The SPIRE – February 2019

Dear Edwards Church Community,

             In a time of hyper-partisan politics, opportunities for division are everywhere. So it came as no surprise when, over the MLK weekend, a controversy erupted regrading a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial among young men from a Catholic high school, a group of African American men calling themselves the Hebrew Israelites, and a Native American veteran. There have been many dissections of the facts, as they come to light, and many analyses by commentators determined to outdo each other.

As of today, the most interesting tidbit to emerge – at least to me – is the report that the House Intelligence Committee has requested information from Twitter about how the first video to be posted went viral so fast. The Twitter account that stoked the controversy was apparently owned by a U.S. citizen – a California Bay Area teacher – who used the picture of a Brazilian media celebrity next to her account name. The account has been suspended.

Lawmakers are investigating the speed with which the controversy escalated online, with a view to preventing the sort of hijacking of the national discourse that took place during the 2016 election. There is no accusation directed at the teacher, but concern about the vulnerability of social media to manipulation.

Fortunately, there are also people like Deeyah Khan, a Muslim American activist and film-maker, who works to promote what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” In a Jan. 14 article on Vox.com1, Khan describes the process that led her to make two documentary films based on interviews she did with White supremacists (White Right: Meeting the Enemy) and jihadists (Jihad: A Story of the Others) to try to understand what really motivates members of those extremist groups:

“I’ve been an anti-racist campaigner pretty much most of my life, having experienced racism from childhood. It’s personal to me, and I’ve responded in all sorts of ways — being angry at racists, shouting at them, confronting them, protesting against them, self-righteously shunning them. I’ve done all that, and I’m not sure what difference it made.

So I wanted to do something I’ve never done before, which is try to see if I could sit down with people who hold views like that and see if it is possible for us to move somewhere from that point, from sitting face to face.

Sitting face-to-face with people who were sure they hated her and all she stood for, Deeyah Kahn found that many white supremacists and jihadist fighters – especially younger recruits – were not nearly as interested in the ideology of those causes as they were in finding a sense of belonging and a source of meaning for their lives. Once they had an experience of being seen and heard – especially by someone they regarded as “the enemy” – they realized their real needs could be fulfilled other ways. They could even be friends with those different looking people!

Kahn is careful to emphasize that this did not happen with all the white supremacists or jihadists she interviewed. She also does not believe it is the responsibility of oppressed people to liberate or “awaken” those who oppress them. Some people are not open to change and will not accept an invitation to understand another human being they consider “the enemy.” Committed extremists in hate groups still need to be peacefully opposed and politically defeated.

But if our goal is building a multi-cultural society that values diversity, then we must also foster a sincere curiosity about each other and strive to cultivate personal connections among individuals with real differences. We need to get out of our bubbles, and be open to learn from and about people different from us. There are vested interests that benefit from emphasizing and exaggerating differences. We have a larger and enlarging interest: “Longing to find the holy in ourselves and others, we listen for God’s still-speaking voice.”




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