Confronting Religious Violence

Union Theological Seminary
October 2-3, 2015

3,000 female captives held by ISIS. American Journalist Eliza Griswold told the story of one of these women, relating how, with the intervention of her father, she managed to survive and became one of the lucky few who escaped her captors.

Griswold offered poignant narratives obtained from members of the Iraqi minority communities living under ISIS during her remarks that marked the first day of the conference on Confronting Religious Violence hosted by the Union Theological Seminary early in October. Injecting a personal and human element into her remarks, Griswold spoke of a father she had interviewed who was forced to pose as a member of ISIS to purchase his daughter in order to get her back from the ISIS traffickers who had kidnapped her. Although there was a happy ending for this family, the tragic realization that so many others will not have such good fortune is heart wrenching.

Griswold spoke eloquently of the fine line she must always walk as a journalist and the need to avoid any appearance of being an activist. Although most people would agree that the powerful stories of the people who live amidst this terror are essential to the discussion of religious violence, they give rise to the question of “what do we actually mean by ‘religious violence?’”

Rev. Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary, started the conversation with the concepts of “Informed piety” and “compassionate wisdom,” tenets of the Seminary, along with “intellectual responsibility and a seriousness of focus” that must pick up where “religious violence” has become a trite reference when framing the complex nature of the conflicts we face today. We must understand current global conflicts contextually and not simplify their complex births with crude and ironically loaded terminology that has become ‘obsolete,’ ‘irrelevant’ and ‘ambivalent.’ In an effort to do just that, the conference sought to bridge the divide between the scholarly, religious and policy-making worlds. The historical, theological, political and legal discourse regarding the causes as well as the interpretation of and response to current trends of religious violence were explored. Speakers spanning a broad range of disciplines highlighted the shortcomings of the current mainstream understanding of “religious conflict” and specifically addressed the fallout from the war in Iraq and the current crisis in Syria. The conversation, although occasionally heated, found a consensus when the term “religious violence” came under review. However, while all agreed that religion does indeed matter, their thinking diverged on how it matters.

Father Patrick Ryan S.J., the McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University stated, “We people of faith have seldom looked inter-subjectively at war.” Father Ryan’s examination of the “fatal subjectivities” of the Abrahamic faiths, both in antiquity and modernity, was a powerful moment of reflection during the conference, which revealed how deeply religion does indeed matter.

In contrast, scholar Dr. Hossein Kamalay of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard College sought to highlight the deficiencies in using the history of Islam and its theological underpinnings to understand today’s religious violence. Paraphrasing his argument, he suggested that violence could not be solely understood in terms of religion and belief but that it must be understood within the context of the economics, politics and the ever importance of power relations in a particular situation. Moreover, what we choose to study from the past greatly matters and it is in what we do not examine in history that may hold a key to understanding our present circumstances, i.e., what could have been done to create a situation of peaceful coexistence. It matters what people believe but let us not just speak of belief.

Dr. Scott Tenner presented a unique legal and historical perspective of the current crises in the Middle East. After his presentation, one was left to ask why longstanding international legal bodies have been underutilized and rendered futile during this extensive crisis. Continuing the legal discussion, Dr. Najam Haider of Barnard College spoke of the evolution of Islamic law from antiquity to the present. In contrast to what most people believe, it should be noted that Islamic law is inherently flexible and was therefore never codified.

Solutions remain elusive, but understanding the nature of conflicts will allow policymakers, academics and activists to respond in an appropriate, opportune and effective manner, which is what all those who work in the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding seek to accomplish!

“If I Were a Poor Black Kid”: How About Empathy Without Stereotypes?

The recent Forbes piece, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” written by self-described middle-class white man, Gene Marks, is inspiring heated responses. As a friend of mine put it, “It’s the current outrage of the internet.” People are discussing it on Facebook, Marks’ image has become a meme, and most importantly, several writers have taken to the web with thoughtfully crafted responses. The controversy not only represents a compelling conversation; it also provides an opportunity for educators who want their students to be curious and think critically.

In his article, Marks enumerates the various steps he would take as a “poor black kid” to transcend poverty; steps that highlight the importance of accessing technology…and simultaneously tend to highlight Marks’ lack of understanding of the group he is apparently attempting to help.
I was struck by many of the responses I have read, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Muscular Empathy,” in The Atlantic. He notes Marks’ deficit of understanding and applies it to race relations in the United States more broadly. To combat this deficit, he urges us to presume that the behavior of those we do not understand is nonetheless rational, which can – and should – lead to curiosity instead of uninformed assumptions.
Curiosity is something Tanenbaum’s Education Program emphasizes. We believe it is important for all students to remain interested in things that are unfamiliar – including but certainly not limited to race, economic class and belief systems. We focus on young people developing the instinct to inquire respectfully of those who have different experiences and learning to acknowledge those experiences just as we value our own. This is a manifestation of the “muscular empathy” that Coates imagines. And this empathy leads to debunking the stereotypes that even the most well-intentioned of us can hold.
Marks’ article and the many responses to it should be shared with the population about whom they are ostensibly written: the students. All too often, young people are not trusted with the weight of issues that affect them directly.  But issues of racism, classism and unintended (or intentional) stereotypes need to be addressed. We encourage educators to harness this challenging online conversation and use it as a teaching moment with high school students who can read the articles, examine the positions presented, discuss the contents, explore how the positions relate to their own experiences and enact the empathy that Coates posits as an alternative to Marks’ approach.
– Anshu Wahi
Program Associate, Education