The Sins of Our Fathers

As darkness falls, I come to you tonight wearing my interfaith Minister of Peace hat. I’m not altogether comfortable in this role at times; I neither have nor desire a pulpit of any sort. But hear me now.

And before I begin what is almost certain to be a long and extremely controversial post, let me say this:

I unequivocally condemn the attacks in Brussels today. I condemn all acts of violence, whether their goal is to further political, religious, or personal aims.

Whenever something like today’s tragedy happens, people are filled with pain and with burning questions that seem to go nowhere. Why does this happen? What can we do about it? How do we stop “Them” from doing this again?

The answers — the straws, more precisely — grasped at are often filled with rage and a thirst for vengeance…vengeance against the people who carried out the heinous act(s), vengeance against those involved in the planning, vengeance against the terrorist organizations and even against the wider religions/politics used as terribly twisted justification.

If these terrorists turn out to be affiliated with ISIL, I am certain that you can find people who want to exterminate — in that exact terminology — every Muslim in the world. People do not have logical reactions to illogical acts, and that is human nature. We want the things that hurt and don’t make sense to be somehow excised, regardless of cost or consequence, so we can feel safe again.

But if we want the perpetrators brought to justice, we have to first stand and gaze into our own mirrors. We have to ask some tough questions and listen to the painful answers.

Who is responsible for these horrible events?

We are guilty. Let me say that again. We are guilty.

No, we didn’t don suicide gear and blow ourselves and others up. But we have contributed — all of us — to the culture that is obsessed with declaring some people to be Other. We don’t feel comfortable with differences or with our own uniqueness unless there’s an identifiable Them to contrast with.

When we stand in line at the grocery store and quietly judge the person in front of us for being too fat for that outfit…when we discourage our daughters from dating outside of their race or religion…when we treat the fast food worker handing us food like a no-good social mooch draining the system…we are outlining and reinforcing an Us vs. Them paradigm, in which one group is “in” and everyone else is “out.”

These people who are constantly told or silently reminded that they are Other, that they are Less Than, often pretend they are not bothered by their continuous failure to belong. We all have that innate desire, though, to find our tribe…to find those people who welcome us with open arms. Who hasn’t, in their angsty teenage years or at some other time, even been willing to alter aspects of themselves (outer or otherwise) to fit into a group that will allow us in?

Disenfranchised people are vulnerable to the siren call of extremist groups.

“You belong with us.” “We have a place for you.” Wounded, aching souls, tired of being Other — angry about their constant experiences of frustration, rejection, etc. — stumble into trouble. We see it in teenage girls with daddy issues, latching onto abusive boyfriends. “He seemed so nice…” “He was kind to me, when nobody else was.”

Religious groups, or those purporting to have a sort of mandate from heaven, are especially compelling. The thought of a Creator who wants you…who will accept you (if you will only do these few things first, to please Him)…can you see how a disenfranchised person might be drawn to such groups? God will accept you and grant you eternal rewards if you will just do this small thing: blow yourself up. Bonus: You even get to take out some of those bastards who look at you like you’re Less Than.

I’m not saying I understand the appeal of ISIL and similar groups…but I know how vulnerability can be manipulated by clever people, and the vulnerable then can be molded to the puppetmaster’s own purposes. I can see how pain is molded — either within the self or by external forces/people — into rage. Steeped rage becomes hatred… which can then become a potent weapon against the people perceived as responsible for said pain.

This culture of Otherness did not begin with us, certainly. But if we hope to put an end to these terrorist occurrences, we must universally strive to change it. (Donald Trump is a prime example of what not to do. His vitriolic rhetoric further divides people even within our own nation, and we have seen violence erupt as a result.)

We all sow division, at the very least, when we reject other people’s beliefs, experiences, appearance, or whatever else as somehow not right, not valid, or not good — or not as right, as valid, or as good as our own. I don’t have to like your hairstyle or your religion or your presidential candidate to show you the respect I would hope to see in return, or to keep our encounter at least neutral for both of us.

I gain nothing by snickering about you, looking through you, insulting you or contradicting your truth because mine differs, but we both are diminished by the resulting lack of understanding between us. The crack widens over time if these micro-conflicts continue. Eventually it becomes a chasm we cannot figure out how to cross, and each of us becomes a distasteful “Them” to the other.

It is psychologically easier to view “Them” as somehow less human than “Us.” And it’s not as astronomical a jump as we might wish, to understand how it’s easier to consider harming someone who matters less, who is seen as less valid and less valuable as a fellow human being.

The more distantly removed we become from recognition of another person’s humanity, the easier it is to hurt them. Enter violence.

I don’t say this from some sheltered bubble. A guy I knew in childhood struggled with rejection from girls and then women, and his rage twisted his perceptions. He began to view women as less than human. He was eventually convicted of multiple murders. He did not value their lives and so it didn’t trigger his conscience to kill them. He actually saw the removal of those women as a good thing (in his warped paradigm, he was acting morally, because they inflicted pain on men they rejected…so he was preventing that from recurring. In his mind, he was meting out justice).

We need to retire “Us vs. Them” and unrelentingly, compassionately, consistently uphold a global “We.”

This problem has been generations in the making. It will take generations to undo. We can’t just lay the blame at the feet of politicians and leaders, either (though it would be nice if we’d stop destabilizing the Middle East and arming various groups there). We are all part of the problem, and we must all be part of the solution.

In the meantime, how do we prevent terrorism? How do we prevent these heinous acts?

It makes me nauseous to say, but, at least sometimes, we won’t. 😦 That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we need to be cognizant of just what we’re fomenting in our heavy-handed vengeance-driven crusades for justice.

This is where, were I a Southern Baptist preacher, I would invite you to the fellowship hall after the service for a potluck lunch. It’s nighttime and I’m a Druid, though, so instead I’ll hopefully leave you with food for thought.

“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.” –Robert Alden