Saturday, March 3, 2018

I Believe in American Exceptionalism. But Wait, There's More....

I believe in American exceptionalism. Before you boo and hiss me—as my liberal listeners—or before you smugly enumerate my endorsement—as my conservative listeners—I want to clarify.  American exceptionalism has its substance, its truth, not in some divine mandate, irrevocable.  As it says in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Lk 3:8)  And the Apostle Paul says regarding the inclusion of gentiles into the New Israel that he envisions Christianity to be: “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”

The substance of American exceptionalism lies in the sum total effect of our actions. Our ability to stick to our principles. In light of President Trump’s campaign slogans, to “Make America Great Again”, which was a stumbling block for liberals, a liberal friend of mine questioned if America was ever great.  To me, the statement, “Make America Great Again,” is fundamentally flawed.  We never stopped being great.  But in her defense, she is speaking as a woman of color, a child of immigrants, and a person of religious tradition and ethnic extraction that have been much slandered in recent years.  She is seeing the worst of what we are.  But I answered—and I answer now—that our greatness, our exceptionalism, has always lain within our desire—as a nation—to do better.  To strive harder and to be better than our forebears.  From the start of our nation, our forefathers and foremothers sought to have a better and more equitable government than the monarchies and tyrannies of Europe. They came here to seek religious freedom and economic opportunities that they did not have in Europe, in the Old World, which was dominated by hereditary aristocracies that had made themselves fat on the blood of the peasants whom they were supposedly entrusted to govern.  Now did our ancestors in this land immediately solve all problems and establish universal freedom and equality for all citizens and inhabitants of this land?  No, they did not.  For as humans, they were fallible, and they succumbed to many of the same faults as their ancestors did.  For many brought millions of slaves against their will from Africa to labor here under pain of death, the former telling themselves that it was the natural order of things, and soothing their seething souls from the burgeoning conscience that sought to peek through their hardened hearts, by reciting and mangling scripture that justified their usage and furtherance of their “peculiar institution”—that of slavery.  But in time, better natures prevailed and our founders and their descendants thought better of their actions and sought to abolish slavery.  And many people died, trying to defend their way of life, thinking that they were letting go of their freedom; many people died trying to establish freedom for all men and women and to ensure that the promise of liberty is extended to all people. And in another generation, many women and their male allies fought for universal suffrage, ensuring that women had the right to vote as well as men.  And in another generation, we as a nation pulled together to save the world from the tyranny of fascism in its numerous forms—and from Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.  And in another generation, our people fought for civil rights, to close the deal that had been struck with the former slaves, inaugurated by the Emancipation Proclamation, and to reassert the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, regardless of race, color, or creed.  Since that time, we have suffered from other expressions of tyranny, such as unbridled warfare that has served big moneyed special interests, putting oil and corporate profits before American lives; unrestricted government access to our personal information and our private lives; or forms of extremism from both ends of the spectrum, and so forth and so on.  Through each and every era, we have fought to make ourselves better.  Sometimes we have succeeded. Other times, we have strayed further from the path, thinking ourselves more free or more equitable.  But in every age, it has been these principles that have driven us to become better than we were before, and in my opinion, this is the source of American exceptionalism.

One of the marks of American liberalism has been to right the wrongs of former times, to seek justice for the downtrodden, and to repent for our iniquities as a nation.  A certain amount of shame has always accompanied the realization that we have done wrong.   Conversely, one of the marks of American conservatism has been a resistance to feeling shame about ourselves as a nation, but in some ways that pride has stood in the way of realizing one of the most important principles of the Judeo-Christian faith systems: repentance.  Long ago, during the Revolutionary War, patriotism meant willingness to die for one’s country, defending one’s freedom.    Modern patriotism has veered off course, attempting rather to defend one’s pride.  Modern patriotism has become synonymous with pride, rather than sacrifice.  And overweening pride can easily become a sin.  I do not seek to take away the source of anyone’s pride.  People want to feel good about themselves.  That’s their right.  We all need pride, as does any child being trained to walk or speak.  We all need a gold star on our homework. But how long do we have to be given gold stars in order to keep us moving forward?  After a while, we need to put away childish things and walk on our own. And a part of this is recognizing our mistake, taking responsibility for our iniquities, for repentance. 

We need a healthy dose of pride in who we are, as a people, as a nation.  But we need that pride to be tempered with humility and compassion, and indeed, repentance for our wrongdoings.  King David, the model of the Biblical king, modeled humility before God, and embodied repentance.  Are we claiming to be greater than David?  Have we surpassed him in perfection?  

So how do I feel about American exceptionalism?  I believe that our exceptionalism lies in our ability to embrace the diversity that made this nation, and through it to build unity.  In welcoming the immigrants of all classes, creeds, races, colors, and abilities, who were able to make this nation prosperous and industrious, and who can still do so if given the right opportunities.  Taking the best of all cultures and sharing and appreciating them.  And are we a melting pot or a salad bowl? I don’t care.  We’re both.  We’ll start our meal with salad and then we move on to the fondue.  And Guess what? After the meal, there is a delicious fruit salad for us all to enjoy! That diversity can make all of us stronger, individually and corporately.  And Our exceptionalism lies in our compassion toward other nations, neighbors or not, allies or not, being willing to lend a hand in the face of adversity and tragedy, being willing to build bridges where there were only chasms.  Our exceptionalism lies in our ability and our desire to make peace and to avoid war, not to thrive in it and get rich on it.  

I want us to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. But I want us to do better and to be better; to never stop trying to become what God wants us to be, what our better natures want us to be.  We have a lot to be proud of, but we also have a lot farther to go.  As with any promising teenager, we cannot let them rest on their laurels and be satisfied with a few A papers, a few perfect test scores, a few goals or touchdowns scored.  There is a whole life ahead of us, but we are going to have to graduate high school and go to college, or embark on a career.  No one is going to give us handouts just for being a good student. We have to keep working.  And if that requires a little humility, and a little repentance, and a few “I’m sorries”, then so be it, if it will ensure that we remain righteous and that we retain the greatness that our ancestors worked so hard for.  Be proud of our achievements, be humble about our natural abilities, and be quick to apologize, to police our own, to make amends, to build alliances and to move on.  And to embrace the greatness that I know we are capable of. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms
Accompanying this essay is a photo of me in 1998, firing a civilian version of the M14 rifle at the National Matches in Camp Perry, Ohio, where I was competing as a member of the California State Service Rifle Team.  The M14/M1A rifle, a civilian firearm based upon a 1950s-1960s era military issue service rifle, is now categorized as an assault weapon by many states that have passed assault weapon legislation, as well as under the now defunct Clinton-era federal ban on assault weapons.  This image is provided as proof that there is, in fact, a legitimate and peaceful usage for so-called assault weapons outside of a military context.  However, this essay is intended to inspire and spark deeper reflection and more conciliatory, bipartisan discussion on the topics of gun control, gun culture, and firearms regulation. 

A few days after the recent tragic Florida school shooting, an old grad school friend posted on her Facebook page:

F*cking enough, America.  Nobody needs bloody assault rifles outside of a military context. If you disagree, unfriend me now because you are a disgrace. [censorship mine]

Initially, I was deeply hurt by her sweeping generalizations and indictment of everyone who disagrees with her, but I chose not to respond directly or to engage her in a public debate on her page, but rather to write a collegial and reasoned response, sharing my own personal experience and knowledge as my contribution to the larger question of gun control, liberty, and making our society more peaceful and functional.  It is my wish, with this essay, to inspire people to critically engage their own viewpoints, while respecting those of others, as we figure out how to better our society and make our nation safer.  I want people to explore the viewpoints of their erstwhile opponents without resorting to divisive, dismissive, and uninformed generalizations. Rather, I encourage people to educate themselves fully on all matters and to seek compromise and understanding, rather than division. 

I was raised in a patently anti-gun family, and spent most of my childhood and early adulthood proudly proclaiming my liberal attitudes. Sometime in the mid-1990s, during grad school, I began to realize that life is rarely black and white, and during that time, as part of my work with military veterans’ groups, I was introduced to target shooting.  And I was good.  Very good, in fact.  But as an academic, this kind of pursuit is rarely accepted or lauded by the largely liberal academe.  And so I hid my other life from most of my friends and colleagues in the academy, knowing that they would not tolerate this and that I would likely be ostracized and marginalized for my pursuits.  Only a few close friends were invited to share my joy when I was awarded three medals for my performance in the 1997 and 1998 California State Service Rifle and High Power Rifle Championships.  In some ways, I felt as if I had to keep my true identity in the closet.  However, it was very beneficial to me, as a lifelong liberal who was for the first time seeing the other side of what I had assumed was a very cut and dry argument, to be able to hear first-hand the lived experiences of people far more conservative than I.  In many ways, it embodied what one of my Theology professors had taught us regarding the need to truly hear and engage the lived experiences and the reality of one’s conversation partners and even one’s opponents; to attempt to be in their shoes, to absorb their viewpoints in order to fully understand them and work with them toward building consensus and achieving compromise.  Without this, we can never expect any real progress, change, or collaboration, and in fact, true compromise would be impossible.  

And so in 1998, I traveled to Camp Perry, Ohio with the State Rifle team and competed in the National Matches, giving it my best, but putting up some relatively mediocre scores in the presence of 1300 of the nation’s best shooters, both civilian and military alike.  Yet it was a truly edifying experience and I cherish the friendships I garnered, and the viewpoints—political, social, personal, and athletic—that I was exposed to and had the opportunity to engage.  Since that time, I have retired my rifles and have never shot a match again, partly due to the increased firearms restrictions in the state of California, which by nature classify my M14/M1A as an assault weapon, due to certain components in its configuration, forcing me to register it with the CA Department of Justice as a “grandfathered” assault weapon.  The uninitiated viewer might look at this gun, with its wood stock and its classic lines—inspired by the old M1 Garand rifle that was used in WWII and helped defeat Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini—and assume that this rifle is an antiquated piece of history, more nostalgia than performance.  However, this rifle was a highly tuned match rifle that was very much the equal of the AR-15 rifle, which was only just then starting to displace the M14/M1A as the equipment of choice in the service rifle category of target shooting.  In some ways, it outperforms the AR-15 in terms of range and bullet trajectory, but the AR-15 is a lighter rifle with far less recoil, and is an ideal competition rifle for smaller or lighter competitors, including women, who are a rapidly growing demographic in target shooting.  In fact, the year I competed, there were several young women on the California junior team.  

The perceptive viewer will notice, at the extreme left side of the photograph, the muzzle of an AR-15 which was being fielded by the shooter to my left, and also about 70% of the shooters on the field in 1998.  At this time, twenty years later, the AR-15 has fully eclipsed the M14/M1A type rifle as competitive equipment of choice, on account of its light weight and low recoil, as well as recent advances in technology that allow it to compare with the naturally more accurate M14/M1A. With that said, this flies in the face of those who would uncritically claim that the AR-15—or any so-called assault rifle, for that matter—has no legitimate usage outside of warfare.  There are tens of thousands of competitive target shooters across the US who compete in local, state, regional, and national matches every year, as well as perhaps ten times that number who practice target shooting at private and public ranges on a regular, but non-competitive, basis.  Many of these competitors shoot in Service Rifle categories, which now almost exclusively utilize the AR-15.  The origin of this is that as of the early twentieth century, the U.S. realized that marksmanship is the core of all effective military training, and if we are going to have a strong military that can protect our nation, we are going to have to encourage marksmanship among all citizens, of all ages, so as to ease the burden of military marksmanship instructors upon induction into basic training. The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP), originally formulated as a department of the U.S. Government, called the Department of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM), sought to support and promote individual marksmanship to further prepare people for military service and to anticipate and precede more advanced training.  Many baby boomers and those born well before 1970 will remember school programs promoting marksmanship, gun safety, and even school rifle teams, in an era when military training and service were considered propaedeutic to life, and not yet tainted by the stigma of mistrust of government that arose out of the Vietnam War.  While its functions are extremely limited compared to an earlier era, the CMP still exists to this day and is dovetailed with the many service rifle competitions held around the U.S.  And the rifles used in these matches are by nature military style rifles, or derive from the same family as past and present military “service” rifles, although stripped of the more dangerous and exclusively combat related functions, such as selective fire, or fully automatic capability.  Until the day arrives when world peace is established, until the time when we abolish all borders and the need for a military, the armed forces will continue to be one of the largest and most viable sources of stable employment and advancement for both the urban and the rural poor alike.  It has also become home to many women, and many people of the LGBTQ+ community, who proudly serve their country, despite the ambivalence of the current administration toward them.  Until that time, the concept of abolishing the military is simply a peacenik’s pipe dream, and the need for marksmanship training is still of utmost importance.  

And with white supremacists, such as those who marched on Charlottesville this past August, openly displaying firearms during purportedly “peaceful” protests—even pointing them at synagogues and threatening Jews and other minorities, as well as peacefully counter-protesting clergymembers, while local law enforcement in Charlottesville did nothing about it—these members of right wing extremist groups often carrying the very same AR type rifles that are now undergoing debate, then I am grateful that minorities and vulnerable demographics, especially people of color, can still take full advantage of their constitutional rights to defend themselves against the increasing waves of armed bigots coming out of the woodwork in the last two years.  Trust me, you are not going to have an easy time disarming these folks, no matter what sweeping legislation you pass.  But that is a separate issue from the one at hand in this essay. 

It is no small matter that we are seeing a dramatic and widening gap between the lifestyles and culture of the regions which are the most conservative, on one hand, and those of the coastal urban areas, on the other, most frequently representing a more liberal set of values.  Each side thinks that they are the entirety of America, when in fact they are not; the other side can make an equally valid claim to represent a good portion of America, and to deny the existence or validity of the other is a grave mistake—one which has led to our present predicament in which the liberal left and the conservative right are in open warfare with one another in the legislature, and in which our current president was elected as a reaction to—and an outgrowth of—that unwillingness of each side to truly recognize the humanity of the other.  There is enough blame to go around, but for the purposes of this piece, I highlight the fact that the liberal left, comfortable in its urban, coastal enclaves, seems to deny the very reality of the lifestyles of the so-called “fly-over states”, where agriculture, hunting, shooting sports of every kind, country music, and a more homogeneous cultural and ethnic demographic are still the norm, and represent the hegemony.  Just because it’s not your culture, or that you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean you have the right to disparage or discount it.  If we, in the cities, in our liberal ivory towers, see fit to ignore the realities of coal mining country and farm country, and the rural poor, then we are doomed to keep fanning the flames of division and we are partly responsible for fueling cultural warfare. And we will continue to see more outlandishly “populist” candidates being fielded by the Republican Party, and we are going to suffer from increasingly poor communication with their constituents. 

What are the solutions to this problem, which has most recently reared its ugly head in the form of the Florida school shooting?  I don’t have all the answers.  But there are many options that we must discuss, and many of us are going to have to entertain some compromise, and we will need to consider new and innovative ideas, rather than keep circling around each other like two exhausted pugilists fielding the same tired footwork, neither gaining an advantage over the other; or people pointlessly doing jumping jacks in order to appear busy, as if their exertion were equal to accomplishment.  The following changes must be on the table for consideration: (1) Expanded and universal background checks are an obvious start, which were supported by conservatives (and even the NRA) in former eras.  (2) We will have to implement increased prosecution of firearms offenders, something which is surprisingly lacking.  (3) Recently discussed have been so-called “red flag laws”, which target high risk persons who have repeatedly displayed violent behavior and may be demonstrably a danger to themselves and others.  (4) It is widely known that the 1990s era federal ban on assault weapons demonstrated no measurable improvement on gun-related violence and was therefore allowed to “sunset” by the federal government.  As such, rather than attempt to revive the obsolete and ineffectual plan for a universal ban on so-called “assault weapons” (which is a politically created legal terminology and not a widely accepted technical or meaningful military categorization of weaponry), perhaps we need to explore the licensing of controversial weapons such as the AR-15, in the same manner that we license automobiles, a model which has shown demonstrable success in diminishing vehicular deaths since the inception of the system.  (5) Additional remedies need to address the reasons why these perpetrators continue to act out in violent ways, considering that most have been previously identified as “at risk” or troubled youth and yet they have fallen through the cracks; and in fact the majority of most notorious culprits who have employed these weapons in mass shootings in recent times have been identified as young white males, and often operating under ultra-nationalist and racist ideologies.  Despite the historical prevalence of firearms in American culture, and the relatively recent decline in the ubiquity of firearms across all regions and multiple demographics, we have never before seen the unrelenting frequency of these mass-shootings at schools and public venues.  Something is happening in the mentality of our culture and is activating a sleeper effect in the most disturbed of our youth, inculcating in them a doomsday reaction in which they deem it acceptable to solve their problems in this manner.  This kind of reaction was not a widespread phenomenon in earlier eras, when gun safety and marksmanship were commonly taught and accepted in public schools in urban and rural areas alike.  (6) And we simply must begin preventing those who are deemed mentally ill from gaining access to firearms, for their own safety and that of others.  To urge the removal of mental illness from this debate, due to the specious claim that mentally ill people rarely commit violent crimes (as I have recently read from the ranks of self-proclaimed punditry) is to forget that most gun related deaths are in fact suicides.  It is also misguided to pretend that those who commit the most egregiously violent acts do not suffer from a form of mental illness.  This tack also serves to exempt the mentally ill from being screened before gaining access to firearms, based upon some stilted attempt to defend their privacy, while simultaneously perpetuating the myth that all gun owners are equally capable of committing heinous crimes and violent acts, simply on the basis of their firearms ownership—an argument which questionably shifts the blame from the user to the gun.  (7) Among the deeper issues, we may enumerate the issue of glorification of violence in entertainment and media, in which youth of a variety of demographics are subliminally and systemically taught that violence is acceptable and appropriate. From video games, to movies, to popular music, they are inundated with violence and as such build up a level of tolerance for increasing levels of brutality in their lexicons.  

The foregoing are merely a start, if we are to see real change. All of these will require bipartisan efforts, as well as careful, introspection among people of all political standpoints. It will not be easy, but to continue down the road we are on will be much harder.  But for gun-control activists and supporters to glibly and smugly claim that there is no legitimate usage for these firearms outside of warfare, and to aggressively challenge all comers, belligerently issuing ultimatums in the guise of social activism and moral outrage, sounds more like something that we have come to expect from the most martial of all warhawks, and not from the classic liberal peaceniks.  We certainly need to continue the discussion of how to make our streets and our homes safer.  But I cannot stand silently by while we pursue the same partisanship in our attempts to overrun and disable each other so that our side can win. I have seen too much partisanship over the last twenty years, and particularly in the last election, where people have put party before nation, and have made excuses for deeply flawed candidates and ideologies.  “My country, right or wrong, my country” has given way to “My party, right or wrong, my party”. And I see this divisiveness as destroying our nation.  

The kind of declamatory rhetoric I quoted at the start of this essay is intended to divide, not unite.  Rather than try to convince each other of the rightness of our logic, or make ultimatums that are intended as a precursor to overwhelming each other’s sides with superior force of will, I invite you to seek out people from the other camp and try to understand their viewpoints, ultimately with the intention of building consensus, seeking to find useful compromise that will unite rather than divide, that will find new and innovative collaborative solutions to this raging, endemic problem. 

In closing, this essay is not meant to minimize or trivialize the pain of those who have lost or have suffered during the recent shooting, or any previous tragedies—especially the students of Parkland, Florida who are now protesting with passionate purpose.  In fact, we as a nation are suffering, with no foreseeable respite.  It is a serious situation that needs to be taken seriously, and if we merely find scapegoats and react with only a thin veneer of meaningful action—without the support of both sides, as was the case with much of the previous gun control legislation—then we will continue to find ourselves in the situation we are in right now, with more and more school shootings and more and more mass murder. All of us are responsible to bring about these changes together. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Dear Friends:
I realize it has been a while since I posted. Copied below is a transcript of the speech I gave at the closing ceremonies of the second annual Interfaith Solidarity March LA, on Sunday, April 2nd, 2017.


We are at war.  Not with Iraq.  Not with Afghanistan, or Iran, or any other nation.  Not with humans.  We are at war with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, religiocentrism, duplicity, corruption, greed, apathy, fear, hatred, willful ignorance, violence, and many other spiritual faults.  We are at war with all of these, and up until recently, we have been losing miserably!

But we are not going to win this war with guns or bombs or swords, not physical ones. 

And we are not going to win by treating other humans as enemies—either our own or those of God.  We often think that we are at war even with our own countrymen, liberals against conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans.  Rather, it is the forces of darkness that will us to be at odds with one another.  But the only way we will win the war is to realize that we are all on the same side.  It is a diabolical spirit, whether you take that literally or figuratively, which puts us at opposite ends of the spectrum, fighting over nomenclature and ideology, rather than seeking common ground.  We will only win this war if we seek compromise with our opponents.  Some of the people who most need to hear our words are those who are not here.  And it’s neither their fault, nor ours.  It’s a process.  We have to invite them.  We have to include them more and more. And if they resist, we need to try harder. 

If we reach out, first to the most willing, those of churches and synagogues, people of faith who may not agree with us, but who are indeed people of faith, we will begin the peacemaking process.  And we must honor their opinions, listen to their concerns, treat them as valid, try to understand their unique perspectives, and then—and  only then—can we possibly seek to find common ground, and to work together to solve the problems that haunt us all!  It won’t be easy, but this is the only way the human race will progress beyond the primitive, tribalistic spirit of constant aggression and xenophobia. 

The Apostle Paul talked about this 2,000 years ago. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, early on in his career as a Xn missionary, he hints at the concept of the “whole armor of God”, a beautiful metaphor for godly righteousness not of this world.  Later, in Ephesians, he speaks more extensively, fleshing out this concept.  And from across time, he warns us not to treat our human opponents as deadly enemies.  Many people miss the point of this, getting caught up in the metaphor of arms and armor—particularly men, I have found—like little boys who have found something of interest in the scriptures, something to captivate their imaginations, full of soldiers and swords.  And they imagine that Paul is actually talking about physical arms and armor.  But Paul is not speaking of earthly battle.  He is speaking of a spiritual one, which we are still waging today. 

It might be helpful to recite, at length, his words about this from Ephesians 6.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

But I think his earliest mention of this concept, in 1 Thessalonians, is not only the most succinct, but the most salient, because it speaks to all of us, from any faith.  He states, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thess 5:8).  My friends, those are the three keys, which he mentions elsewhere as what will abide: faith, love, and hope.  And he reminds us that the greatest of these is LOVE.  Paul’s wisdom has not been surpassed by the realpolitik of modern times, which tells us that the wisdom of the ancients is no longer valid, or that the compassion of Jesus Christ is antiquated.  I assert that it is the time for those of faith—and even those of no faith, the people of secular conscience and humanistic reason—to stand up and proclaim our message of peace, to remind the jaded rest of the world that we are to be listened to.  Regardless of who is elected to public office, the rightful leaders of this country are the leaders of faith and conscience, and it is their time to be heard.  The great faith leaders of this generation are here in this room, the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of their time; and it is their time to lead and to be heard. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Message of Peace, With a Tinge of Foreboding

In Nazi Germany, and prior to the rise of the Third Reich, there was a widely propagated sentiment that no matter how vehemently a person might protest that they knew one decent Jew, there was really no such thing.  That inside each and every Jew was a war profiteer, a leech upon the jugular vein of German society just waiting to cash in.  Waiting to take over and destroy the fabric of precious Aryan culture and to spread their filth everywhere.[i]  And that as hard as one might try to find one decent Jew, the existence of such an animal was a mere myth.  Today, the parallel to this is that in 21st century America, we have a growing and more vociferous group of people who claim that there is no such thing as a decent Muslim.  That at the heart of their religion is a core of evil that hates Christian society, that hates Jews, that hates America, that hates democracy, and that each and every Muslim is just here in the US to profit from our hard work, and that they—the Muslim, as a category—are just waiting to be mobilized as terrorists, to destroy and kill all of us. 

As a scholar of religion, I have studied many world religions, and have a good grasp on the core values of almost every world religion, some more deeply than others.  And I am a specialist in Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, so I am not without knowledge of the core values and the varied, and often highly embarrassing history of each of the two root traditions of the Judeo-Christian faiths.  To speak of Islam as if it were inherently a religion bent on the destruction of Judaism and Christianity, that it is rooted in violence and destruction and subjugation of all non-Muslims, is patently untrue, and is not supported by history.  It is a vicious and nefarious lie, rooted in a willful ignorance—arrogance—the same malignant credulity of mankind that led to the Holocaust.  And frankly, I am fearful that we, as a nation, are on the same exact road as Nazi Germany was on in the 1920s and 1930s—far closer than anyone might expect. 

NO ONE is saying that extremists do not exist within the Islamic faith, just as they do in every faith. But to label an entire religion of 1.6 billion people based upon the actions of perhaps less than a fraction of 1% worldwide, is not only madness, it is bigotry, and it is unacceptable.  As a scholar, and as an activist in the field of interfaith dialogue, I work with, and personally know more Muslims than most non-Muslim Americans will ever know.  I have worked with thousands of them, and personally know hundreds of them.  These are good people, whose religion is a lot closer to Judaism and Christianity than you would ever imagine, unless you were educated in this field. 

Over the last several years, I have brought thousands of my students to mosques, among the many field trips to different houses of worship that they attend, and not a single student, after the fact, has ever felt that Islam was inherently a nefarious religion.[ii]  In fact, I have placed on the IRTPJ blog, which you can read if you like, the academic paper of one such student who was so shocked to see how wrongly the media portrays Islam, that she wants to share this insight with others.[iii] 

There are some friends and acquaintances of mine, who happen to be of a more politically conservative mindset, but are more distinguishable by their bigotry than their conservatism per se—some of these friends happen to feel that all Muslims are essentially evil, that Islam is a nefarious religion, bent on the destruction of Democracy, Christianity, and America, and that deep down underneath, they are all terrorists, just waiting to be activated or awakened from their sleeper cells.  Sound familiar?  Just a few weeks ago, I helped lead a major interfaith march in downtown LA which was attended by throngs of peaceful Muslims whose only hopes were to share with America their love for being in this land, to share that they are peaceful people, and to ask that their neighbors stand up with them against bullies and bigots, and help to reject violent extremism in the name of religion.  And what do you know, not a single major US news source was there to cover it—go figure.  Not the first time that has happened when Muslims are involved.  But who was there?  We had LA Sheriff’s Department there to support, including several LASD deputies who happen to be Muslims themselves. Are they terrorists?  LASD didn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have hired them.  We also had LAPD out in force to support us.  The Captain of the Olympic Division marched right alongside of me in support of Muslims.  Is he cowed by the wiles of terrorists?  What about the LAPD Reserve Officer who is on the board of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which took part in our march and was the final destination?  Or the LAPD officer who is part of Community Affairs interfaith outreach, also a Muslim—is he a terrorist?  And what about my students who are Muslim, some having come from other countries to study here, others born here—are they terrorists?  What about the man who often heads the tours for my students at his mosque, who is by day a cancer researcher whose work has contributed extensively to cancer research and whose findings might one day save your life or that of a loved one?  Is he a terrorist?  Some people claim that he looks like one, since his traditional beard and garb make him reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden.  But he has contributed more to the well-being of our society than many of you ever will in your entire lives.  What about my doctors?  The Iranian Shi’ite Muslim doctor who helped save my life when I nearly died of bacterial meningitis in 2001.  Is he a terrorist?  How about your doctors?  You are likely to have at least one Muslim doctor in the course of your life, just as many of your doctors have likely been Jewish in the past.  Are they all terrorists?  Why don’t you say that to their faces while they are stitching you up after bypass surgery, or administering your chemotherapy. 

I want to address a couple of points here.  Many people throw around terms that they seem to think define Muslims the world over, yet they do not even know what these terms mean.  They have made up meanings for those terms that serve their willfully ignorant views of Muslims, that paint them as the bad guy of some 1980s action film.  Terms like Jihad and Shariah and Infidel are tossed around as if everyone knows what these mean.  I will not launch into a lesson about these here, preferring to handle that another day.  But the concept of being an infidel has surfaced, with many people putting an Arabic character ostensibly meaning “infidel” on their social media profiles, as if to say that they are proudly “owning” their identity as “infidels” as part of their resistance to the onslaught of radical Islam, which is trying to convert or slaughter everyone.  Allow me to remind you that the term “infidel” was always a term used primarily by Christians and in a Christian context, well before the advent of Islam.  And it is not the most accurate way of translating the Arabic word kaafir or kufr—which simply means non-believer and depending upon how one uses the term, can be just as innocuous as the term is in English—“someone not of our faith,” or goyim in Hebrew.  It’s all in the tone of how you use the term.  By putting this Arabic character on your social media profiles, you are not resisting anything except your own education!  You are not insulting anyone except the angels of your better nature.[iv] 

What about these so-called “No-go zones” that have ostensibly appeared all over Europe and America?  As commonly defined by conservative news sources, they do NOT exist in America, and likely not in Europe either.  There is no hard evidence for these existing in America at all.[v]  They are a myth.  Even in Britain, the reports of a no go zone were sparked by the campaign of a radical cleric named Anjem Choudary, now on trial[vi], and his neckbearded leprechaun of a henchman posting decals on lamp-posts around Britain[vii], which have no more authority and enforceability than your teenager posting a sign on his or her door that says “kids only, adults keep out!”  This does not qualify as a juvenile no-go zone.  Most Muslims don’t care what you do with your private time and are happy to be protected by the U.S. Constitution, which is the closest form of government to that which is fostered by the real concept of Shariah, which just means maintaining a Godly and compassionate lifestyle—much like how we understand Biblical values—and not what it is often misinterpreted by bigots the world over. 

And although this kind of bigotry is most commonly practiced by those from Conservative camps, it ultimately has nothing to do with conservatism.  It’s bigotry plain and simple.  I am glad that I have plenty of conservative friends that repudiate this kind of bigotry and realize that it has no place in real Christianity either.  Frankly this kind of rhetoric has a limited lifespan.  My job, both as an educator and as an activist in religious tolerance, is to make sure that it ends with these bigots and doesn’t get passed on to their children’s or grandchildren’s generations.  Even if they’re not willing to see reason, blinded by their own willful ignorance, at least their descendants will see that this is the same kind of outdated thinking that led to the Holocaust and nearly wiped Judaism off the face of this earth. 

All of you listening to this have a choice to make.  You have to decide what side of history you want to be on.  Do you want to be remembered along with the Nazis, as those whose fear of the other, of the unknown, allowed them to preach hatred and violence, all under the guise of protecting your cultural values from the purported violence of another?  Do you want to be reviled by your children and their children as bigots, much like we now ridicule the ideologues of the ante-bellum South who thought that slavery brought immense good to society and provided a civilizing influence to their slaves?  Or how we now shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the outdated sentiments of the post-bellum South, believing that the Black Man, as a category, would bring ruin upon their Lily White society of Jim Crowe and lynchings?  Or how much of the world, even America, was happy to rid themselves of the perfidious Jew, another unwanted category, and how large portions of Christian Europe were happy to glibly stand by and watch as the Nazis rounded up their Jewish neighbors, as if somehow, the Jew had earned this fate by being a “murderer of Christ.”  Is that how you want to be remembered, as one whose place in history is beside these ne’er do wells?  Bullies and bigots alike?  We stand at a crossroads here in America.  If we cultivate these sentiments, we run the risk of having our children shake their heads at our memories, saying, “never again.”  Or we can reject hatred, and do as the Lord asked us, and treat the sojourner with respect.  I know what I choose, and I am not going to allow my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, Muslims or Jews or Christians or otherwise, to be bullied by bigots.  I will not stand quietly by.  Not on my watch. 

Happy Easter, folks.  Ask yourselves what Jesus would do right now.