A couple of weeks ago there was a brief outbreak of good ole American outrage here in Texas. It was well behind the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, but of course this is Dallas, where Milan 2012 is only now being seen on the streets and in the malls.
First a couple of protesters decided to stand outside a mosque and harass worshippers. Then protesters showed up to picket a Muslim fund-raising event while waving various vitriolic signs. And then, when Muslims held a “get to know your government” event in Austin, more protesters showed up, including a woman who grabbed the microphone and clearly articulated her dearly held beliefs – beliefs alas irrelevant to the occasion.
In the meantime, inside the capital, a member of the state legislature put out an Israel flag and told her staff to require all Muslims to recite the pledge of allegiance (presumably to the US flag) before being allowed to enter her office. Then, courageous defender of freedom that she is, she left for the weekend.
At least in my Facebook world these expressions of outrage against Muslims were just as quickly followed by expressions of outrage against the outrage. I was personally a participant in outrage of the second sort.
Since then my Facebook page has been alight with outrageous bumper-sticker attacks on Muslims, attacks on the media for its coverage of the killing of Muslims, attacks on an “Islamic Tribunal,” and a firebombing of a mosque in Houston. And that is only a brief list.
But more than outrage, what I feel while watching the YouTube videos and reading the news reports is a sense of pity for the dwindling groups of inchoate losers trying to staunch the flow of social change. And some outrage at the outrage. What else did we expect?
People have good reason to be deeply afraid that they and their communities will be destroyed by the onslaught of social change. It is just that their current anxiety is misplaced. Their problem isn’t Islam. The problem is that modernity and post-modernity have delivered a one-two punch to the possibility of finding a meaningful life in the ways they have always sought meaning.
Modernity tells us that humans are biological machines that, in their individual form, are both accidental and incidental. We are cogs in a great evolving ecological machine. We are no different from snails or chimps except in our short term capacity to gum up the works.
Post-modernity has taught us that there is nothing either universal or enduring about our cultures, or religions, our societies, or our individual stories. Every claimed link between our personal and social narrative and something timeless and universal is ruthlessly deconstructed in the process of destroying the oppressive meta-narrative. Eternal and universal are just synonyms for the accursed “imperial.”
Some believe that simply facing this reality is heroic: the ultimate case of the individual embracing reality.
I think it actually diminishes our natural ability and desire to seek out diversity. From some place of relative psychological and social security people and societies almost always seek out diversity. Our human history is a history of seeking out and building larger and more diverse communities and making them the norm.
But the modern US society doesn’t offer any person or community the security from which to do this. On the contrary, it ruthlessly dissolves all communities deconstructs all narratives of belonging so that they can be reconstructed and rewritten as brand loyalties. The natural response, when people don’t simply give in, is to form new tribes or fall back into defending old ones.And these tribal identities must be defended. Walls must go up. So, to quote the first tribe, “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The anti-Muslim protesters are simply trying to build that city around their tribal identity.
And I think Christians should be some compassion for those whose anxiety has taken them to the streets. Because it is in large part the failure of Christian churches and Christian pastors to contextualize the gospel that has led to this new tribalism.
Anxious to be fully and unreservedly modern we’ve bought into the “body as machine” model of humanity. Christians formed by the last half century of liberal protestantism, led by their theologically educated pastors, are likely to regard Tennyson’s old line, “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” as escapism or naiveté. And if God isn’t willing to engage in healing your body now, why should you believe God is going to give you a new body at the resurrection? Small wonder that the biggest industry bearing our denominational brand names is hospitals. We’ve long since put our faith in doctors and machines to keep us alive – if not eternally at least until we’ve been so miserable so long that death and annihilation is welcome.
In our social action programs we’ve assumed that a meaningful life is played out in the immanent world of economics, civil rights, and political action rather than, and often in complete contradistinction with, a life lived in the enduring embrace of the Body of Christ. The latter we dismiss as escapism, or more generously “spirituality;” a minor concern largely reserved for a single gender.
And finally, not really believing ourselves that God’s love will sustain our identity we’ve become obsessed with our declines in church membership. Virtually all of our energy as churches is now given over to self-preservation through vast programs of self-study, outside intervention, and constantly developed strategies for changing congregational life. You don’t have to be very observant to realize that we’ve long since given up the idea that God will save us. For that we look to consultants.
And this simply adds to the societal anxiety that creates new forms of tribalism.
Ultimately a society capable of embracing and loving its own diversity will need to be evangelized. It will need to hear the good news that because Christ has risen bodily from the grave our embodied existence, as individuals and cultures and churches, do not face death just because they are faced with change. But for that to happen the church itself will have to be evangelized, to begin believing that it is the Body of Christ, in whose life the reality of eternity is present.
Then we can be the one non-anxious presence that makes it possible for others to collect themselves, lay down their fears, and discover that diversity isn’t just inevitable, it is good.