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Welcome back! This is part two in a three-part series. In part one, we learned some background information that is crucial to understanding this portion. Here is a link to part one:
After reading Brian McLaren’s articles addressing the need to speak up about extremist Muslims targeting Christians for death, I shared some background with you on my history of personal experience with author and activist Brian McLaren, and initiated this series as a means to personally respond to his suggestions and to invite further discussion and thought on the matter with you, my readers. This series of three posts can serve as a platform where we can begin to speak about the rising tide of religious violence, and engage in meaningful conversation that has the potential, given form and shape by its partakers, to become a profound and guiding philosophy in our present day challenges.
Personally, I had many questions and concerns while reading McLaren’s articles. I hope that in sharing them here, our mutual engagement may advance my own thinking as well as, perhaps, our global consciousness. Here are my responses to part one of Brian’s article:
First, I must say that I agree with Brian’s assertion that the persecution and murder of Christians and other non-Muslims by extremist and terrorist Muslims is appalling. I agree, too, that the lack of reporting, discussing and acting upon these matters is also abhorrent. As Brian explores possible reasons for the relative silence on the matter, he suggests six possible reasons. Here, I review four of the six that, in my view, need further exploration.
First, Brian suggests that people are silent perhaps because we fear being counted as extremists, but that the resultant silence aides and abets extremism and is in itself evil:
“But wrongly and unwisely – many simply remain silent. In so doing, they aid and abet extremism in both Christian and Muslim communities. As Powers stated, quoting Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”
On this point I struggle. With utmost respect to Bonhoeffer, for his dedication to study, to ethical and authentic faith in action, and for this man who died for his convictions opposing Hitler, I shudder to challenge a word of his, yet I must. While Bonhoeffer’s assertion is powerfully compelling and bears great validity, especially in the context he declared it, I stipulate that silence in the face of evil, instead of is itself evil, is better stated can be itself evil. My reasoning? How can we judge what is good or evil based only upon an external examination of the act itself? How are we to judge the internal motive of another, that silence in the face of evil is evil itself, when at times we deceive ourselves of our own motivations? Jesus himself, before his persecutors, at times chose silence. Was this choice inherently evil? I would agree with the reflection of the author of Ecclesiastes, who noted a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7), and in his conclusion, to let God be the judge (Ecclesiastes 12:14). To presume a person’s choice for silence at any given time is evil bears the risk of imposing false guilt. False guilt usually results a vicious cycle of self-defeating behavior.
I should note, here, too, that my definition of evil varies a bit from the norm. Instead of an act of profound immorality, I work from the concept that evil is an internal mindset from which profoundly immoral acts can emerge. This internal mindset can exist in any of us. It can exist as an unchecked thought that belies truth. And what is truth? Another intangible, yet one that rings in our hearts across generations, ethnicity, religions, ages. . . when we hold an infant in our arms. . . when we hold the hand of a dying grandparent. . . when we throw our life in harm’s way to save another. . . the truth we sense in our core, that all people are inherently valuable, despite our faults, that we need love, acceptance, forgiveness, and purpose. This core sense of respect for self, for other, for life, is what moves the heart of mankind forward. If, however, a heart broods disrespect of life, if a mind doubts it is loved, accepted, forgiven, if an attitude disregards the purpose of our lives or the lives of others (which can happen in any of us, at any time), then we are likely to act in a way that brings harm rather than good. The action may appear on the surface to be good, but is a whitewashed tomb.
To act upon McLaren’s or Bonhoeffer’s proclamation (silence in the face of evil is itself evil) without examining internal beliefs carries potential to render any resultant action tainted by further evil. The reader’s subconscious sense of guilt (“Oh no, I can’t remain silent or I’ll be evil too, an accomplice!”) can thus become motivation to speak up prematurely and, as a result, become a voice of reaction rather than response–with the potential to become extremist on the other end of the spectrum. Speaking up from a motive of false guilt, from a motive of shame or fear of being evil, can produce another form of evil. It is easy to imagine a person with this internal process springing into an oppositional extreme reaction (i.e., “Nuke ’em!”) (Yes, that 80’s expression popular in the anti-Iran hostage era is back, I’ve heard it more than you’d imagine lately!). We do well to beware the conquering hero, rising up to lead a posse against foe, all the while feeding off his followers’ adoration to reinforce to himself that he is not the failure his father proclaimed him to be.
As we sense God’s Spirit searching our hearts for motive, may we seek to purge our minds of fear, hatred, and revenge. May we seek the internal place where we are loved, accepted and forgiven; the place where we are infused with purpose, equipped to action and empowered to love. From a wellspring of positive regard for humanity we can act with mature, balanced responses to address the most heinous crimes. We can forge solutions that support long-term healthy relationships. For within us lies the capacity to act out of either motive, at any time. . . and it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking our motives are pure, no matter the action.
The next area of Brian’s six points that I want to discuss is the fourth point, in which he ponders the association between our western way of life (as oil-dependent) and our willingness to silently suffer offenses to mankind in exchange for oil. Though I respect Brian’s willingness to bear corporate guilt by association, I think it is a far stretch. We are dependent upon oil out of necessity for transport to work, medical care, food-shopping and such. Our leaders might turn a blind eye to the extremists’ slaughter of non-Muslims while making deals to secure oil products, but to suggest common working people would agree to exchange a head for a gallon of gas is, simply, too much. My question here, will Brian’s suggestion of corporate responsibility serve to further motivate our action from a sense of false guilt? If so, I propose a better motive than guilt–loving concern.
Speaking of loving concern, and truth, as reader Ben pointed out in a comment to Excuse me, Part 1, issues related to oil and America’s involvement in the Mid-East from decades past are an important part of the current dilemma, and issues of variances in underlying beliefs go back thousands of years. Though I don’t excuse religious executions, understanding historical culpability on both sides of the dispute is essential to forging lasting solutions.
In his fifth point, Brian suggests “we have experienced paralysis as a result of a superficial analysis.” He suggests that a superficial analysis, labeling Muslims as evil, facilitates our dismissing further thought on the matter. This reasoning does not add up for me; I need further explanation. When a ‘bad guy’ comes to our attention, we usually take action to imprison or somehow stop them. I don’t understand how labeling Muslims as evil would lead anyone to dismiss further thought or action. Enlighten me, please?
The sixth and final point in part one of Brian’s post is the most plausible, in my view: We don’t know what can be done practically. Now, this is realistic! In our society, where economics force many of us to work long hours and more than one job, where political parties tie up meaningful legislation with hidden, manipulative ploys, where one party’s folly becomes the next party’s fault, where one “unbiased” news station reports the exact opposite of another and internet sources are about as reliable as snake oil peddlers, who has the time and the resources to effectively battle this distant enemy? I would venture to guess that most of us would love to get onboard with sensible, realistic, practical responses to these inhumane killings.
If only we had such a thing.
Please share your responses and stay tuned for part three, where we begin to work toward such a thing. In the next installment, we will examine McLaren’s proposed solutions to this dilemma and, again, continue to process our thoughts, motives and choices for action.
Thanks for reading,
Joan T. Warren
Related links, pro- and con-: