Can we talk?
Let’s be inspired by love
by Abby King-Kaiser
It can take a great deal of bravery to go out—I mean really go out… late night, joyful, surrendering of self to community, surrendering of body to music, surrendering of despair to joy—as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a society that is still rather homophobic.
It can take a great deal of bravery to go about your business, go to work, go to the grocery store, get gas in your car, whatever, when your skin or your appearance or your dress indicates a religious identity that some associate with terrorism.
It takes a great deal of bravery to grieve, to really grieve, significant loss of life, safety, and security.
Those of us who are pastors have the privilege of being able to peek into the lives of others in surprisingly intimate ways. We know the deep fears, hopes, joys, and struggles of those we care for. We are invited in, a privilege we must receive with tenderness and compassion, with constant attention to loving as the Christ who called us into this role loved. We bear witness to bravery every day.
I have learned the real power of my words from being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and from working with Muslim students. I have learned of the paralyzing anxiety that can come from words, even from words not intended to harm.
As a campus minister, I have been invited into the lives of students who are struggling with their sexuality, looking for ways to reconcile their faith with who they love, looking for safe spaces and communities to discern how and when and where and to whom to come out.
I have been invited into the lives of Muslim students who carry real fears about their safety and that of their friends. In a society with access to not just guns, but assault weapons, in a society where we continue to fear instead of understand each other, I grieve all that is lost to these very legitimate and anxiety producing fears—and I am in awe of these students’ courage.
Before I looked at my phone or turned on the TV, I started my Sunday with some writing because my heart had been heavy for a few days. I had just returned from a Christian conference where in conversation, I heard a hurtful, and untrue, version of what Islam is. From the stage, the pulpit, I heard a keynote speaker refer to Islamic terrorists. There was no other mention of Islam throughout the two-day conference. I can’t help be see the two as connected.
The call that was on my heart yesterday morning was to ask my fellow Christians this: Can we please stop using the word Muslim or Islamic in front of the word terrorist?
Can we agree that terrorists do not hold any mainstream version of Islam and just stop associating the two? And yet, as soon as I heard the news start to spread from Orlando, my first instinct was to just not share a blog post this week. My words could not possibly be up to the challenge of the nuance needed in the middle of all this grief.
As we waited for President Obama to speak on NBC, one of the commentators speculated—“Did it have something to do with the holy month of Ramadan?” Speculated. For those who don’t have a source of information outside of the media on what Islam is, the impression they are given from NBC’s coverage is an association of a religious holiday with violence. NBC can do better, and so can the church. It is time to talk.
Can we talk? Words matter. If that were not the case, we would not spend so much time and energy on theology, talking about God, or preaching. Words shape our experience and our culture, and even our deeply held assumptions.
And so, what does it really say, when from a pulpit we hear the phrase Islamic terrorist?
What does it really say when we hear places that preach the good news say that they love the sinner and hate the sin or that an LGBTQ+ lifestyle is incompatible with Christian teaching?
Can we talk? Let’s talk, not just online, not just with social media posts. But let’s talk with our congregations, with our children, with our neighbors and family and friends about the real costs of our language, of our beliefs, the real cost of marginalizing any group of people in a society for any reason is that hate takes root.
Hate sown in words is too easily grows into actions. Horrifying, tragic actions that have permanent consequences. It seems that the James 3 is right, the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
I have learned the real power of my words from being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and from working with Muslim students. I have learned of the paralyzing anxiety that can come from hurtful words, even from words not intended to harm. I’ve learned that enough of the wrong words, layered and layered and layered, can subtly deny a person or tradition.
Over time these layers make a fertile soil for violent hate.
Our local church, in many places, is our only source of religious and ethical information. Not just information about our faith, but it is also in the church where we understand the breadth and history of our tradition, who is not included in our tradition and why. When we experience religion as a part of culture and society, we filter what we hear through what we know from our church. Few of us learn about world religion, religious history or LGBTQ+ history in a meaningful way. We are left with a void.
Yet, our pulpits are still a place of authority. We can go on and on about the diminished role of and respect for the clergy, but the reality is, whether it is an audience of 12 or 1200, grown adults are sitting and listening to a preacher on a Sunday morning, with varying levels of attention, but listening either way. What other place our lives, as adults, do we submit our time, attention and even intellect in this way?
And so, when someone is reading the news, when someone is talking to their neighbor in a hijab at the grocery store, when someone is at a PTA meeting where religious holidays are the topic of conversation, the words they have heard in the pulpit matter. What if the only mention of Islam they have heard is a connection with terror and terrorists?
What if someone has only heard “gay” used as derogatory term, doesn’t know anyone who is out, accepted and healthy, only hears religious communities distancing themselves from the LGBTQ+ community? What is the narrative that is spun?
I have found it easy to diminish the power of the pulpit and the responsibility of preaching. In order to make the task more manageable, I try to take away it’s authority. I tell myself, “No one really remembers what I say by Monday, right?” But, this also let’s me off the hook for being accountable for my words and their impact.
Can we talk? I often ask myself, have I spoken up enough? Have I contributed? Inspired—love instead of hate and fear?
In much of the coverage I saw yesterday, the attacker was described as “inspired by ISIS.” Just as the church is a place of information on religion, faith, and ethics, we are called to be a place of inspiration. We are to nurture people who are “inspired by love.”
Not only should we be careful to avoid inspiring evil with our words, we should be careful to intentionally inspire love. Our words of love, forgiveness, and peace are one of the greatest tools God has given us, as individuals and communities. Used well, our words are subvert evil. Our words are challenge us to be and do good. Our words point to the kingdom of God.
Today I am praying. But I am also working. I am also talking. The solace I find is in knowing that am I just one of the many people working in this world to combat violence and hate.
There is a lot I cannot do. I am not a legislator—I cannot pass a law banning assault weapons (though I can encourage my representatives to do so). I am not a counselor on the front lines nor am I a hospital worker attending to the wounded.
But, when I take seriously the call God has placed on my life, the people and communities where I have influence, the tools at hand, I remember that in my own small way, my work contributes to our collective project of building a society where violence and hate have no place. I have words. And I will use them.
As the Assistant Director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University I often hear the question “Why don’t Muslims denounce terrorists?” And the answer always is, “they do.” In a variety of ways. Here is a local example from Florida yesterday. Look at this letter from scholars directly to terrorists. Read this constructive document about the relationship between Muslims and Christians seeking our common ground, called A Common Word, that represents a broad base of Muslim Scholars and has been used globally. And recognize how Muslims in the Middle East and beyond refer to the group we call ISIS or ISIL.
In conversations about politics and the global situation this year, I started to hear a word I didn’t understand—Daesh. Context was telling me what I thought it meant, but that can be unreliable, so I asked.
The students told me it is a delegitimizing name for ISIS that isn’t connected to Islam or government. This useage of an Arabic acronym has picked up steam across the globe, and has begun to include global governments. (Read more in this BBC article) If ISIS is not a legitimate state, nor a legitimate representation of Islam, why should be constantly reinforce this image of Islam by what we call them?