Striking a Nerve

Last week, in response to my blog on anti-Muslim bigotry, one reader called me a “piece of shit.”  Another reader told me to “crawl back under my rock” and left emoticons of a pile of feces and an angry face. Another reader told me to “shut the fuck up.” And this was before the tragic mass murder of Muslims in prayer at two different mosques in New Zealand.

They prove my point.  Clearly I struck a nerve, and that was my intent.  Their comments illustrate precisely the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades so much of this country.  We can’t control our trade deficit but we have no problem exporting hatred and intolerance.

The truth is there is religious intolerance and terrorism in every religious tradition. Christianity is no exception. More murder and mayhem have been created through the years because of religions than just about anything else.  In times of social uncertainty and change, religious extremism grows.    

Hatred and intolerance also take root in resistance to change.  In the instance of religious intolerance in the United States there is a deep misunderstanding of our own history. Many are under the mistaken notion that the United States was founded as a Christian country, and all other religions that have come into our midst are less than.  I am not aware that moral superiority is a Christian virtue, but perhaps I was absent that day in seminary. 

A more accurate reading of our history is that this nation was founded, in part, as a refuge for those being religiously persecuted in their country of origin.  They migrated to the New World because there was a promise of religious freedom. Later, a constitutionally guaranteed right to practice the religion of one’s choice was added.

Make no mistake; this country was also founded on the hope of greater economic opportunity for merchants. They extorted goods from Native peoples for a fraction of what the goods were worth and made a profit in Europe. New trade routes went through the new world and created unprecedented wealth for merchants.

Our religious and economic history is not as pure as we would like to believe.

Despite the premise of freedom of religion, every religious tradition that has entered this country since its founding has faced the same kind of religious persecution our founders were fleeing when they came to the New World.  It was illegal to NOT be a church member in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  People like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for having the audacity to challenge the religious leaders.  Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina maintained established churches that prohibited the founding of other religious communities.  Jews were prevented from voting and engaging in certain professions. This history has been repeated with the influx of black slaves, Catholics and today with Muslims. 

Our guaranteed religious freedom drips with irony.

A deeper issue is that change generates fear.  It makes us feel out of control.  If things change we may be left behind.  It is a well-known fact that whites and Christians (such as they are) will be the minority in the United States within a few generations.  This will mean changes for those of us who have enjoyed unmitigated privilege, few checks on the use of power, and control of the economy.  Our lack of awareness about our privilege and power does not absolve us of the responsibility for the pain it creates in the lives of others. It just makes us more fearful of inevitable change.

Free market capitalism depends on a permanent underclass of workers who receive substandard wages. No one wants to pay $6.00 a pound for tomatoes so that those picking the tomatoes receive a living wage. There is a pervasive notion that “I was here first and I have all I need, too bad for you.” Our resistance to change is all about what we fear we will lose.  Our resistance to a new vision for our nation as a diverse group of people living in harmony is rooted in our fear and our deep sense of entitlement.

As a result we are increasingly defensive.  We listen to reply, not to understand.  We are ready to criticize others and defend the superiority of our own position. We speak without understanding our own national history or the history of those who are seeking shelter and solace on our shores.

Change is coming; we can listen, seek to understand, learn compassion and reach across differences. Or we can wait for the brick that is going to hit us square in the head if we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. 

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