Monday, January 10, 2011

Re: Religious People and Political Violence

Interesting piece on HuffPo Religion today from writer and activist Gareth Higgins, who compares the current political climate in the US to the troubles in his native Northern Ireland. Higgins makes a compelling case for a reinjection of accountability and humanism into political discourse, placing a special responsibility on religious people to help foster an environment in which civil discourse between opposing sides becomes possible. As Higgins notes:
Religious rhetoric in the US has too often been put to the service of carving up dividing lines between who "belongs" and who doesn't. The involvement of national religious figures in demanding vengeance for 9/11 and promoting the war in Iraq are only among the most recent manifestations of how religion can be a force for destruction. This shadow side is mirrored in politics -- a means by which massive good can be brought to marginalised people, or by which a nation can oppress an entire people. It is mirrored in the media, where simmering rage can be fuelled into fire, or humanitarian wisdom shared the largest audience possible. Religion, politics and the media are not the problem, but they do have shadow sides that need to be taken seriously.
Higgins is right on the money with this observation, and I’m thankful that someone who has himself lived through a political culture where differences all too quickly become deadly can help us in holding a mirror to the state of our own political discourse in such a painful time. However, there is one part of Higgins' article that has struck a chord with me. Higgins goes on to note:
The fear expressed by many at the pace of social change is real, and needs to be responded to with respectful listening, not mockery. Sarah Palin is a human being. So is Glenn Beck. They speak for a large number of people, whether some of us like it or not. They will not be calmed down by being shouted at or mocked. The degree to which the fears they articulate are genuine will only find its proportion when their political opponents treat them with respect, or at least show willingness to listen. It works both ways of course, but that's not a point I need to make today.
I will admit that Higgins’ call for mutual respect and listening is something that I struggle with personally. Although it is sometimes a struggle, as a Quaker I firmly believe that people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck remain ever capable of hearing within themselves that still, small voice through which God makes God’s self known to each of us. The Inner Light that informs our conscience and moral sensibilities shines in every person – indeed, it is indicative of our very humanity – but it can be so hard to see that light shining when it has become caked over with layers of bigotry and hatefulness. Yet it is imperative, as Higgins notes, that we find ways to “transcend the dehumanization of those with whom we disagree” and recognize that light, especially in those with whom we most profoundly disagree.

But here is where I differ from Higgins. To people like Palin and Beck, I concur that we do indeed owe respect and a certain measure of conciliation. The door must be left open for these types, for no matter how far from their own integrity they may stray, they retain the potential to recognize at any moment that of God within themselves, and to turn themselves toward the work of justice. But to their ideas, we owe nothing. Higgins is right to point out that on both sides of our nation's political divide are people, and people should be treated with respect and strive toward reconciliation and understanding. But Higgins is wrong to suggest that the viewpoints on both sides should also be given equal credence. As long as figures like Palin and Beck use hatred and bigotry to promote social and economic policies that only serve to reinforce the same, we must stand firm upon the moral strength of our arguments in speaking truth to power and unequivocally opposing any message that threatens the promise of this nation and the ideals to which our faiths call us.

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