in the video (at least the one I saw and that's linked to above). At the end of that video, Harris can be heard saying, "I'm losing my breath." And then the video ends. But according to reports, a deputy responded to that fading plea with crude disdain: "F**k your breath."

It's impossible not to think about Eric Garner, a black man who died last summer from a police officer's choke hold, whose last words were, "I can't breathe." Was the deputy thinking about Garner? Was his dismissal of Harris's life breath an expression of a deeper and broader disdain?

I don't know. But I can't help but think about lying on the pavement, bleeding, dying, crying out in pain and horror, and hearing my life and human dignity swept away with "F**k your breath." Perhaps they were the last words Harris ever heard, the final punctuation of his life story.

The man who said those words committed no crime. There will be no charges filed. One man shot Harris by mistake, and may face charges. Another sent him into death with a final message: You don't matter.

Both acts trouble me, but the latter strikes me as more inhuman, even if its consequences were less dire.

I don't like to define people by their worst moments. The officer who said to a dying Harris, "F**k your breath," should not be defined by those words. What he said may have been horrible and inhuman. That doesn't mean he was.

I like to think that right now he is mortified. I like to think that he lies awake thinking, "How could I have said that? What must it have been like, to hear those last words just before he died?" Maybe the officer was caught up in the adrenal rush of the moment: the chase, the unexpected gunshot, the furious thought that this would never have happened if the suspect hadn't run.

Maybe it just slipped out. A different kind of mistake.

I've known numerous police officers over the years, all of them good people with a sense of civic responsibility. They recognize the weight of the public trust they've been invested with, and they're committed not to abusing that trust. I can't imagine any of them saying "F**k your breath" to an apprehended suspect dying from an accidental gunshot wound. And I like to think that none of them would ever mistake the firearm in their hand for a Taser, and so fatally shoot a suspect who--whatever his mistakes--didn't deserve to die.

But mistakes happen. Especially when strong negative emotions overtake us, we say and do things we wouldn't do in wiser moments. It was a mistake for Eric Harris to flee the police. So why did he do it? Maybe he was terrified. Maybe he thought, "I might become the next Eric Garner, the next black man killed by the cops." And so he fled. It's not uncommon for fear-driven behavior to actually bring to life the things we fear.

Police work is dangerous, and the moments when police shootings happen are some of the most high-stress, high-adrenalin moments in a police officer's work life. And such moments are the ones when mistakes are more likely to happen. The right kind of training can reduce their likelihood. Did the reserve deputy who mistook his sidearm for a Taser get the same kind of training that a regular officer receives?

I don't know, but the mistake I want to focus on is the other one: the anger-fueled obscenity, the dismissal of a life. I'm going to assume it was a mistake--that is, something said in the heat of the moment and later regretted, as opposed to the calculated, self-righteous dehumanization of a dying man.

My question has to do with the kind of training that reduces mistakes of that kind. In the heat of the moment, with emotions high and blood pounding in our ears, how much more likely are we to dehumanize those we see as our opponents and our enemies? And what kind of training can ensure that even in those moments, we remember the humanity of those who run from us or talk back at us or lash out at us in anger and frustration?

In some cases, the failure to really see the humanity of a suspect might lead to a crushing remark that discounts a human life in its final moments. In other cases, that failure could mean the difference between shooting a suspect and holding fire. Police should fire when lives are at stake--their own, another officer's, a civilian's. But one of the lives at stake in every police shooting is the one who is shot. That life needs to be given its due weight, too. How do we ensure it isn't discounted? How do we ensure that lives aren't cut short or damaged because, in the adrenalin-fueled moment, those lives aren't valued as they should be?

Much of the discussion about this has focused on race--as well it should. There is rampant evidence of subconscious racism operating beneath the surface of our thoughts, influencing our choices without our knowledge. This isn't a police problem. It's been documented in college professors, preschool teachers, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor, black and white. (Yes, unconscious bias--against blacks--even influences the thinking of blacks through the phenomenon sometimes called internalized racism.)

While there is also overt racism at work in many corners of our society--as the federal investigation into the Ferguson PD makes plain--the bigger issue by far is the covert kind of racial bias that influences the choices of good people without their conscious knowledge. Such racial bias--especially if we aren't aware that it's at work in us--can increase our likelihood of making mistakes of the kind I'm talking about. Mistakes in which we think less of people than they deserve.

Such mistakes are a problem wherever they happen. But they become a bigger problem in high-stress moments. And they become a potentially fatal problem when guns are involved. This means that we will be more likely to see the problem play out in dramatic fashion among law enforcement, precisely because they are in high stress jobs that sometimes require decisions about using lethal force.

This does not mean that police are somehow especially racist. It isn't "their" problem and it isn't "theirs" to fix. Its our problem. It's ours to fix. The social forces that generate implicit bias don't originate in police departments. They come from everywhere. And if we are afraid of the effects that such biases will have on police officers who need to make life and death decisions and may be influenced by unconscious biases, then all of us need to tackle the sweeping social forces that perpetuate these biases.  (We also need to root out overt racism, and not just in police departments.)

But in the meantime, we need to offer resources to police officers who do not want to be influenced by such biases, who are committed to being fair defenders of the public good. The power they're invested with means that if anything, they need to be better than the rest of us when it comes to such things. And the police I know feel the weight of that and want to live up to that weighty trust. What tools and techniques can we offer that will help?

As important as the issue of implicit racial bias may be, it isn't the only source of the mistakes I'm talking about here. Can we imagine the recent events in Tulsa playing out with a white suspect? Of course. The kinds of scenarios that awaken fight-or-flight responses also fuel adversarial, zero-sum thinking: It's him or me. It's us or them. And as soon as another human being becomes one of "them," their humanity begins to be discounted.

This tendency appears to be rooted deeply in our human instincts. And police officers are asked to throw themselves into the very situations that trip these instincts. It's their duty as police officers to step into danger, to confront law-breakers in a way that's inevitably adversarial. Caught up in the emotional intensity of that conflict, the suffering of the adversary might trigger a flush of righteous animosity, spilling out in words like "F**k your breath."

It's only human. But it's a mistake. A tragic moment of staggering inhumanity. The police officers I know want to be the best they can be, even in those moments that have a tendency to evoke our ugliest selves. What kind of training will help?

It should be clear that I'm talking about something very different from the sort of training that will help a reserve deputy keep his head enough to realize that he's holding a handgun rather than a Taser. What I have in mind is something rooted in our capacity to see and respond to humanity in the face of conflicts and emotional forces that have a natural tendency to drive out such responsiveness.

But there are layers of problems here. Police officers have dangerous jobs, and their survival--their ability to make it home to their families--may depend on responses that are rooted in the same fight-or-flight instincts that fuel our propensity to dehumanize. What kind of training can offer the right sort of balance between preserving those essential survival instincts while nurturing our human capacity to see the humanity even in those we are in conflict with?

That's the balancing act we are asking our police officers to perform. And they're being asked to do it in a society where racial biases and other forms of prejudice are being written into our subconscious responses to our environments from an early age.

It should be clear that I don't have pat or ready answers. My aim here, rather, is to ask questions that acknowledge the deep problems and the tragedies we face without drawing good-guy/bad-guy lines, without oversimplifying, without pointing the finger at the other guy.

The Tulsa case is human. It is human because humans make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are tragically wrong. It is also inhuman. Sometimes our mistakes lead us to fall short of our human potential, and to see our fellow human beings as less than human. When it comes to wrestling with such oh-so-human inhumanity, we need to be in it together, to ask what we can do to help each other be better than we thought we could be.

And that means we need to stop saying "F**k your breath," even to those who say it to others.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Does Religious Freedom Entail the Freedom to Discriminate?

Should the conservative Christian baker be allowed to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding? Should the government pass new laws explicitly aimed at preserving her freedom to discriminate in this way?

As someone who believes in equality under the law, I will argue all day that the state is obligated to make civil marriage and the legal benefits that go with it available to same-sex couples (although I won't make that case here).

Because of this, I don't believe that agents of the state, acting as agents of the state, have a right to discriminate against same-sex couples even if their religion tells them to. They have a right to quit their job if the job duties conflict with their religious beliefs. But it seems to be a violation of church-state separation for the government to discriminate against same-sex couples based on sectarian religious beliefs. And if the state has no right to discriminate against same-sex couples, then neither do its agents when they act on behalf of the state.

But the conservative Christian baker is not an agent of the state. She's a private individual, free to be guided by sectarian religious convictions that can't and shouldn't dictate state practices. So, should she be free to discriminate? Should the state enact laws explicitly securing her that right?

As a Christian who believes in a sacred obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, I will argue all day that deliberate discrimination against same-sex couples represents a serious failure to live up to the demands of the Christian love ethic (although I won't make that case here).

Because of this, I will argue that the Christian baker is confused about what her own faith requires. I will argue that were she true to the deepest meaning of Christian ethics, she would not discriminate against her same-sex neighbors in the way that she feels compelled to do. I will argue that, in the name of Christian conscience, she is living out teachings born of bigotry rather than the spirit of love, and so in the name of Christian conscience is doing the opposite of what Christ demands.

As a Christian, I think her decision to discriminate is deeply immoral. I think Jesus would weep. But the question isn't whether Jesus' love ethic permits her--a purported follower of Jesus--to do this. The question is whether the state should permit her to do it. More significantly, the question is whether the state should enact laws specifically designed to protect her freedom to do it.

As someone who believes the state should protect religious freedom and our right to act on religious conscience, I think the state has a duty--constrained only by other duties of comparable weight--to protect the freedom of individuals, acting as private citizens, to refuse to participate in activities that their religion tells them is wrong.

This is the place where laws like Indiana's new "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" get what ethical traction they have. These laws really are about the freedom to discriminate. We should be clear about that. But they are about freedom to discriminate in cases where such discrimination is mandated by one's religious convictions (however dubious they might be), and where one is not acting as an agent of the state.

It seems to me clear that a liberal democracy should protect the freedom to act on individual conscience--at least in the absence of some compelling state interest that justifies restricting it. If we are going to criticize these new "religious freedom" laws, we need to do so in a way that takes freedom of religious conscience seriously. And we can't base our criticisms on why the state and its agents shouldn't discriminate based on religious beliefs, or on why the religions at issue don't really call for such discrimination (even if these are legitimate arguments in their own right).

Instead, criticisms of such laws need to focus primarily on how protection of religious conscience is constrained by the broader duties of the state--and, I think, on the difference between business life and personal life, and the greater regulatory oversight that the state might legitimately have with respect to the former.

Let me begin with this second issue, because it lays the groundwork for thinking about the first.

If Mary, a conservative Christian and also a homemaker who bakes and decorates cakes as a hobby, is approached by her gay neighbors and asked to bake their wedding cake, there is no question in my mind that she should retain the right to refuse. Her right to do so is not under threat. As a private citizen, she shouldn't be compelled to act against her conscience--even if she can and should be challenged to rethink the substance of that conscience.

Yes, Mary, you have a right to say no based on your "Christian beliefs." No, Mary, I don't think Christ approves. Yes. Mary, I think you should be ashamed of yourself for refusing. If your neighbors shun you based on their conscience, good for them. But the choice is yours.

But now suppose that Mary has opened a bakery business. That business is part of the public sphere. The market system is a social strategy for maximizing the productivity of labor by allowing for the kind of specialization that increases competence but also makes people interdependent. To really do well at certain jobs, people need to specialize. But as soon as they specialize, they give up their independence. If you're a blacksmith, you can't eat the products of your labors. You become dependent on those who specialize in growing the food, just as they become dependent on you in various ways. When people agree to give up independence for the advantages that this sort of interdependence makes possible, a market system offers one particularly efficient way to exchange goods so that everyone has access to what they need.

Businesses are thus part of a complex set of social agreements that people have entered into for the sake of mutual benefit--a kind of social contract. And this means that when you enter the public sphere by opening a business, you are constrained by the social agreements that define that public sphere. In a free market, those constraints aren't arduous, but they aren't nonexistent, either.

One basic premise of such a business system is that people who choose to specialize give something up (the independence of the homesteader) and make a distinct contribution to the general welfare (through a specialized job) with the expectation that they will thereby become part of a system of interdependence in which their diverse needs can be met through purchases in the market. I contribute what I am good at, get paid for it, and can use that money to buy the things I want and need from those who are contributing what they are good at.

But what happens if I do this, and then find out that one of the things I need is unavailable to me--because others who have entered into this system of interdependence refuse to give it to me, or make it available only under certain arduous conditions? I have the money, but they won't sell to me (although they happily sell to others)--because of something to do with their private religious beliefs.

While it is clear that Mary should be free to refuse service to anyone in her role as a private citizen who bakes cakes for fun, it is far less clear that in her role as a member of this system of interdependence, she can refuse to serve anyone at any time for any reason. There might well be reasons that could justify her refusal--but her refusal is the sort of thing that stands in need of justification, given what might be called the social contract of the marketplace.

The question, then, is what is sufficient to justify her refusal. More precisely, is religious conscience sufficient to justify it?

Here's the problem. Suppose members of a minority group have given up the independence of the homesteader for the advantages of being part of the interdependent market system. They can, if you will, lay claim to the rights that come with participating in the social contract of the marketplace. But suppose their ability to exercise these rights--to access the advantages that come with participation in this system--would be significantly jeopardized were the majority free to discriminate based on their religious conscience. I'm envisioning here a religion whose values endorse a pattern of discriminatory behavior.

In that case, the business owner's presumptive right to act on religious conscience comes into conflict with the minority group's rights arising out of the social contract of the marketplace. And so the state, as an agent of the people collectively, may have a justification for precluding the discriminatory practices. The minority group's rights to equitable access to the goods of the market clash with the individual's claim on being free to act on a conscience that tells them to discriminate.

Do sexual minorities face this kind of situation? Would they be likely to face it in at least some communities were the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to be enforced? If so, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would amount to the state taking a decisive stand against the right to equitable access to the goods of the marketplace in favor of the right to discriminate based on religious conscience. The state would be declaring that certain beneficiaries of a collective social agreement are allowed to behave in ways that deprive others of the promised benefits of that social agreement. And that, I think, would be a violation of the state's overall duties relative to its proper role in society.

This is the framework within which I think we need to think about policies like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What does the act allow in terms of discriminatory behavior? Is there a danger, based on what it allows, that forms of discrimination will become sufficiently common to risk depriving some people of equitable access to the goods of the market--goods they have a presumptive right to expect based on their good faith participation in the system?

I think we could all agree (couldn't we?) that IF the answer to this last question is yes, then laws like the RFRA are unjust. If so, then we should focus our energies on deciding whether the answer is yes.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Religious Extremism: Critiquing a Facebook Meme

There's a (new?) Facebook meme that's crossed my newsfeed recently, one which I think warrants some critical attention. It looks like this:



There are several problems with this meme. Let me list a few.

1. Caricaturing the Left

I've never seen or heard anyone on the political left openly "side" with Muslim extremists--that is, defend the horrors perpetrated by such groups as ISIS or Al Qaeda, or argue that these groups are justified in what they do.

Rather, what I've seen and heard them do is react to sweeping generalizations that impute to all of Islam these horrors, or that strive to hold moderate Islam accountable for Muslim extremists in a way that they don't hold moderate Christians (or Jews) accountable for Christian (or Jewish) extremists.

This is not to say that there don't exist "leftist extremists" who are cheering on ISIS as they lop off Christian heads. But if they exist, they have no reputable public voice in this country--and so I suspect that this meme is really intended to caricature and thereby prematurely dismiss the kind of views I have heard from the political left.

People often hear what their biases tell them to hear, rather than what others are saying. I suspect there are people out there who believe that many moderate voices on the political left are really "leftist extremists" who are "siding with the decapitators" because they don't hear what those voices are actually saying.

The person on the political left says something like the following:
"There are extremists in every faith, and just as we don't stereotype all Christians as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Christianity, so too should we avoid stereotyping all Muslims as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Islam."
But what is heard is this:
"In saying that not all Muslims are extremists, I am defending Islam--which means I'm siding with Muslim extremists. And in saying that there are extremists who act in the name of Christianity, I am criticizing Christianity as a whole, which means I'm siding against Christians."
The above meme invites such an extreme and extremely muddled mistranslation, and hence perpetuates misunderstanding.

2. Framing the problem as a matter of who to side with in an us/them polarization

There's a disturbing us/them theme running through this meme. There's "us": the Jews and Christians who are labeled as extremists for wanting to exercise religious freedom (freedom to pray where we want and to withhold services where our religious conscience tells us to). And then there's them: the Muslims, who really are extremists, who are actually killing people in gruesome ways. And the liberals, by defending the Muslims while criticizing the Jews and Christians, have chosen to side with them.

This way of framing things actually builds on the first issue I talked about. It is clearly and obviously a mistake to compare a conservative Christian baker's refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding with a nominally Islamic extremist's participation in terrorism and murder. Anyone who treats the two as morally comparable is operating with dangerously distorted lenses.

But no one with any publicly credible voice does that. There are many on the left who both criticize the Christian baker and defend the typical Muslim from being wrongly stereotyped based on the actions of extremists. But that is not the same as likening what the Christian baker does to what the ISIS terrorist does, let along siding with the ISIS terrorist over the conservative Christian baker.

The deeper problem here is the tendency to deflate the meaning of "extremism" in the first two examples so as to implicitly suggest that what is identified as Muslim extremism is as common among Muslims as the desire for freedom to act on religious conscience (even in controversial cases) is among Jews and Christians.

Let me be clear: I think Christians who want to withhold their business services from gay and lesbian couples are misconceiving Christian ethics in a way that promotes division and marginalization, thereby undermining the core thrust of Jesus' love ethic. But laws requiring them to provide such service are demanding that they act in ways that violate their sincere beliefs. Not without reason, of course. For the sake of preserving equality of opportunity for a socially marginalized group, it may be necessary to tread on freedom of religious conscience--but if so, to treat this matter as equivalent to invoking the law to keep extremists from beheading their targets does no one any good.

But in a sense, this meme does that very thing. It lifts up, as the paradigm of Christian extremism, something that even the most progressive Christian can understand and (somewhat) sympathize with: the struggle of conscience faced by the Christian baker. By implication, the meme suggest that even the most progressive Muslim is likely to view in a similar light the ISIS foot soldier hacking into the vulnerable neck of an aid worker.

As such, the meme plays into anti-Muslim stereotypes. It draws a sharp line between us and them, between what we are like and what they are like. By portraying "our" extremism as mild and at worst controversial compared with "theirs," the whole Christian and Jewish community is contrasted with Islam as a whole. And since their extremists target us, they are a threat to us. Sides must be taken.

3. Minimizing non-Muslim Extremism

My final point is related to the preceding one. The meme minimizes the extremism of those who self-identify as Christians and Jews for the sake of sharpening the perceived divide between Islam and other religions.

If we're looking for the worst cases of Christian extremism, refusing to bake a cake isn't among them. One might be tempted to point to Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful signs as a better example--or perhaps the isolated acts of those who kill abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. But these Christian extremists operate within the context of a civil society that has been relatively stable since the Civil War. By contrast, ISIS operates in a war-torn region of the world, one heavy-laden with ethnic conflicts which were, for a long time, forcibly suppressed by oppressive regimes.

We can only learn so much from comparing the worst that Christian extremism has produced in the stable environs of contemporary America with the worst that Islamic extremism has produced in the more volatile social, economic, and political climate of the Middle East.

There are better comparisons. And although I'm not a fan of Christopher Hitchens' overall assessment of religion in god is not Great, Hitchens does discuss, in that book, an example that may offer a better basis for comparison: the ethnic violence that tore through the former Yoguslavia after the collapse of its totalitarian communist regime. Hitchens describes the scene that greeted him when he visited the region in 1992:
The mainly Muslim city of Sarajevo had been encircled and was being bombarded around the clock. Elsewhere, in Bosnia-Herzegovina...whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed "ethnic cleansing." In point of fact, "religious cleansing" would have been nearer the mark...In effect, the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, largely spared the public shame of this, because the world's media preferred the simplification of "Croat" and "Serb," and only mentioned religion when discussing "the Muslims."
Hitchens goes on to  further describe what he takes to be the media's glossing-over of religious identities and divisions:
It would have been far more accurate if the press and television had reported that "today the Orthodox Christian forces resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo," or "yesterday the Catholic militia succeeded in collapsing the Stari Most." But confessional terminology was reserved only for "Muslims," even as their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts. 
In Is God a Delusion?, I criticized Hitchens and the other new atheists for failing to distinguish between religion and what I call religionism. There is a difference, I think, between living out a religious faith and using religion as an identity marker to ideologically divide the world between us and them. The latter is what I mean by "religionism," and it's what I think is at work in cases like the violence in the former Yugoslavia. The Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs weren't slaughtering Muslims as an expression of their faith. Rather, they were acting out a divisive us/them ideology, and were invoking Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam as identity markers in their ideology of hate (in much the way that racists invoke "white" and "black" and other racial categories).

And so I think Hitchens is wrong to blame religion for the violence in the former Yugoslavia. But for the same reason, it is wrong to blame religion for the violence perpetrated by ISIS and other groups like them. ISIS and similar groups deserve to be called Islamist extremists only insofar as Islam serves as the identity marker with which they work out their ideology of hate. But if that is what warrants calling them Islamist extremists, then the closest parallel in Christianity--what deserves the corresponding label of "Christian extremism"--may be the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina by nominally Christian Croats and Serbs.

It is quite possible that different religions don't do enough to identify and guard against elements in their theologies and religious practices that lend themselves to extremist interpretations. It is quite possible that Islam can do far more than it has done in this regard. It is even possible that in recent years, Christians or Jews have done better. I don't know. But if so, these concerns need to be raised and addressed in a spirit of solidarity, in which people of all faiths are working together to defeat the problem of extremism, rather than taking sides against each other and seeing extremism as the problem of the other guy.

Because as soon as we do that, we are on our way to embracing the very us/them thinking that leads to extremism.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

AP History Under Fire: Text of a letter to my state legislators

In case you haven't heard, the Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill--HB 1380--that would do away with AP History in Oklahoma. Reproduced below is the text of what I wrote to my legislators. If you live in Oklahoma, I encourage you to write your own letters (you can get help finding out who your legislators are here, although it doesn't give perfect results on the local level). Feel free to share this post or plagiarize the text freely (although you probably want to replace the personal anecdote if you do).


I am writing to urge you to oppose HB 1380, which would replace AP History in Oklahoma with a locally designed alternative. This bill would be bad for the state, and it would be bad for Oklahoma’s students.

AP courses have a long-standing national reputation for academic rigor. A newly-fashioned Oklahoma alternative would not enjoy that status. Successful performance on AP courses and tests enables students not only to prepare for college by undertaking courses of the sort that they will encounter at the college level, but gives these students the opportunity to earn college credit—thereby expanding the options and opportunities they will have for higher education. For example, in my own experience the college credit from my AP courses enabled me to take a semester off in my sophomore year to travel in India with my family and still graduate on time. This experience not only changed my academic trajectory but deepened my understanding of alternative worldviews and cultures in ways that have had a lasting impact on my life.

Part of the reason AP courses can confer college credit and hence provide these opportunities is because the curriculum and learning objectives laid out by the AP program reflect well what experts in the represented disciplines have recognized to be a sound college-level introduction to those disciplines. The motive for HB 1380 springs, on the contrary, from ideology—and in effect is advocating that a course structure which reflects the recommendations of experts in the field of American history be replaced by a course structure that reflects a specific ideological understanding of the American story. In other words, the motive is to render Oklahoma’s high school history classes less academically credible, less scholarly, but more effective at reinforcing a preferred worldview.

Even if many legislators do not see it in these terms, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to see it any other way. Hence, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to recognize the proposed Oklahoma alternative to AP History the way that they do the AP course. In short, were this legislation to pass, it would impose a handicap on all Oklahoma students pursuing college careers. The imposition of such handicaps is the opposite of what a state legislator should be doing. It shamefully prioritizes ideological agendas over the welfare of Oklahoma’s young people.

There is a dangerous tendency for those at the political and ideological extremes to confuse balance for bias. When one is prejudicially wedded to a particular worldview and narrative, the open and critical inquiry essential for sound academic scholarship can be misperceived as biased simply because it fails to prejudicially endorse the favored worldview and narrative over defensible alternatives. If we allow HB 1380 to pass unchallenged, my deepest worry is that it will strike a blow against sound academic scholarship in the state of Oklahoma.

Please do what you can to fight this bill.