Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Tragedy of Orlando

By now we are all familiar with the tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where fifty people died and an equal number of people were injured, many of them seriously. This nightclub was a sanctuary for gay people, a place where they felt safe. That security was shattered in the wee hours of the night. As I am writing this, it appears that some of the injured may not survive and the total of the dead may increase. The perpetrator was among the dead. This was the deadliest mass shooting ever in the US.

The tragedy extends far beyond the victims, who were predominantly gay males . It also includes their families. In fact, the circle of those who are affected by this tragic event extends to everyone in the LGBTQ community, They are among the groups that are affected more than others.

This tragedy has exposed many fault lines in US society. These fault lines are so deep that they can hardly be bridged any more. Some examples are: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and gun control. None of them show any signs of improving; quite to the contrary, in fact.

The polarization that characterizes US society has intensified even further as a result of the Orlando killings. Donald Trump has contributed to  that polarization in the comments he made immediately afterwards. Fortunately, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have dome what they could to mitigate the damage that Trump has caused. Both have called for greater control of the purchase of guns by those who have been radicalized, but this call is falling on deaf ears.

Trump called for preventing all Muslims from coming to the US. By doing this he was feeding the Islamophobia that has rocketed him to be the presumptive candidate of the Republican party for the presidency. Trump sows fear and he reaps violence. No wonder the NRA supports him. The fear that such killings generate leads inevitably to an increase in gun sales. The Orlando shootings are no exception.

Omar Mateen was apparently a deranged individual who had planned his killing spree for a long time. The rifle he used in the shooting was not an AR-15, as was earlier claimed, but a Sig Sauer MCX rifle that he had legally purchased. He was a US citizen of Afghan descent. Afghanistan isa country well known for its homophobia.

No one knows for certain why Mateen attacked the Pulse club, but homophobia is indeed a strong candidate. His father stated that the shootings were not about his son’s religion, but that his son became very angry after seeing two men kissing in Miami months ago. He clearly blames the killings on homophobia. Thee are numerous reports that Mateen had been seen many times at the Pulse. He may have been casing the place, but many who saw him allege that he himself was gay.

There are other factors as well. Mateen called 911 just before the shooting and said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS issued a statement calling Mateen an "Islamic state fighter," But this does not mean that he was part of ISIS. He seems to have had little knowledge of the many jihadist groups.

There are mixed reports about the level of his religiosity. Some suggest he preferred working out to studying religion. He certainly was not the first terrorist to cite Islam as justification for his actions while apparently being somewhat confused about the religion.

Trump capitalized on the alleged ISIS connection by calling for an intensifying the struggle against "radical Islam." He berated Obama and Clinton for their unwillingness to use that term. Trump later upped the ante by calling Obama a "Negro" and a "half-breed." Now Trump has added racism to the already volatile Islamophobia.

The Pulse Nightclub shootings can be blamed on a sad combination of homophobia on the part of Mateen and his self-proclaimed connection to ISIS, which is what Trump and others have capitalized on. The IRA again has benefited from Americans from both major parties who are deeply divided on how to respond to these latest killings. Guns can bridge over fear and provide a semblance of courage, but they are not the solution.

Christians too are divided. Some have identified with the LGBTQ community that seemed to be Mateen's target, They have participated in vigils commemorating the Orlando massacre in many cities all over the world. But others prefer to ignore the LGBTQ connection, except by using it to justify their dismissal of that community as evil and sinful, one that does not deserve a place in Christian churches.

The latter response is often characterized as typical of Trump supporters and of those who are opposed to gun control. Yet here are also many Christians who do not fit into either category, They are uncertain how to respond to these issues.

One one the hand, they want to respond in love and reject the voices that trumpet fear and put their trust in guns, and also acknowledge LGBTQ people; on the other hand, they are afraid to openly side with that community because those who oppose LGBTQ control the levers of power im many churches and have declared it evil and sinful.

That is where my own denomination finds itself at the moment. I doubt that other denominations differ greatly since similar issues are now being debated in their assemblies as well. In view of this division, how should Christians respond?

I suggest that Christians must begin by mourning those who lost their lives in Orlando, and include all those as well who are pained by the rejection they experience at the hands of fellow believers. When LGBTQ people are being murdered why can Christians not stand with them in their time of need and, indeed, identify with the entire LGBTQ community?

You may have heard this statement: "First they came ..."  This is part of a provocative poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. One of the many versions reads as follows:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
LGBTQ needs people, whether Christian or not, to stand with them against those who want to rid the world of them, just as the Nazis did with Jews, gypsies and others who were deemed subhuman. Trump represents that type of reprehensible thinking.

However, when you support the LGBTQ community, don't qualify it in any way, by suggesting that you accept them but you cannot accept same-sex marriage. Love -- true or agapic love -- must be unconditional. Such love leaves no room for qualifications. You cannot say to your spouse or your children: "I love you, but . . ."

As Christians, we must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. The problem we are facing isn’t a gun problem or a security problem. It’s a hate problem, a problem born of sin. The problem is that there are human beings out there that hate other human beings so much, that they kill them. That was Mateen's problem. He himself was killed in the aftermath.

That was also the problem of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, who together planned to steal a truck and kill the owner. They happened to select Tim Bosma, a 32-year old husband, and father. A court has just found them guilty and sentenced them to a minimum of 25 years in prison. 

God loves and cherishes life because he is the creator of life. He created all of us in his image. He loves all of us. He loves us with an unconditional love. We too must love with an unconditional love.

Jesus wept and so must as well. We must weep for all those who are suffering in our world today. To love everyone in the whole world is impossible, of course. But we must love our neighbor, also our LGBTQ neighbor.

Even those who disagree with how LGBTQ people live are called to love them unconditionally. Such love should force them to change their opinion about such people, otherwise their love would false and they would not really love their neighbor. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The faith of Muhammad Ali

I have taken another short leave from blogging. Occasionally, I have still posted something, but for the most part I refrained from regular postings -- a sort of fasting. This has nothing with Ramadan, which has just started, but it is motivated by the many other demands on my time at this time of year as well as a desire to recharge my spiritual batteries. I hope to return to more frequent postings after a short intermission.

Muhammad Ali needs no further introduction. The media have been filled with articles about him. The day he died, TV and radio reports of his demise were almost non-stop. While not unexpected, his death, nevertheless, came as a shock. "The Greatest" was gone. "The Louisville Lip" had been silenced forever. This icon of many worlds had disappeared for good.

Many people will remember him for his boxing prowess. He has been rated variously as either the number one or two heavyweight boxer of all time. Others will cite his role in the civil rights movement. But for me, his faith has always piqued my interest.

Ali was born Cassius Marcelius Clay Jr. in 1942. His father was a Methodist who permitted his mother to raise him as a Baptist. At the age of twenty, he first came into contact with the Nation of Islam, although he was not admitted as a member immediately. When he was, it was publicized and he was renamed Muhammad Ali. He retained that name the rest of his life.

He remained a Muslim for the rest for the rest of his life as well. His new faith became important for him, much more important that his earlier faith was. That has much to do with the Nation of Islam and its beliefs. For Ali, Christianity was the religion of white people. His new new faith expressed that he was Black. "Cassius Clay is my slave name," he announced.

He explained: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." These comments are a selfie of the man he had become after his conversion: a confident and cocky black man whose new religion accurately expressed him.

The Nation Of Islam (aka Black Muslims) has had a stormy past. Founded by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in 1930, it has included Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan, among its leaders. The Nation of Islam was founded to "teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced."

From the beginning, the Nation of Islam was a political movement that preached black supremacy. Elijah Muhammad called for the establishment of a separate nation for black Americans and the adoption of a religion based on the worship of Allah and on the belief that blacks were his chosen people. Whites, and even some blacks, however, viewed it as a black separatist "hate religion" with a propensity toward violence.

Ali used his influential voice to speak on behalf of the Nation of Islam. In a press conference he articulated his opposition to the Vietnam War: "My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong." In relation to integration, he stated: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all." And about inter-racial marriage, he said: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters."

By the mid-seventies, there was a movement to transition the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali himself converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 and later to Sufism, leaving behind some of the stranger doctrines of the Nation of Islam, such as the Moon once being a part of the Earth, and the Earth is over 76 trillion years old.

Pointing to Islam, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector. He stated: "War is against the teachings of the Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger [Elijah Muhammad]. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers." He famously stated: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." He elaborated: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

Ali's example inspired countless black Americans and many other Americans. Recalling Ali's anti-war position, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: "I remember the teachers at my high school didn't like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent ... made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him."

Ali also inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been reluctant to address the Vietnam War for fear of alienating the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda. Now, King began to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.

Civil rights figures came to believe that Ali had an energizing effect on the freedom movement as a whole. Al Sharpton spoke of his bravery at a time when there was still widespread support for the Vietnam War:
For the heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved the highest level of athletic celebrity, to put all of that on the line – the money, the ability to get endorsements – to sacrifice all of that for a cause, gave a whole sense of legitimacy to the movement and the causes with young people that nothing else could have done. Even those who were assassinated, certainly lost their lives, but they didn't voluntarily do that. He knew he was going to jail and did it anyway. That's another level of leadership and sacrifice.

Ali being Ali, he may well have adopted his antiwar stance without converting to Islam, but Islam did help to shape his thinking about war and to make him even more resolved to use his fame to promote the cause of black Americans and to resistance to white domination.

In 1966, when Ali refused to be conscripted into the US military, he cited his religious beliefs and his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. The US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. His actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

In spite of his prowess in the boxing ring and his struggle on behalf of the civil rights movement, there was one battle he did not win. Ali was unable to defeat the Parkinson's disease, first diagnosed in 1984, that eventually contributed to his death on June 3, 2016. 

Ali's faith continued to shine forth in the many decades since his conversion when he fought not only racism but also Islamophobia. Both racism but also Islamophobia are alive and doing well today, if Donald Trump is an accurate indicator. Therefore the struggle against both is not over yet. Ali's personal struggle is over, but his legacy of fighting them will remain. Ali, RIP.