Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.
I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in 2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?
I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.
One day my client came in complaining about, and even mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like this.
Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.
My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.
I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.
Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.
I couldn’t not speak. I questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.
I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.
So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?
Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?
We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?