In the aftermath of the events of the past week, now that a suspect in the Boston bombings is in custody, now that the media has buzzed once again with the purpose behind the bombings being Religion—how are we to respond?
First, we need to take this question out of the “Islamic Extremists” reasoning. While both suspects may have identified themselves with Islam, it’s clear that for the deceased suspect, he didn’t understand the Qu’ran at all (claiming that “the Bible is a cheap copy of the Qu’ran” he obviously doesn’t understand how to read history, either), and the younger suspect had only been to the local mosque once in the last three years, smoked marijuana and drank, all activities that would not be condoned by a typical “religious” Muslim. In short, though these two brothers may have claimed to identify with Islam, they didn’t really understand the very religious tradition they claimed as what had driven them to bomb innocent civilians in their anger against the United States.
While fundamentalism can be dangerous in any religious tradition and certainly we have seen the results of fundamentalist Islam, I see a tide shifting in the media portrayal and coverage. It is no longer about Islamic fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism, and not even fundamentalism but religion in general. When “religion” is labeled as a reason for why people would kill innocent civilians with homemade bombs, we all are getting thrown under the bus.
This adds fuel to the fire of why people reject religion altogether. They hear the shouts of the Westboro Baptist Church (which neither is Baptist nor a church, in my opinion, though they may be located in Westboro) and see Christians as hate-filled people. Even if, as most people know, the Westboro church is rejected by most Christians, there are enough other churches that reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks that people don’t want to be associated with a church, let alone Christianity.
My concern about this recent hype in the media and the use of the word “religion” is that the discourse is going beyond the extremists, beyond the fundamentalists, beyond the right-wing branches of religious traditions. The journalists are reporting that the older brother was becoming more devout, “praying five times a day.” As one of the basic principles of Islam, that’s like saying “they began taking communion every Sunday” about a Disciple. The basic practices of a faith tradition become extreme to the rest of the world.
Religion is getting a bad reputation, and those of us in church leadership ought to be concerned about it. Because the real problem is not religion, it’s the use of violence that uses religion as a cover. It’s the use of religion as a blanket excuse to kill in the name of God, when we kill in the name of humanity, in the name of violence.
There are plenty of verses about peace in the Qu’ran, in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, in many other religious texts around the world. Most religions, since ancient times, have had passages and practices about peaceful living with one’s other religious neighbors, alongside the passages that justified war and violence.
What happens when we allow the media to characterize any one religion in a negative light? Eventually, it catches up to all of us.
In the “Spiritual but not Religious” conversation, the pull to reject religion is greater with these kind of definitions. When religion is labeled as the reason for one’s negative, violent actions, it is hard to reclaim the word religion as anything good. But we must do so. If our argument for religion is that being part of an organized community is better than being solo or being part of a detached community (lest we run the risk of assuming that people who identify as Spiritual but not Religious aren’t part of a community, so be careful here) we need to speak out against those who would characterize Muslims and Islam, against voices within Christianity that are violent, hurtful or abusive, and we must not be silent.