Two Faces to Hate: Some (timid) Thoughts about Christchurch

In the latest episode of horrifying shock-murders a white Australian man opened fire last week on a mosque-full of Islamic worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The murderer, a savvy media manipulator, filmed himself performing the massacre and uploaded a lengthy manifesto detailing his allegiance to various and sundry features of the White Supremacy movement. If nothing else is said about these events, then at least we must admit that in our age we have entered into a new world of evil.

Christchurch Murderer

Media responses have been, as usual, swift and condemnatory. The perpetrator was quickly labelled a terrorist, and media engines shifted into overdrive to minimize and mask his platform. If the logic was to perform a mass murder to gain attention to his platform, then the media is, in this case, muzzling his manifesto, and working hard to restrict access to the video. (Full disclosure: I have neither read the manifesto nor watched the video.)

Let’s admit, before all else, that this is a horrifying situation, and that the perpetrator’s actions are justly condemned by all right-thinking people. You shouldn’t murder people. You shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering people. And you shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering them as if the murders were a kind of video game with a soundtrack. What is more, you shouldn’t attempt to justify your actions by means of lengthy equivocations. There is nothing good about either what the perpetrator wanted, or how he proceeded in his plan.

At the same time, I confess that I am unsettled. Above all else, I am unsettled by certain features of how media coverage operates, even in their muzzling, counter-intuitive narrative. To explain this, consider two faces.

MAGA and Egg Boy Close up

This first is the face of Nick Sandmann, a Catholic high school student, who is—quite apart from his planning—brought awkwardly face to face with a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips. The other image is of William Connolly, smashing an egg on the head of Australian senator Fraser Anning. Both images have caught the attention of the media. Both images have evoked strong emotional responses.

The image of Sandmann, with his MAGA hat and “smug” face, invited the vitriol of the media world. This, they argued, is what is wrong with America. Disrespectful teens, smirking in the face of a peaceful Native American elder. A MAGA hat—the emblematic sign of modern racism!—sneering in its own right down on a person from whom Americans long ago robbed America. Condemnation—and hate—was swift. This was a boy who should be punched in the face. This Catholic school breeds hate. MAGA supporters are all closet white supremacists, and so forth.

sandmann-covington-lincoln-memorial

Of course, the truth came out eventually. The boy wasn’t being aggressive, but he and his classmates had been the recipients of substantial aggression from a group of Black Israelites, who had been hurling abuse at them for some time. The Nathan Phillips had arrived to “make peace,” but had done it awkwardly—walking up to and making eye contact with Sandmann, who was just a bystander—and as a result Sandmann’s face wasn’t smug so much as uncomfortable. He was an awkward teen, caught in an incredibly awkward moment, and the world witnessed his awkwardness and was all too ready to caption it with its own preferred labels. In this circumstance, the label of ‘hate.’

This second image, of Connolly smashing an egg on a Senator’s head, has been met—as far as I can tell—with universal acclaim. Senator Anning had written a letter, outlining his belief that there were, indeed, real immigration problems, and real cultural divides between Islam and the West. Connolly’s timing is admittedly poor, and his judgments may be flawed, but you don’t have to agree with him to recognize that he has a right to his opinion, and a responsibility as a senator, even, to share it. People, knowing how he thinks, elected him after all. But in response, here we have another teenaged boy, this time with a camera to record his own actions, and an egg to smash on Connolly’s head. And this time, the boy’s actions are acclaimed. He’s a hero. He deserves a scholarship.

Fraser Anning Egg

In the one circumstance, we have a boy who has done, literally, nothing, and is deserving of pure hatred because he is associated with things the media dislikes. As a result, he ought to be punched in the face. On the other side, we have a boy who has done something stupid (and let’s admit that filming yourself doing things like this is stupid), who does indeed get punched in the face, but who is really deserving of adulation because he is associated with things the media likes.

Here we come to why I am unsettled. These two faces of hatred display, in a unique way, the unbelievable power that the media holds to sway and shape our opinions. It’s okay to hate X, it’s praiseworthy to love those who egg the representatives of X. It’s okay to hate the people we don’t like. Narratives, context, motivations, impact—none of these factors matter. Only the manifestation of hatred and ready judgment.

Governments reacting to terrorism is the object of terrorism. One of the governing tenets of the pseudo-right, (semi-)white supremacist movement, is that the media controls perception. The belief that the media lies to me is the catalyst for so much of the emotional content which gives rise to these manifestations of hatred and xenophobia. And when the media pulls these kinds of stunts, they are proved right.

Several years ago I accidentally (and I mean it!) joined an alt-right group on Facebook. I’ve never commented or participated in the group, but I watch, and listen, and attend to what makes them tick. The group is sizeable, with something close to 80K members—so this isn’t exactly a fringe group. Their response to these killings has been pretty sickening, and I won’t go into all of it, but two predominant features emerge: first, they believe that the media coverage has universally prevaricated on the story of Islam in New Zealand, and second, they want to incite further Islamic retaliation, to aggravate the hornet’s nest further, so that, perhaps, the West might ‘wake up’ and respond. Whether their vision is right or wrong, evil or not, this attack, and the media coverage, fulfils either outcome they desire. And that might be the most unsettling thought of all.

Orientalism–A Fifth and Final Response (on Islam)

I very much enjoyed my read of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is an important book, and it has helped me to form my thoughts on quite a number of subjects. In my series of responses, I have appropriated his central concept broadly, but it is important to note that Said’s focus throughout is with reference to the Orient as Egypt and the Levant, and with special attention to Islam. No negotiation of his book is complete without some coming to terms with his thoughts on Islam. This final reflection on Orientalism will attempt to do just that. I’ve got four things to say.

Orientalism_Reading1) The Orient, for Said, is the Islamic world. I noted this a moment ago, but it is worth stressing. As an historical fact, the Orient, when the concept of the Orient was invented, and Orientalism, when that concept was emerging in Western usage, both had for their initial reference points the Islamic East. Historically, we here refer to Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, and of England’s presence in Palestine and the Levant. We also note that the original journey of the Orient Express was from Paris to Constantinople—i.e., the Orient. Said, of course, as a Palestinian author, is keenly aware of this history in a personal sense, and that awareness colours the whole of the book.

2) If Orientalism is true, then it follows that Islam has been injuriously misread by the West. Orientalism, I have stated numerous times in various ways, is an intersection of knowledge and power where the gaze of the West has fallen on the other in such a way that the other loses agency, is flattened, and is fetishized (among other things). Each of these has clearly been in effect when the West has encountered Islam. Islam has been othered. It is viewed, first, as an outsider element, one which reflexively gives fresh self-definition to the Western eye. In that process, the West has held the power of definition in discourse—the conversation has been dominated by Western categories of what constitutes Islam, and Islam is made to answer to those Western categories. Consequently, Islam has been flattened—both ideologically and individually. Ideologically, textures and complexities in Islamic belief are treated reductionistically (they all want Jihad and nothing else), and individually each Islamic individual is viewed as a carbon-copy of a radicalized caricature (they all want Jihad and nothing else). Said stresses this clearly,

The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘The West’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. (Orientalism, xxii)

In addition to this, Islam has been subjected to a number of fetishizations—historically, sexual ones (Said notes these), but lately subjected to a fetishization of violence and bestiality. The West is able to imagine, again for its own benefit, all manner of violences and evil perpetuated by an Islamic world.

Islamic Agressors

If these are the only images we see, we are bound to draw certain conclusions about the Islamic world.

Once again, if Orientalism is true (and I believe it is)—that is, if Orientalism accurately describes a mental process by which the West has ‘come to terms’ with the non-West in Islam—then this is cause for a serious re-evaluation of how the West and Islam interact. Wrongs have been done, and are being done, which inhibit fruitful communication, and which perpetuate worldviews of dehumanization which fall well beneath the values of the West. We can, and must, do better.

3) And yet, it seems to me that Said overplays the innocence of Islam in his book. Repeatedly, Said hammers the West for its treatment of Islam. Doubtless many of his assertions are correct. Doubtless also, he is sounding a corrective note against historic abuses. In charity we can certainly read the book with those considerations in mind and account for what we might consider to be his excesses. And yet, it is also historically the case that not all Western encounters with Islam are based on Orientalism. For example, when Islam emerged in the 8th century, no such thing as “the West”—as a modern concept—yet existed. And Islam’s emergence on the Arabian peninsula meant that it’s first encounters with Christianity were in the Christian East—in places such as Constantinople, which is, by definition, the Orient. Those first encounters, then, were not encounters where knowledge and power othered the foreigner, but rather battles where truth claims were examined. Chief among them was this: is Jesus Godin-the-flesh, or was he merely another prophet on the way to Mohammed? (It is worth observing that, on some accounts, Islam looks a great deal like a kind of radical Arianism—a rejection of Christ’s divinity and preservation of the holiness of the Father-God.)

1280px-byzantine-arab_naval_struggle

There’s lots of information about the history of Islamic expansion/aggression. It’s worth your time to read up on it or watch a helpful video.

In addition to this, Islam—beginning with Mohammed as its leader—from the very first engaged in a war of conquest with the Christian world (note: neither East nor West, but entire). That period of conquest involved aggressive violence, invasion, and a real threat to the Christian way of life. All that to say that when the West considers Islam, while certain intellectual abuses are undoubtedly at play, there is also a deeper history which informs their engagement. That history cannot be reduced, or explained away, by means of Orientalism.

4) Orientalism, then, is both a blessing and a liability. It is a blessing because of the attention it calls us to pay to the history of knowledge where that knowledge intersects with power. It is a blessing because it places a beneficial hesitation on Western claims about the non-West. It is a blessing because it seeks to restore agency to non-Western persons. And yet the liability of Orientalism is that as a compelling theory of understanding it oversimplifies—or even simply underplays—valid truth claims and vital historical incidents. The label, as always, does not an argument make (see the previous post on Bulverism).

In each of these posts I’ve tied these thoughts into the mission of the Church. As I close these reflections on Orientalism, the note I want to highlight is that of listening. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions often get scuttled by debate. Facts get thrown back and forth, names and labels get applied, and little progress is made except in the growth of contempt. Sometimes I feel that my fellow Christians fear that to practice listening will mean having to give up on truth. But this isn’t the case. To listen well doesn’t mean to give up, it means to try to hear a matter from the other’s perspective as clearly as possible. Listening makes us smarter, and more empathetic, and when we listen well we become better at articulating those points which we feel are truly salient to a discussion. For Christianity to listen to the Islamic world does not mean the same thing as for Christianity to capitulate with it. It is just such listening, I believe, that we most need—on both sides of the divide.

God, Allah, and the Woman at the Well

800px-Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The recent suspension of Wheaton College Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins has given visible and caustic exposure to this question. Publicly declaring her intention to wear the Hijab as a show of solidarity with Muslims, Professor Hawkins also claimed (as partial grounding for her actions) that “we worship the same God.” Those claims caused the Evangelical college to place her under suspension due to their conviction that it conflicted with the college’s statement of faith.

A horde of commentators has weighed in on this controversy, with many immediately misinterpreting the situation as an episode in bigotry or racism. And yet the primary disagreement has been about Dr. Hawkins’s theological claim that the Christian and Muslim God is the same. In this, it appears that some four positions have emerged. One group that we might call Kneejerk Liberalism is marked by their contempt of any fundamentalism. Zealous to focus on love, rather than the knowledge of God, these commentators reject any absolute claims about the nature of God. “Of course Allah and God are the same, so long as the good (and true) followers of each religion love. Love, after all, is the main idea.” Unfortunately, these commentators are theologically lightweight, if not inept. On the opposite side of the spectrum is an ironically similar group, which we might call Kneejerk Conservatism. This group, similar in its theological ineptitude, recoils in horror from any claim that Islam and Christianity might be similar. Their grounding is a healthy fear of the blurring of categories, combined with an unhealthy and uncritical Islamophobia. Neither of these groups of professed Christians contributes effectively to the discussion.

However, there are two more groups of thinkers, both far more theologically grounded. One group, perhaps typified by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, argues that, indeed, when Christians and Muslims speak about God, inasmuch as we are able to speak about God, we do indeed mean the same thing. The other group, which doesn’t have a typifying figure but is represented by traditional orthodoxy, argues that the differences between YHWH and Allah are too great to conflate, and that the claims that they are the “same God” are unhelpful both to Christians and Muslims alike.

These two positions are worth unpacking further, because they draw us to the nature of language and of our ability to speak about God in any meaningful way at all. We might begin with a question: To what degree does any human speak accurately when he/she speaks of God? It should be clear that no individual is ever able to speak with complete accuracy, but only ever with provisional accuracy. We always speak in approximations. This is one of the reasons for the theological diversity within the Church—no group is able to claim with infallibility that they are worshipping God truly while everyone else is wrong (although many have tried). So, first of all, the question of accurate speech about God is muddied by the problem of human epistemology. We are, in short, not omniscient.

The proposition regarding Christianity and Islam, then, seems to be as follows: to the degree that Muslims and Christians succeed in speaking about God to the best of our epistemological abilities, to that same degree we are speaking about the same God. In other words, the best thoughts of Muslims about God are similar enough to the best thoughts of Christians about God to claim that we are speaking of the same God.

There is something commendable about this line of thinking, namely, that it serves to encourage Muslim/Christian dialogue and that it calls us to a kind of epistemological humility. But there are also a few significant problems. The first and gravest of these is that Islam categorically rejects both the Divinity of Jesus and, by extension, the Trinity. Islam, as a monotheistic religion, is in this respect both actively and aggressively anti-Christian. This introduces an initial logical problem. For the Christian, Jesus is God, but for the Muslim it would be abhorrent to claim that Jesus is Allah. Furthermore, the Christian claims that God is Trinity, but for the Muslim it would be an abomination to claim that Allah is Trinity. His oneness is violated in an essential way by Christian theology. So, at the first, we can see that the initial claims of sameness crumble the moment we step from the abstract to the particular.

Dome of the Rock

The inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock, built on the historic site of the Jewish temple, specifically reject anyone who says God is “three,” and specifically urge people not to make too much of Jesus.

A second problem is based in methodology. The claim that Christianity and Islam agree in our theology about God draws its strength from the attributes of God—for example, His eternal nature, His unchanging goodness, that He is creator, His holiness, and His monotheistic nature. However—and this is terribly important—our best thoughts about these subjects remain our thoughts; they are human categories which we employ to describe and understand God as He has revealed Himself. The danger comes when we begin to abstract these ideas about God from God Himself. In doing so we begin to elevate our thoughts about God above God, and in the process we inevitably turn those thoughts into idols. God’s goodness means nothing apart from the actions of the God who has revealed Himself to be good. To say that Allah and the Christian God are the same is to say so on the basis of these, our decidedly human, categories.

What Christianity claims, and clings to, is the idea of both History and Revelation. We do not worship God who is the sum of our best thoughts, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, called Yahweh, Who is revealed in power through the person of Jesus Christ. These claims, as the basis of Christian faith, are not abstractions, but records of a real history and a real revealing. On these grounds, to claim that the God who spoke through Jesus is the same who speaks through the Prophet Mohammed is a patent absurdity. The claim reduces God’s self-revelation to a series of contradictions, something that He Himself claims He does not do.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify this difference further. Imagine a German and a Frenchman discussing the nature of nationhood together. To begin, they dGermany and France Flag Pinsiscuss the attributes of nationhood together—love of the fatherland, love of local cuisine, proficiency in local language, similar features in geography, social service, government, and so forth. From one perspective, speaking in the abstract, they can agree that they have many of the same ideas about nationalism, and both might potentially agree that they are nationalists. But the moment you begin to argue that Germany and France are in fact the same the discussion falls apart, smashed upon the rock of history. However similar the conceptions of nations might be, when history is involved two places of different origin cannot be the same. In this historical sense, Christianity and Islam are fundamentally inconflatable.

The attentive thinker will wonder, at this point, about the Jews. If Islam and Christianity are not the same, then to what degree are Christianity and Judaism to be distinguished? Jews worship YHWH, and so do Christians. Do you claim that they are different Gods? The solution, interestingly enough, might be found in Jesus’ words to the Woman at the Well in John 4:19-23

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

We should note that Jesus divides those who worship God into three categories. The first category, that to which the Samaritan woman belongs, is those who “worship what they do not know.” The Samaritans, of course, were a kind of half-breed Jew, bred from the members of the exiled northern kingdom with the nations to which they had been exiled. Their worship of YHWH was fundamentally corrupted, much like whatever worship of God exists today in modern Islam, through Jehovah’s witnesses, or Mormons. Each is a group worshipping something they don’t know. The second category is the Jews, who worship what they do know. The Jews, as recipients of God’s call and revelation in history, are worshipping according to that knowledge. They are tradition-grounded worshippers, and the modern Jews should fall into this category unchanged. But here we must observe the third category of worshippers, those who are coming who will worship “in spirit and in truth.” These, clearly from John’s gospel, are the followers of Jesus. There is, therefore, a new worship, centered on Jesus, which supercedes both the false worship made by those who do not know, and the true but incomplete worship of those who do know (at least provisionally).

Christian witness, especially in the Islamic world, will not be served by conflating and minimizing the differences between our two religions. Nor is it served by either the fear of kneejerk conservatism or the contempt of kneejerk liberalism. Instead, after the pattern of Jesus, we must faithfully and graciously reassert the essential points of our historic faith, while at the same time inviting the partial knowledge of our discussion partners into the completion found only in the knowledge of Christ. To do anything less is a disservice to the Church, to our public witness, and to the Lord that Christians claim to worship in Spirit and in Truth.