It didn’t take long after the tragic shooting deaths of five Marines for the venomous voices of generalized hate to begin their bellow.
The murderer was a Muslim. Therefore all Muslims are dangerous. Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with anger. Damn Muslims. Send them all home! Attack their countries!
Sadly, one of the loudest of those venomous voices belongs to someone who claims to speak for Christians. Franklin Graham, whose anti-Muslim fanaticism is nothing new, wrote that all Muslims are potentially dangerous. Therefore, no Muslims should be allowed to immigrate to the United States. After all, he reasons, that is what we did with German and Japanese citizens during World War II. We also locked up US citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II – is that the model Graham believes we should follow?
This kind of prejudiced generalization is something I would expect from political demagogues, not Christian pastors. I don’t believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes judging that neighbor by the actions of someone who happens to share his ethnicity or religion.
If so, then maybe you should lock me up. After all, Charleston mass-murderer Dylan Roof was Lutheran – an ELCA Lutheran like me, in fact. Where are the calls to send Lutherans back to Germany or Scandinavia? Or to halt immigration from those places?
The thing is, we don’t make generalizations about white folk. Someone we consider “white” does something horrendous and it’s not a reflection of a whole race of people. Dylan Roof was a “lone gunman,” obviously “deranged.” Of course he was . . . normal white Christian people don’t do that kind of thing.
I was listening to a conservative talk-radio host today rant about the White House because the initial presidential statement had been about a “lone gunman” in Chattanooga. The White House spokesman wouldn’t “admit” it was because the gunman was one of those damn Muslims.
Because Muslims . . . and Mexicans! A Mexican in San Francisco commits a horrific murder, and Donald Trump (speaking of political demagogues) basically says, “That’s just how those Mexicans are.” Trump was “punished” for this hate-speech by rising to the top of the opinion polls. Trump famously published “The Art of the Deal.” He knows how to make a sale. Hate sells.
You hear it about black folks, too. After the Baltimore protests, for example, there was talk about how “they” don’t care because a portion of the protests resulted in destruction of property. The talk was about how that’s just how “they” are.
Making poisonous generalizations is a way to keep “them” in their place and to maintain “our” superiority – “white privilege.” It is picking and choosing the worst behavior of those with whom we disagree, then using it to smear everyone in the group we want to marginalize (or to keep marginalized).
It is the antithesis of the way Martin Luther explained the commandment about False Witness:
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking about marriage equality and other LGBT rights only to have the person I’m talking to say, “But look at what those people do. Look at those wild gay pride parades!”
Somehow we manage to avoid judging straight people – white Christians mostly – by how they behave at Mardi Gras parades. Or in racetrack infields. Or at NFL tailgates.
Generalization dehumanizes. It is the opposite of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus did not say, “Love your straight white Christian American neighbor as you love yourself.”
There were no qualifiers there. In fact, he made sure we knew even the people we don’t like are included when he said, “Love your enemies.”
Here’s the thing – I confess I am guilty of this too. It is tempting to be lazy and to judge someone by their group identity – either self-identified or imposed – rather than get to know them as a person, as God’s creation, as someone who Jesus died for.
How can we change not just our actions but our hearts?
Here’s an exercise I’m going to try. I hope you’ll join me. Think about a group you have bad feelings about, that you meet or hear about someone in that group then you jump to negative conclusions about that person.
Now, go find and read an article about members of that group that is positive, that works against your stereotype.
If your chosen group is “those damn Muslims,” I can help you out. (Reverend Graham, you out there?) I read such an article this morning in the Washington Post about Muslim outreach in DC during Ramadan. It even has in the second paragraph what folks are always claiming that they want from “those Muslims,” repudiation of terrorism committed in the name of Allah. And there’s this – “Muslim charity drives have raised funds for damaged African American and Pakistani churches.” Here’s the link.
For other groups, Google is your friend.
Poisonous generalizations are based in fear. Their power emanates from the fear they engender. When Donald Trump – or Reverend Graham – speak in stereotypes, they are both feeding, and feeding off, that fear. That is the direct opposite of what I am called to do as a Christian and as a pastor.
Christians believe that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Or at least we are supposed to. It’s hard to tell when some of our loudest “leaders” are trading in hate-based fear.
Our call is to out-love the fear. I wonder if we can.
I intentionally left out the name of the Chattanooga perpetrator. It is the victims we should remember:
Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan
Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells
Staff Sgt. David Wyatt
Sgt. Carson Holmquist
Petty Officer Randall Smith
Please join me in prayers for their families, friends, and comrades in arms, as well as for the protection of all those who protect us.