Saturday, February 07, 2015

Instead of Offense, Lament: How one believing Christian is responding to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech

Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (R) just declared me offended. In response to President Obama’s comments about the presence of religious extremism and violence in Christianity as well as Islam, Gilmore declared that, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

I consider myself a believing Christian, but I did not find myself becoming offended. Instead, I felt the deep need to lament.

I need to lament the ways my faith has been used to justify oppression; lament the ways my country has failed to live up to its highest ideals; lament the fear and pain so many have felt in this country at the hands of people who said they were acting in the name of Jesus.

Of course, Christianity has also been part of wonderful things (abolition, civil rights, development and charity around the world), and, as a Christian, I will wholeheartedly say that those who used the Bible and Christian teaching to justify slavery, racism, lynching, and other forms of terrorism, were really twisting our religion. I embrace what is reflective of our faith and reject its distortions. Just as so many are saying that about ISIS and Islam.

At the same time, I know that there were Christians offended by Obama’s remarks. One good friend of mind wrote on Facebook:

Friend: “I listened to Obama's speech and I was annoyed. Everyone wants to be politically correct and put all the religions on equal footing. Of course there have been abuses in Christian history but Obama has a tin ear for relating to evangelicals. I resent being implicitly compared to ISIS. The prayer breakfast is supposed to be a bridge building moment not a moment for the Christian religious community to be publically spanked for really old offenses.”

I replied and we got into a good back-and-forth on Facebook that another friend said she appreciated. She asked if I would post it on my blog, so here’s the somewhat-edited exchange I had with this friend. After her comment above, I answered:

ME: Personally, I think it is odd to say that you feel you're being compared to ISIS. You did not own slaves or support segregation or lynch people. He's saying that people claiming to be acting in Christ's name did these things, just as ISIS, claiming to be acting in the name of Allah, do horrible things. I see him comparing ISIS to lynch mobs and racists, neither of which I am (or you are.)

But if we're going to say that ISIS is somehow representative of Islam, then we need to be prepared to acknowledge lynchmobs and segregationists as representative of Christianity. I think most of us are quick to say, "But that's not real Christianity." Lynch mobs and segregationists did quote scripture and go to church, so we need to say they're doing it wrong, no matter what they say. But then some U.S. people are very comfortable saying that ISIS really is representative of Islam because they're quoting the Quran and being pious. And then we pull out Quranic verses to prove our point. Same as the KKK does to prove racism from the Bible.

Obama is just saying that we should be able to believe those millions of muslims who say ISIS is not Islam, if we also want to say that the KKK is not Christianity.

Friend: I wouldn't say ISIS is the true representation of Islam. But when Obama said, "Lest we get on our high horse..." I felt like he was addressing the room and contemporary Christians. (Maybe I'm wrong). Also if you're saying I didn't have anything to do with those old offenses perpetrated in the name of Christ, why should I need to lament? Ok- one more thing, I think that ALL religions should have equal freedoms under the law but I don't think they should all lumped together like they are the same thing.

Me: I think he was addressing the room, and putting himself along the Christians there ("Lest we…"). So he was offering a caution to think that the sort of horror done by ISIS could never be done by those claiming to be Christians.

Lament, however, is not the same as apology or repentance. I don't believe so much in the historical apology or giant cultural repentance, because I often think it's kind of phony. But I do believe in acknowledging with people when horrible things have happened - things that were done by people (so not the earthquake sort of tragedy) - that the proper Christian response is sorrow and sharing the pain of those who have suffered.

The Crusades are pretty remote, but there are families around today that lost grandfathers, uncles, grandmothers, sisters, etc. to lynch mobs. there are a LOT of people in our country who had their land, property, and dignity taken by people who claimed the Bible gave them the right to discriminate and oppress. I think as a Christian, the best thing I can do is acknowledge the pain and mourn with those who mourn.

So when Obama, or anyone, reminds us of our nation's legacy, the pain we've caused one another, I am called to lament, rather than try to defend those who did such things, or dismiss it as irrelevant. (Not that I'm saying you're doing either of those thing, but I've heard lots of outrage in the media that Obama brings these things up. I just think outrage is not the right response.)

Friend: I'm just saying that I feel like there is an impulse to talk about religions as if they are all equally peaceful or equally violent.

Me: As an anthropologist, I don't think we can say religions are "peaceful" or "violent." There's so much that could be (has been!) taken from the Bible to justify horrible violence. Do we say that's just "not Christianity?" I mean, Calvinists were pretty violent toward the Anabaptists (drowning them and the like.) And Luther said it was all right for the German princes to kill more than 100,000 peasants to crush a revolt that Luther partly inspired. I don't think we want to say Calvinists and Lutherans aren't Christians.

I think it's wrong, bad exegesis, and all the rest when people use the bible to do bad stuff, but it's still Christianity. Islam is a pretty diverse religion, with more adherents in Indonesia than any other country. There are the Sufis throughout the world (kind of like mystical monk types.) There are fundamentalist Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Islamic Feminists in Egypt and a lot of other folks all over the place.

Karen Armstrong has recently published a book arguing that so-called religious violence is really always political. People just use religion to justify their cause. I'd have to think a bit more to see if I can think of exceptions, but I'm inclined to think she's right.

I will say, though, to your point about religions being the same, I totally agree. They're not the same. I don't think Obama was implying that, but some people do try to suggest that all religious are *actually* just saying the same thing in different ways. And that's just silly.


I don’t imagine the conversation is over, but that’s where it is for now. I’m glad to have friends who will engage, and personally glad to have a President who says things that are hard to hear. But whether we think his comments were made well, or in the right venue, or just the perfect thing, I hope Christians can agree that our faith is maligned not when someone points out historical events, but by those who have actually committed acts of hateful violence in the name of Christ. We can agree that it has happened in the past, and will likely happen in the future. And we can agree that whenever, and wherever it happens, we must join those who suffer in lament.

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