Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Beyond Religious Persecution in an Age of Intolerance

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day | August 15, 2010
Micah 6:6-8 | Luke 4:16-19

The recent uproar about the proposal to build a new mosque known as Cordoba House near the former site of the twin towers in New York City has given me pause about the nature of religious tolerance in our nation. The mayor of New York City and over 60 percent of local residents approve building the mosque several blocks from the 911 site, but other residents and groups vehemently oppose its construction.

Since the 911 attacks, people of Middle Eastern descent, Arabs and Muslims have been stigmatized and persecuted in America. Assaults on Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent have ranged from outright physical violence, to defacement of homes, businesses and mosques, to more subtle forms of discrimination such as road blocking new mosque construction in places where they have owned property or purchased land. Much of the resistance is rooted in fear and the desire to stop the spread of Islam. Numerous Americans contend that all Muslims and Arabs are terrorists and should not be granted the civil liberties given to other American citizens. Many residents of these communities are afraid that mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists which fans the flames of a new Islamophobia.

Such persecution, which began long before 911 and has been on the rise since,  often escapes the scrutiny of national and local media.

Much of the indignation about mosque building in local communities is rooted in fear and has come from hate filled, far right wing political groups, some racist Christian groups, and community and political groups and some people backing  the Tea party movement.

A local newspaper revealed that local citizens are mounting fervent opposition to new mosques being built in Murfreesboro Tennessee, Georgia, Staten Island New York and other parts of the country. Three basic issues I want to discuss today about this problem that really concerns me as a Christian and as a pastor who loves America and is concerned about the mistreatment of its citizens.

First, is the unfair manner in which Arabs and Muslims have been broad brushed and demonized as terrorists. I believe this to be immoral and unjust.

Second, is how Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent have been denied their basic human and first amendment rights as American citizens. I believe this to not only be unjust but unconstitutional.

Third is how some Christian groups and other religious and political organizations have fomented religious ignorance through their own campaigns of hate. I believe this to be immoral and unchristian.

Beloved, let me remind you today, that religion should ultimately be used to promote peace, justice, unity, understanding and compassion among people and that includes people of other religious faiths and not used as a wedge or cudgel to polarize, demonize and bludgeon others into oblivion for different religious points of view.

Christianity should lead the way in promoting religious tolerance, broadening peoples’ understanding of the importance of unity and coexistence by educating people, and not used as a weapon to destroy and alienate others because of their belief systems. Far too often religion is wrongfully used as a weapon to create dissent, strife and disunity among people rather than as a gift to help promote compassion and understanding among different groups of people. People of various religious persuasions can agree to disagree on the various tenets of our various religions but should not alienate and annihilate each other in the name of God for those beliefs.

I. The Demonizing of all Arabs and Muslims as Terrorists.

This problem is evidenced in the recent opposition to Muslims building Mosques and much of the resistance is based on fear, ignorance and negative stereotypes of people. Professor Natsu Saito says the following: ”

Arab Americans and Muslims have been ”raced” as terrorists”: foreign, disloyal and imminently threatening. Although Arabs trace their roots back to the Middle East and claim many different religious backgrounds, and Muslims come from all over the world ••• these distinctions are blurred and negative images about either Arabs or Muslims are often attributed to both. As Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations notes, “The common stereotypes is that we are all Arabs, we’re all violent and we’re all conducting a holy war. ”

“The discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in the United States, accompanied by harsh legal measures directed at them began well before the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It can be traced to popular stereotypes, years of myth making  by film and media, racism during times of national crisis, and a campaign to build political support for US Foreign Policy in the Middle East.”

A recurring problem in this society is the spurious manner in which we broad brush entire groups of people that we fear, hate or lack knowledge of by writing them off and dismissing them almost as non persons because of the misdeeds of a few. We do this too often in our inter group relations which is one of our most egregious sins as a nation. The misdeeds and missteps of a few people within a group compel us to stereotype all the people within that group. Thus too often categorically condemn people without ever getting to know or understand them. We devalue and demean them so as to never have to really know or deal honestly with them.

This process of socialization is part of the tribal history of human kind; a part of America’s group think and collective consciousness and while we know that human beings tend to discriminate against people they consider different and gravitate to people with whom they have things in common, we too often do this without ever getting to know them which limits our capacity to build genuine human community. Coexisting in community with people who are like us is one thing. Developing genuine community with people who are different is another. So rather than get to know people who are different, we dismiss them as persona non grata.

Rather than build bridges to greater compassion and understanding, we demean and devalue people that we do not like. So we broad brush blacks, whites, Asians and Native American people. We stigmatize Jews, Arabs, Muslims, poor and rich people. We marginalize and demonize same gender loving people and put dehumanizing labels on them. We do this at great peril in our nation, which not only runs against everything that God desires for us as God’s people, but runs counter to everything for which America should truly stand. It is also a sign of lazy thinking which epitomizes the kind of ignorance and low information that ails us and keeps us hidden and suspicious behind the walls and enclosures of hatred and fear.

This kind of thinking and behaving goes against community consensus building across racial, ethnic and religious lines. It undermines our capacity to view ourselves as extensions of each other and what God desires of us as the family of God. We need understanding that dispels ignorance and fear among us and thus every religious belief system should contain a system of values that will encourage its believers to help make the world better place in which to live not only for its adherents but for all people. A quintessential goal of religions should be the  elimination of those human, social and cultural barriers that get in the way of our true understanding of each other; to eradicate problems and promote unity and harmony not only with people who think alike but people who don’t think alike; not only people within our group but also people outside of our group.

We need compassion that overcomes  and overrides the apathy and antipathy so characteristic of religious and public discourse and  human interaction. We need to broaden our learning capacities and strive for higher consciousness and true spiritual enlightenment. If our religion is not strong enough to allow us to coexist with people who are different than us; or help us think beyond the logical limits, prejudices and constraints of our thinking then what good is our religion? Part of religious belief is rooted in the idea of Transcendence; the notion that there is a reality within and beyond our selves in which we strive for greater compassion and understanding. As religious believers we are striving to learn and understand the universe around and beyond us, which means reaching out to people with whom we may not know or quite understand. It should help us dispel stereotypes.

Thus all Muslims are not terrorists. All Christians are not raptured. All black people are not criminals. All natives are not alcoholics. All white people are not racists. We must go beyond these debilitating stereotypes and see persons as they truly are; children of God. We must exceed the labels and boxes and dehumanizing categories in which we conveniently and quixotically place people. When we broad brush people in such an unstudied and irresponsible manner; when we put horns instead of halos on entire groups of people; when we demonize entire religions and excoriate different people who have different thinking, we contribute to the ignorance and violence that perpetuates havoc and separation in our world. Too often see the horns or halo syndrome in our society.” We put horns on people that we do not like and never acknowledge the good that they do. We put halos on people that we do like and never see the evil that they do.”

What we honestly need is not more division, ignorance, hatred and strife but more unity, compassion, understanding, intelligence.  Religious belief should help to bring about a better world, where swords can be made into plowshares and the lions can live in community with lambs.

We must learn to exceed broad brushed labeling, the categorical condemnation of whole groups of people for the missteps of a few people in that group. Just by that kind of thinking, we would advance the human race in one great leap of faith. It is how we have been taught to interpret people, things and reality that make a difference. It is how we have been taught to respond to people, things and reality that tells others who we really are. It is all about interpretation; how we analyze and respond to others; to see them as they truly are and not simply as we are. That’s why I have cautioned you even in our religious interpretation of the bible to refrain from such categorical broad brushing that leads to the demonizing of groups of people. I had to admonish a person some years ago when he said that another church member thought like a Pharisee. Here is an example of broad brushing that leads to over generalizing. Because Jesus had some issues with a few Pharisees does not mean that the entire group was a problem. But this is what we do. We take a few people out of the group and make them representative of the entire group which is wrong. This is wrong and we should stop doing this because it betrays our true ignorance and is not reflective of true spiritual enlightenment which is something for which we should all strive.

This tendency is aided by stereotypes disseminated in the media. When Arabs, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent are voodoo-ized and bedeviled small wonder we carry these images in our minds. Look at how the media portrays Middle Easterners, Hispanics, Hispanic women, blacks and other groups. It is shameful and dishonest and it needs to end. Accordingly I had a discussion some years back about black stereotypes in the media. Our conversation turned to how in the 1930’s and 1940’s blacks in Hollywood were portrayed as maids and butlers. I talked about what a great performance Hattie McDaniel gave in Gone with the Wind for which she won an Academy Award. The response was that she just played, mammy, the poor old maid. I cautioned this person to go back and see that movie and how Hattie executed that role. She was not a typical fawning, sycophantic, obsequious maid, but played that role with strength, intelligence and sass. She had a mind of her own and had been with that family long enough to give them curt instruction when she thought them wrong. She got Scarlet “told” and a few other folks “told” in that movie. Her role as a maid did not prevent her from playing her character with morality, dignity and strength. She broke ground by shattering the stereotype of the jocular, happy, mindless maid reminiscent of shiftless movie portrayals of blacks since slavery. When criticized for playing such roles she said, “I d rather play a maid for $700 dollars a week than be a maid for $7 a week.” My point is here was a woman who lived in a society that had demeaned and stereotyped her but she fought against the stereotype by playing against type; she played that role with dignity, intelligence and strength.

The same can be said for Morgan Freeman who was caricatured and criticized for his role in Driving Miss Daisy. He was a chauffeur but he had strength, dignity and honor. At times he chided Miss Daisy and got her politely told without crossing the line of respectability. At a time when black men were lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way in a culture of repression and silence, to speak let alone admonish one’s master was not only bold but also could mean sudden death.

We too must break the stereotypes through dignity, honor, intelligence and strength. We must play against type. We must shatter those myths that reduce us to something less than who we truly are as children of the most high God. The stereotyping, broad brushing and categorical condemnation in our society is wrong. To say that all Arabs are Muslims are terrorists is wrong. There were Muslims that died in those twin towers on 911. There are Muslims and Arabs who are good law abiding citizens. There are Muslims and Arabs who have fought, bled and died for freedom for America.

In every group, ethnic, racial or religious group, there are people who fit the stereotype, but that image is not representative of the entire group. In every religious group there are fundamentalists or fanatics that use the cover of religion to perpetrate their misdeeds. In every religious group there are always fringe elements that give the group a bad name. And we must remember to be more discerning in these matters. Do not fall into the political trap of demonizing an entire religion because of the misdeeds of few people who claim to be members of that group.

Have you read the Koran? Do you know the meaning of Jihad on a personal spiritual level as it relates to moving towards personal empowerment and true spiritual enlightenment and not simply as Holy War against the infidels as some have represented in the media? Do you know the true meaning of Jihad? Do you know that Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet along with Moses and others?

This viewpoint differs from the Christian religion, but the religions of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam delineate various interpretations of Jesus. They believe what they believe and you believe what you believe. Is that sweat from your back or puts “shame in your game?” Do those differences in viewpoint warrant alienation from each other or create a means of finding religious common ground? Where is the study, intelligence and clear thinking that should guide our actions. Where is true spiritual enlightenment which should be a hallmark of true religion and spiritual practice?

Furthermore, did you know that Judaism is the spiritual parent of Christianity? What do Christians know about Judaism? Do you know that in order to properly interpret the New Testament you must discern as Bart Ehrman has observed between the religion that Jesus preached and the religion that preaches Jesus? We must resist these categorical condemnations and dismissals of whole groups of people. That is too convenient and too easy. That lets us off the hook of enlightened and intelligent thinking which should be the byproduct of religious thought. We must avoid the low information propaganda and thinking that prejudices our true understanding of people and reality.

II. The Denial of Basic Human Rights to Arabs and Muslims as American Citizens.

Now I might say something that might upset some of you. But it is truth. As your teacher I must give you truth. We keep judging whether people should have basic human rights in this country on the basis of religion and other external things such the color of their skin, gender or sexual orientation rather than on the Constitution of the United States of America. Religion should provide some ethical or moral basis for reality. But you don’t need religion to be moral as Professor James Gustafson from the University of Chicago pointed out years ago in his book, “Can Ethics Be Christian?” You can be a moral or ethical person without being a religious person.

Now as American citizens should Muslims be allowed to build Mosques on property they have purchased or buy land and build mosques in other communities? Do they have first amendment rights? Should they be denied rights on the basis of their religion or the wrongful or rightful interpretation of that religion? Should they be denied the right to enjoy their rights as religious believers even when a few fanatics within that religion violate its true principles and claim it as wholly representative of the entire religion? What does the Constitution say about the basic human rights of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims as American citizens? That is the question. The question is not whether their religious points of view square with our own. The question is not whether a few bad apples should determine the outcome and destiny of an entire religion. The question is not how they dress or how many times a day they pray. The question is what basic human rights they are entitled to as American citizens? Is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a part of their lot as American citizens or should we deny them those rights because we suspect them all to be terrorists?

Yes we want protection and safety in our land. No we do not want terrorism in any form or fashion. We don’t want to be harmed by any form of terrorism whatever ideology, philosophy or theology it presents itself. But we also do not want to be subject to any form of religious intolerance from any religion that leads to persecution in any form and that includes fringe, fanatical, racist and homophobic so called Christian groups that boycott the funerals of gay soldiers who have bled and died in Americas wars, that includes any group that uses religion as a smoke screen for violence, hatred and persecution of any people in any form. That includes all religions that subscribe to mayhem and violence that maim people, kill people and destroy and alienate people in the name of God because they are different or because a few fanatical factions within that religion have misinterpreted, misapplied and misused scriptures to annihilate and kill entire groups of people within or outside of that group. As freedom loving and community building people we should all be on guard against such intolerance and fanaticism in whatever religion or form it comes.

So now in this current climate do we just look the other way and say it is ok to persecute Arabs and Muslims and deny them their basic human rights? Should we deny their rights to build mosques in America? Because if we allow this to happen with them what makes us think that it will not happen to us? Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The issue is to what rights are they entitled as American citizens notwithstanding their religious beliefs.

We have had a dark history in this country of taking the Constitution ( and the Bible for that matter) and using it to justify slavery, to obstruct women’s right to vote, deny the right of unions to organize, deny black Americans and other Americans their basic rights as free people in a free country. We have had a history of this practice and we need to just cease because it is in violation of the constitution and higher moral laws. We use everything we can to prevent people from enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and constitutionally speaking this is just wrong!!! We use religion to discriminate, mistreat and oppress other people and this is wrong. Religion should not be used as a cudgel or as an instrument to alienate and annihilate people because they are different. If Christians have the right to religious freedom. Then Muslims and even atheists should have the same rights as American citizens. This is the Constitution. This, like it or not, is the Holy Grail of American Democracy. We should not be allowed to prevent people from enjoying their rights because of our suspicions about them and our demonizing of them. This is what the true terrorists want. They want us to turn against each other and throwaway all of our rights as free people in a democracy. They want us to pick and choose who should be free and who should not be free, rather than let the blanket of freedom fall freely on all of us. To deny Muslims the right build Mosques will inspire the real terrorists to keep up their assault on American freedom. For the more they can maim, kill and destroy, the more they can abbreviate and terminate the true essence of democracy. God help us if we do. You may disagree with this, but if you do, you are disagreeing with your fundamental right as a free citizen in this country.

III. Beyond Religious Intolerance

I am always concerned about how some Christian conservatives can lead the charge on discrimination and the discrimination against Muslims. They promulgate and instigate division out of fear and ignorance and also for political reasons to appeal to their constituents. I am always unnerved about how people read the Bible, misinterpret various biblical texts and then use those texts to promote, fear, injustice, discrimination and violence against others. This is a misuse of scripture and a misapplication of the Christian faith. History is replete with such examples.

None of us is perfect. We are all flawed and fallible in the interpretation and application of our various religious belief systems. Some of us think that we are more perfect than others and we use it as a cudgel to beat down those less perfect. That is why some people say that in order to ultimately judge the value and worth of any religion, we must judge it by the principles it espouses rather than exclusively on the people who practice it. But what other way can we judge the efficacy and potency of a religion accept by the people who practice it?

My point is we cannot take certain people in Christianity and hold them up as paragons or representatives of the entire religion any more than we can do that for Muslims or Jews or people of any other faith. There are always disparate and almost fanatical or fundamental elements in any faith community, who harbor prejudice, promote division, elicit fear and do more to divide and conquer the people than they do to unite and heal them. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago conducted a study on religious fundamentalism years ago that is must reading on this subject.

I say that this fanaticism if you will feeds into the purposes of people who want to destroy American democracy which is what the terrorists want. They want further polarization among various religious groups to justify their claim that America has declared war on Islam. They don’t want Muslims, and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Confucianists and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists and others to come together as Americans to have unity and dialogue because it threatens their divide and conquer strategies of America as a nation. Can we not come to the table and talk to people of other religious faiths without fear of them, without condemning or judging them because they don’t share our beliefs. Can we come together to talk without contesting what religion is better than the other? Can I listen to your religious point of view without engaging in debate about who is right and who is wrong. We get nowhere when we do this. Let me be done now. I have gone on far too long on this subject.

Needed in this country is unity and dialogue that dispels ignorance and fear. What we need is religious and spiritual enlightenment to help understand that whatever our religious points of view, we are entitled to live them and believe them as by the Constitution of the United States. In fact that document is more progressive than some religious belief systems because it takes into account the freedom of people to be different; the freedom of people to practice or not practice whatever religion they chose or whatever religion chooses them; the freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without being condemned, ostracized or repudiated.

The Constitution of the United States guarantees our basic human rights and that includes the right to build mosques and other Islamic institutions in America like Cordoba House. The more we have dialogue the more we have understanding. The more have understanding the more we dispel fear and ignorance. When Christianity is used to prevent the proliferation of right and freedoms of people who are different, then Christianity is used as tool or weapon of those who hate freedom and promote injustice in our land. We must not subscribe to the fear that imprisons us. We must build bridges to understanding that will help forge common ground in our time.

God bless America!!!


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