Hubris, Anomie, and the Lack of Swim Lanes

I once had a boss whose favorite analogy for chaos in an organization was that of a swimming pool with no swim lanes, an environment in which anyone is free to swim anywhere desired or allowed with no consideration to order or to the other. Emile Durkheim in the early-twentieth century popularized the concept of anomie, a condition or society in which social (external) restraints, norms, expectations, or limits have been subjugated to the primacy of the individual. It comes from the Greek – “no laws.” It reflects a culture lacking in external restraints that once internalized are useful in limiting excessive verbiage and actions. Hubris is indicative of an excessive pride, arrogance, or assurance of being the only true and reliable font (source) of wisdom and knowledge. It is characterized by a mocking or dismissal of anyone who is foolish, ignorant, uneducated, or simple enough to disagree. It is often characterized in Johari terms by a rather large blind spot; a failure to see the hubris in one’s own actions or words or the anomie that is often the result.

In my career I worked in churches, institutions of higher education, K-12 school districts, and for profit corporations. On occasion and in each, I have seen hubris, anomie, and a lack of swim lanes in both the organization and its leadership. Without exception the result has been at best less than optimal functioning and at worst chaos. In an organization characterized by hubris, anomie and a lack of swim lanes there are also massive blind spots, causing the ones creating the dysfunction to look external to the organization or self for the fault or the blame. Organizations or individuals, in which there is a narrow orthodoxy of allowed perspectives are especially susceptible to these dysfunctions.

It appears to me that we are now facing something similar on a much more global scale in our communal and social interactions. Political leaders of all parties on local and national levels are characterized by hubris. Those engaged in social networking with its lack of swim lanes may exhibit this hubris; an arrogance that would not typify them in direct dialogical discourse. Anyone who disagrees is demonized with a direct disregard for the validity of their position. As a society the United States is becoming more anomic. External and social controls are losing way to anger, resistance, and yes, violence perpetrated more and more on an individual basis without regard for the other. Dialogue is dead. The proverbial put-down has become the toxic take-down. The opportunity to learn, stretch, grow, and change is lost. In our hubris, anomie, lack of swim lanes, and our blind spots we post without boundaries, we share without sourcing, we mock without consideration of the other, and are losing the social and civil fabric of our country. We dig into the apple barrel of our experience, beliefs, and biases, and pull out the apple we identify as the fact, the truth; the only apple in the barrel worth munching on. Please remember the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw – “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange those apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” Wouldn’t that be better?   

Are Anti-Deportation Politicians Perpetuating Prejudice?

Democrat John Lind was Woodrow Wilson’s special representative to Mexico during that country’s revolution in 1913. His prejudiced solution to Mexico’s internal challenges was to make Mexico more like the United States. He wrote, “And many would add that no peace in Mexico could or would be lasting so long as Mexico continued to be ‘Mexican.’” Both he and his bias-based solution failed. Mexico has and always will be Mexico.

I live in Mexico, not in some sterile Anglo enclave but in the mesquite-clad heart of northwestern Chihuahua. Our village has 1,182 residents, only five of whom (including my family of three) are Anglos. We have no house in the United States – our home is here. The nearest MacDonald’s is 170 miles from here. We are a village of three great traditions: pottery, baseball, and rodeos. I served a short stint as president of our local rural potable water commission (what was I thinking?) and learned some things about our village. We have a lot of empty houses and many that are rented out. A number of our residents have made the trek across the border to either escape some issues here or to work.

Last night we were invited to a dinner for some pottery-seeking Anglos. One gentleman asked me a simple question, “Why, after successful careers in the United States would you move full-time to Mexico?” We get some form of that question all the time from both family and friends. It is painted in sincerity and framed in prejudice.

You see for at least two hundred years the United States, its citizens, politicians, preachers, and even its diplomats have thought it superior to and better than Mexico. Anglo-Saxons are superior to Latins. Protestants are superior to Catholics. Football is superior to soccer. Taking charge is superior to taking time. Our revolution was superior to that of Mexico . . . and on and on and on and on. Oh, and I left out the most basic and super superior of all – living in the United States is better than living in Mexico.

Anyone having to move back to Mexico after living in the United States is certainly unfortunate. He or she is a tragedy needing to be protected, given sanctuary, and kept in the good life in the United States at all costs. I guess nothing has changed since the days of John Lind! Manifest Destiny is alive and well; the only difference is that now it applies to people instead of territory.

It matters not that there are family (still the single most important Mexican system) waiting here to welcome them home, that there are a dozen government programs set up to train, educate, integrate, employ, and otherwise sustain them when and as they return. It matters not that Mexico’s economy is the size of that of Great Britain and is growing incrementally. It matters not that more Mexicans are heading home than are heading north. It has simply become politically correct to shrink in horror at stories of deportation, because based on the bigotry that the United States is clearly and obviously superior to Mexico. It was to John Lind and it is to those of you who continue to carry the bucket filled with the polluted water of anti-Mexican bias. 

As for us, we love the United States, our families and our friends there. Personally I am a bit more partial to Wendy’s than MacDonald’s but this is now our home. We love it here. It isn’t because of the lower cost of living, but because of the higher sense of community. We love it here because Mexico abolished slavery long before the United States. We love it here because our house was threatened with a flood two years ago and what we experienced was a flood of neighbors working to help us. We love it here because we can tell you the first and last names and yes even the nicknames of every neighbor from here to the Catholic church and back. We love it here because a recent Pew Hispanic survey found that more than 70 percent of US illegal immigrants from Mexico are interested in a guest-worker program and then want to return home. Pew also tells us there are over 1,000,000 fewer Mexicans living illegally in the United States today than ten years ago.

We love it here because every July we celebrate the five cultures that are inter-woven into our community. We love it here because we love the mosaic and tapestry of the sky, desert, mountains, sunrises, and sunsets. Living here is like living inside a perpetual kaleidoscope. Please check your anti-Mexico bias at the door whenever you discuss Mexican immigration issues. Mexico is not the end of the world and it is not the end of the world to come home!

Prejuicios a Mexico

¿Son los políticos anti deportación perpetuando los prejuicios?

El demócrata John Lind fue el representante especial de Woodrow Wilson en México durante la revolución de ese país en 1913. Su solución prejuiciosa a los retos internos de México era hacer a México más como los Estados Unidos. Él escribió: "Y muchos añadirían que ninguna paz en México podría o sería duradera mientras México siguiera siendo 'mexicano'". Tanto él como su solución basada en prejuicios fracasaron. México ha sido y siempre será México.

Vivo en México, no en algún estéril enclave anglo sino en el corazón revestido de mezquite del noroeste de Chihuahua. Nuestra aldea tiene 1.182 residentes, solamente cinco de quién (incluyendo mi familia de tres) son Anglos. No tenemos casa en los Estados Unidos - nuestra hogar está aquí. El MacDonald's más cercano está a 170 millas de aquí. Somos un pueblo de tres grandes tradiciones: cerámica, béisbol y rodeos. He cumplido un corto período como presidente de nuestra comisión local de agua potable rural (¿qué estaba pensando?) Y aprendí algunas cosas sobre nuestro pueblo. Tenemos muchas casas vacías y muchas que se alquilan. Un número de nuestros residentes han hecho la caminata a través de la frontera para escapar de algunos problemas aquí o para trabajar.

Anoche nos invitaron a una cena para algunos anglos buscando cerámica. Un caballero me hizo una pregunta sencilla: "¿Por qué, después de una carrera exitosa en los Estados Unidos, se mudaría a tiempo completo a México?" Tenemos una forma de esa pregunta todo el tiempo de la familia y amigos. Está pintado con sinceridad y enmarcado en prejuicios.

Usted ve por lo menos doscientos años que los Estados Unidos, sus ciudadanos, políticos, predicadores e incluso sus diplomáticos lo han considerado superior y mejor que México. Los anglosajones son superiores a los latinos. Los protestantes son superiores a los católicos. El fútbol Americano es superior al fútbol. Tomarse el control es superior a tomar tiempo. Nuestra revolución fue superior a la de México. . . Y en y en y así sucesivamente. Ah, y dejé de lado el más básico y  superior de todos - vivir en los Estados Unidos es mejor que vivir en México.

Cualquier persona que tenga que moverse de nuevo a México después de vivir en los Estados Unidos es ciertamente desafortunada. Él o ella es una tragedia que necesita ser protegido, dado santuario, y mantenido en la buena vida en los Estados Unidos a toda costa. Supongo que nada ha cambiado desde los días de John Lind! El Destino Manifiesto está vivo y bien; La única diferencia es que ahora se aplica a las personas en lugar de territorio.

No importa que haya familia (todavía el sistema mexicano más importante) esperando aquí para darles la bienvenida a casa, que hay una docena de programas gubernamentales establecidos para entrenar, educar, integrar, emplear y sostenerlos cuando regresen. No importa que la economía de México sea del tamaño de la Gran Bretaña y esté creciendo gradualmente. No importa que más mexicanos se dirijan a hogar en Mexico que los que se dirigen hacia el norte. Simplemente se ha vuelto políticamente correcto templar con horror las historias de deportación, porque en base al fanatismo de que Estados Unidos es claramente y obviamente superior a México. Fue a John Lind y es a aquellos de ustedes que continúan llevando el boté lleno del agua contaminada de sesgo anti-mexicano.

En cuanto a nosotros, nos encantan los Estados Unidos, nuestras familias y nuestros amigos allí. Personalmente, estoy un poco más parcial de Wendy que MacDonald's pero ahora aquí es nuestra casa. Nos encanta aquí. No es debido al menor costo de vida, sino debido al mayor sentido de la comunidad. Nos encanta aquí porque México abolió la esclavitud mucho antes de los Estados Unidos. Nos encanta aquí porque nuestra casa fue amenazada con una inundación hace dos años y lo que experimentamos fue una inundación de vecinos trabajando para ayudarnos. Nos encanta aquí porque podemos decirle el nombre y el apellido y sí incluso los sobre nombres de cada vecino de aquí a la iglesia católica y la espalda. Nos encanta aquí porque una encuesta reciente de Pew Hispánico encontró que más del 70 por ciento de los inmigrantes ilegales de México están interesados n un programa de trabajadores huéspedes y luego quieren volver a hogar. Pew también nos dice que hay más de 1.000.000 de mexicanos menos que viven ilegalmente en Estados Unidos hoy que hace diez años.

Nos encanta aquí porque cada julio celebramos las cinco culturas que se entretejen en nuestra comunidad. Nos encanta aquí porque nos encanta el mosaico y tapicería del cielo, desierto, montañas, amaneceres y puestas de sol. Vivir aquí es como vivir dentro de un caleidoscopio perpetuo. Por favor, compruebe su sesgo anti-México en la puerta cada vez que usted discute temas de inmigración mexicana. ¡México no es el fin del mundo y no es el fin del mundo volver a hogar mexicana!

Wilbur Cotton: Classical Guitarist and Classy Man

Every once in a while someone enters your life for a day or two leaving a lasting impact. This morning while still lying in bed I was trying to think of those who I met for a day, but impacted me for a life. Wilbur Cotton came into my mind. I don’t know much about him; don’t know if he is still alive, but he made such an impact on me that this morning, some forty-seven years after I met him, he is the one of whom I thought.

I went to college from 1967-1971 at a small loosely Methodist-affiliated college in northwest Arkansas. How did a Pennsylvania boy end up in college in Arkansas? Easy, it was a combination of scholarships: some academic, some music, and some in the athletic department. I was not a jock, but I managed the schools track and cross-country teams and ran sprints when the fast guys were hurt or absent. When I got the letter offering such assistance, my dad told that was where God wanted me to go, so off I went.

I think it was my junior year (probably 1969) when I was called into the head of the music department’s office. I was a music minor and sang bass, played the guitar, and preached for the “Harmonaires,” the school “gospel team.” We traveled all over singing and representing the university to prospective students. It was fun and I got a half scholarship to boot!

She had a favor to ask me. Would I take one of the university cars and drive over to the Tulsa airport to pick up the performer for the next night’s performing arts series concert? It was about a ninety mile drive each way. I asked if I could take Jeanne along on the trip. Jeanne and I were engaged and I knew it would be a lot more fun if she went along. She said OK, so off we went. We were to pick up the performer, drop him off at his motel and then the music faculty would take over the next day when he would do a master class and perform that night.

As a music student I was supposed to go to the performing arts concerts. I never told Dr. Oisen that I had no idea who was performing and probably wasn’t planning on attending. That wouldn’t have gone over well. I left the meeting and went down the hall where I found my voice professor. I asked him with the most innocent expression I could muster about the next night’s concert. He explained it was to be a classical guitar performance by a well-known performer. Being an accomplished (not!) guitar player myself I was secretly glad I was not getting roped into a bassoon or harp concert.

A few hours later we had the university credit card (wow!) and were heading west on Highway 59 towards Tulsa. I had a flight number and a time, and now a name. I don’t remember the trip to Tulsa, but I am sure we had fun while passing through Leach, Kansas (a town), Dripping Springs, and Locust Grove. We made up a sign with big letters – WILBUR COTTON, took it into the airport, and waited. Being on an academic scholarship as well I had figured out that it would be easy to recognize Mr. Cotton – he would probably be carrying a guitar! Now you know why I had that scholarship!

I don’t remember where the flight was coming from, but I vividly remember a smiling gentleman coming in with a small bag in one hand, a hanging bag over his shoulder and . . . yes, a guitar in his other hand. He appeared to be relieved when he saw Jeanne’s elementary teacher - perfect rendition of his name on our sign and came right up to us. He was delightful; not stuffy or snooty at all, like I half way expected a professional classical guitarist to be. I offered to carry his guitar for him; he handed me his hanging bag. I offered to put his guitar in the back of the station wagon; he put it on the back seat next to him. I quickly got the idea that guitar was pretty special to him. It was when I opened the back door for him that I noticed his right hand. His fingers were long, thin, and had nails that were immaculately manicured to finely honed points on the tips. Wow, I had never seen anything like that on a guy. I was impressed and immediately stuck my hand in my pockets.

We drove back through the rural Oklahoma countryside. Mr. Cotton asked us lots of questions, teased us about getting married, and told us about his life and love for the guitar. He was relaxed, friendly, and very nice; I am not sure what I had expected, but probably someone who was more into Bach than into finding out about two young strangers taking him to his next concert. By the time we got back to Siloam Springs (the name of the town where our school was) it was dark, but Mr. Cotton knew all about us and we knew quite a bit about him too. I was glad Dr. Oisen picked me to go get him.

We pulled into the national chain hotel parking lot where the music department had made his room reservation. It was very strange. Wilbur and I went in while Jeanne waited in the car. Unfortunately they were full and couldn’t find his reservation. They recommended we go to a motel on the by-pass around town. I apologized to him. He smiled and assured me it was OK. We went off to the recommended motel. They were full too. I wondered what might be going on in town that weekend that all the motels were full. There were only a few motels in town so I began to be worried. The nice man behind the counter suggested we try another place. Off we went. This third place was not really very nice. It was behind a truck stop restaurant that we liked to eat at sometimes, but it was not the quality of the others. I was very hesitant. Wilbur smiled and said it was good enough for him if they had a room. We went in and sure enough they had a room. I used the university credit card and checked him in. I offered to buy him dinner. He said he was tired and hoped we didn’t mind if he just went on to sleep.

I still was a bit embarrassed. It wasn’t a very nice place and he was the guest of the university. I was mad at whoever was supposed to have made the reservation at the big nice national chain motel. I got in the car, looked at Jeanne and a light dawned in my mind. It was not a bright pretty light; but an ugly garish kind of a light. You see, Wilbur Cotton was African-American. He was a black man in northwest Arkansas looking for a motel room in 1969. There was nothing going on in town that weekend. There was simply no room for a black man, regardless of his personal life accomplishment. For the first time in my life (I was probably 20) I knowingly came face to face with the smiling “we don’t have any room for him” face of prejudice. I was mad. I was embarrassed. For the first time in three years I was ashamed of where I went to college.

That next day the music faculty took care of Mr. Cotton. I didn’t see him all day. I made it a point to talk with him before the concert and I blurted out profuse apologies. He smiled that same smile. I wondered how many times in his life he had to smile it. He thanked me and assured me that he had a good night’s sleep. That night Jeanne and I went to the concert. At the beginning he looked at us and thanked us for being his hosts. In fact, he smiled and thanked Jeanne and Phil Stover – oh my! Wilbur Cotton was the first man to pronounce us husband and wife, almost a year before my preacher father did so! That felt really good. That night Wilbur played rock and Bach, jazz and a whole host of music. I never heard anyone play a guitar like that either before or after. We sat up front; I watched his hands; they were amazing.

I knew Wilbur Cotton for about thirty hours in my life. He has remained tucked away in the inner creases of my mind ever since. This morning I thought of him again. I hope and pray that at some time in his life he no longer had to smile that smile that said “its ok . . . don’t worry about it.” I’ve never had to smile that same smile in the same way; maybe that is what my privilege is all about.

If he is still alive, he is probably in his eighties. He most likely doesn’t remember that concert that night long ago in a small college town in Arkansas. I am writing this as a way to thank him, probably years too late, not for just a great concert, but for the life’s lesson I learned from him and from those who wouldn’t give him a room. May I never forget that night, that man, or the smiling face of prejudice.

Shoofly Pie and the Religious Right

In the mid-1990’s I was the headmaster of a private K-12 school in Sarasota, FL. The school was owned by a group of Mennonite churches in town. Some said that 1 out of every 8 persons in Sarasota at that time was Mennonite, Amish, or Brethren. I always thought that was too high a number, but the three Anabaptist (non-Catholic and non-Protestant) groups did represent a large constituency.

One day I had a visit from the school’s insurance agent. Supposing he had some policy-related question I welcomed him into my office. What he then asked was not what I expected. He informed me he was running for school board for the large Sarasota County School district. He had figured out that perhaps he could win if he could get all the Mennonites in town to vote for him. He wanted my advice on how I thought he might make that happen. My response to him was two-fold: first, I informed him that many Mennonites didn’t vote; second, there was no way he would ever get all the Mennonites anywhere to agree on any one thing! He looked surprised and disappointed and left. In case you are curious, he did win the school board seat. I have no idea how many Mennonite votes he got!

This little conversation has often reminded me how folks think that this or that religious or faith-motivated community is a monolithic whole. How wrong they are! This week I was reading my copy of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, a journal of The Mennonite Historical Society of which I am a member. In it I read an article about how the Brethren in Christ group (a sub-group of the Brethren wing of Anabaptism - neither Catholic nor Protestant) had moved during the mid-1960’s to become part of the evangelical left, a “progressive” group within the evangelical community. I smiled as I read because I lived through all that. I attended an evangelical college in those “mid-1960’s” and watched and perhaps even participated in the stress of the American campus (yes, even evangelical colleges) of that era.

I suppose some of you are already chuckling because you never thought of there being a progressive “evangelical left” with all that you hear of the “religious right.” Actually, the evangelical left existed prior to the advent of what we think we know as the religious right. Let me tell you about the Chicago Declaration – an evangelical left manifesto that I supported from 1973 which “denounced racism, sexism, economic injustices, and militarism.” Is this what you thought was the evangelical agenda? Come on now, be honest!

Prior to, and after that brief stint leading a Mennonite school in the mid-nineties I have worked in our public schools. I often had to choke back a chuckle when I heard some well-meaning, but ill-informed staff member or stakeholder talk about the evil evangelical or wrong-headed religious right being some monolithic group – it reminds me of that day in my office in Sarasota and it reminds me now of a pundit wondering if this or that candidate will win the “evangelical” vote. Lots of luck. I will say to the TV pundit and the well-meaning staff member or stakeholder the same thing I said to the aspiring board member: first, lots of evangelicals may not vote at all; second and more important, good luck on getting all of us (notice the change in person) to agree on anything!

Of course, I am equally sure that all my “progressive” friends agree on everything! Right? . . . Err . . . sorry, bad choice of words! Of course not.

You see, no large or small group of people (not even a family, clan, or religious community) can be assumed to agree on everything. To act or speak like you think they do is only to put your own bias out there, or in the case of the attitude toward evangelicals of some of my progressive friends, their own “conservophobia.”

Me? I am done now and going to go get a piece of shoofly pie, the best dessert in the world – the only thing in the world all Mennonites agree on!

Note: Some of the insights in this blog were taken from Manzullo-Thomas, Devin C. “Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Anabaptism, Evangelicalism, and the Cultural Transformation of a Plain People.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol XC, No. 2, April 2016, 203-237.

Using Time Well

It is approximately 350 miles from the Sarasota/Bradenton area to Jackson County, Florida. My company has a contract with the Jackson County School District. Jackson County is in Florida’s panhandle, the most beautiful (in my opinion), and least visited part of our state. I make the trip at least once a month. On a good day, the trip takes me six hours each way. It costs approximately $91.00 round-trip (four tanks of gas and two stops at the Brooksville Wendy’s for a single hamburger, small chili, Dr. Pepper and a small Frosty). I am a Wendy’s man. My wife isn’t too jealous. I always come home to her.

On Thursday, October 12, 1865, Dr. Charles Hentz left his home in Quincy, Florida for a visit to some friends in the Sarasota/Bradenton area. Dr. Hentz was a very prominent Jackson/Gadsden County physician. He had never been to the Tampa Bay area. Hentz set out in the company of two friends and his former slave (now his paid servant and friend). Fortunately for us, Dr. Hentz was a prolific writer. He has left us a 620 page autobiography and diary. It is probably our best single window into life on the frontier of Florida in the mid-nineteenth century.

They reached Tampa on Wednesday, October 25. Averaging a steady 25 miles a day, it took them approximately two weeks to make the one-way trip. They followed the same basic route that I travel once a month. They faced hunger, storms, and hostile strangers (well, maybe the trips aren’t that dissimilar!). They lost their frying pan. This was a disaster as it kept them from easily cooking the squirrels they shot on the way.

And yes they also stopped at Brooksville, according to the map in his journal very close to the exact site of my Wendy’s. Surrounded there by a pack of wolves, they shuddered through the night, keeping their fire brightly burning. Rivers, creeks, and streams that I barely notice were major obstacles for them.

We think the economy is bad now, yet 1865 was post-war Florida and things were really tight. This is witnessed by a sign, noticed by Dr. Hentz that was nailed to a tree on the banks of the Suwannee River. Writing that, “The schoolmaster is evidently out down here,” Dr. Hentz couldn’t resist recording the sign verbatim in his diary: “enny pursan Can Cros the river at new troy at enny time as Chep as enny fary on the river for the manney, corn or mele or enny thing that I can yuse. Tomes walker his fary”

Dr. Hentz and friends enjoyed their sojourn in the Sarasota/Bradenton area (who wouldn’t?). They journeyed back to Quincy, gratefully arriving home in mid-November. Hentz kept meticulous financial records on the trip. The total round trip, including their stay in Bradenton, cost them $91.96. Does that sound familiar? Maybe times haven’t changed all that much!

Why do I tell you this tale of an obscure vacation trip in the mid-nineteenth century? Because, when I read it, I was really impressed with how much more time we have available to us today. Their difficult two-week trip takes me a delightful six hours.

Then I was hit with a twinge of guilt (remember I am Mennonite, so guilt comes easily!). I questioned myself on whether, with all my modern advantages, I have accomplished anywhere near as much as my friend, Dr. Hentz. He treated many patients (almost always after a long journey to their homes), wrote a 600 page book (with quill and ink while I am sitting here drinking tea and using my laptop), wrote over 100 treatises on “modern medicine,” was a Grand Master of his Masonic Lodge, lay-chair of his Methodist church, and recorded many wonderful day-long picnics with his family and friends. It seems that every other page of his diary has him enjoying a drink of lemonade on his veranda with some friend or family member. How did he do it all?

This is not a treatise on how we should do more or be busier. The good Lord knows I couldn’t stand that. It is, instead, the mere posing of a question. With all the blessings of our modern day conveniences how is it that we so often wish for more time to accomplish this or that?  Yet, how many of us reflect on the day’s events in diaries, enjoy lemonade, or regularly take day-long picnics with our families?

I enjoy Wendy’s. I have never encountered a wolf. I write with my laptop with cursor and pixels, not with quill and paper. I am growing a company not guiding a community. I drive my Ford above the rivers; I don’t cross the rivers at the ford (clever, huh?).  

I have so much more time; yet I seem to need so much more time. I use my chronograph to determine elapsed time and then have a fit at how much time has elapsed.

May God grant me the grace, wisdom, and judgment to use my time well. May I not be burdened by the need to achieve more things, but by the desire to achieve better things. May I have the passion not to climb the ladder for myself, but to hold the ladder for others. May I desire not to create taller buildings, but stronger foundations.

May God help me use my time well.

Amen and Amen

When Faith's Journey Goes Awry . . . The Road to Destruction

In these times, many are seeking answers to the question “What motivates religious people to commit terrible acts of violence in the name of their beliefs and/or God?” A review of opinion articles and blogs provides a cornucopia of responses, especially as it relates to the terrible deeds perpetrated by the group known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. They are often portrayed as doing these things because of economic, societal, vocational, political, or historical grievances. Usually the discussion also involves the religious component, in this case, a debate over whether they truly represent Islam or not.

Secular Western societies and reporters, who are majority nominally religious themselves, struggle with the concept that the primary cause for ISIS's actions are religious in nature, and do in fact represent a small but long-time existent branch of Islam. The historical lenses through which their actions are viewed are more like binoculars than telescopes. Often the lens goes back no further than the U.S. and its coalition partners’ several interventions in Iraq from 1990 to 2003. Surely, the existence of ISIS must be a reaction to those recent crusader-like events! The reality is that the history of “modern” fundamentalist groups in Islam goes back over 750 years. Also it is important to note that Islam is not the only religious group in history having done terrible things. It is clear that when any faith’s journey goes awry, bad things may happen.

ISIS as we know it today is a variant form of Salafism, a small but vocal branch of Sunni Islam dating from at least the time of the thirteenth century cleric and scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. He was born on the Turkish/Syrian border, only about sixty miles from Raqqa, the capital of ISIS. He called for a conservative reform in Islam, more in line with what he perceived to be the Islam of the Prophet and his immediate successors. Taymiyyah's fatwas (religious and legal declarations) are used today by current ISIS leadership to justify certain of their actions. While Islam is certainly monotheistic, it is not monolithic. There are many branches or types of Islamic thinking and loyalties, in much the same way that there are different branches within Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Neither the existence of ISIS nor its theology is a product of current events, although it uses modern technologies and methodologies to its benefit.

Any study of religion and conflict shows that great harm has at times, been done in the name of faith. Many wars have involved certain elements of religion, along with other contributing forces. There also have been conflicts where religion was not just a contributor, but “the driving force.” Virtually every major religion has engaged in such destruction. The BBC website on religions and war ( reminds us of the following:

  • The 20th century Sri Lankan war between Buddhists and Hindus. It cost 50,000 lives
  • The 14th century wars between Buddhists and nominally Muslim Mongols in China
  • The Crusades between Christians and Muslims from 1095 to 1291

Other wars or events that come to mind that were primarily religious in nature:

  • The 1857 Mountain Meadows Mormon Massacre of gentiles in southwest Utah
  • The Thirty Year’s War between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century
  • The 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants by Catholics
  • The early 19th century fighting and formation of the Sokoto Caliphate between Fulani, Yoruba, and Hausa (Muslims and animists)
  • The battles and riots in northwest Nigeria in 2010 between Christians and Muslims
  • The Cristiada Wars in Mexico in the mid-1920s and mid-1930s between lay forces of the Catholic Church and the government
  • The Münster rebellion between civil authorities and Anabaptists in 1534 in Münster, Germany

I would suggest that religion’s journey toward violence is more likely to occur when the following progression takes place:

Doctrine (A core set of beliefs is defined) ►Dogma (Beliefs are codified in a manner that demands obedience and usually endows the believer with a sense of exclusivity as the recipient and singular holder of the “truth”) ►Duty (The responsibility of the faithful to uphold and maintain the purity and homogeneity of the faith via coercion, conversion, or control of the unbeliever or apostate) ►Destruction (The ultimate from of control – violent acts ensuring the unbeliever or apostate repents, converts, or is eliminated).

This progression is neither inevitable nor normative, but it is where I believe ISIS is today. The progression is best broken before Doctrine becomes Dogma. After that, it is almost too late for a peaceful resolution between the faithful, the apostate, and the unbeliever. Thereafter, any change of progression or purpose must come either from within the broader movement and its leaders or by the application of an equal or greater and opposite force. Persuasion of the faithful that they are in error (once a Duty has been declared) is rarely effective. Add to this the power of a group or mass movement psychology, and Destruction will be even harder to dissipate by dialogue or persuasion. So it has been through the years. ISIS is likely to turn a deaf ear to the admonitions or pleas of those who we are calling “moderate Muslims” because they also have been branded with the “kafir” or infidel label. I believe that is where we are today.

Where will we be tomorrow? That is the challenge and the hope. By 1903 the British had militarily defeated the forces of the above-mentioned Sokoto Caliphate. Some years ago I lived, studied, and worked on the border between Benin and Nigeria, right on the edge of the Caliphate’s former territory. The caliphate, although no longer there in name, is an ideological reality, alive and well, perpetuated by the royal Fulanis and feared by the animists. My best friend there was Abdullahi Bello Ka’oje. He was a relative of the then-current Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Gwandu. I found Abdullahi and his relatives to be a scholarly, proud, capable, and still a little fierce people keenly aware of their poetry and their proud heritage. I say this because I suppose by 1906 Lord Lugard, head of British Northern Nigeria thought he had eradicated the caliphate. While certainly not comparing it to ISIS or the Salafist Boko Haram of northeastern Nigeria, something as powerfully religious like the Sokoto Caliphate is rarely eliminated. Its structure may go underground for a while, but its ideology and the people who adhere to it survive. In a similar sense the Yazidis of today will and have survived all the pain thrown at them over the centuries.

Therein lays a grain of hope. The current Sultan of Sokoto, to whom I have referred, about a year ago signed a letter, along with a number of other key Islamic leaders decrying ISIS as non-representative of classic Islamic theology and doctrine. Perhaps they will, over time break the link between ISIS doctrine and dogma in the minds of its followers. Therein lays the real hope.

Morris R Cohen, former professor of philosophy at New York City College, in 1946 left us his thoughts which seem very relevant given the intensity of current events:

"Cruel persecution and intolerance are not accidents, but grow out of the very essence of religion, namely, its absolute claims. So long as each religion claims to have absolute, supernaturally revealed truth, all other religions are sinful errors."

"In the end, there is no way in which people can live together decently unless each individual or group realizes that the whole of truth and virtue is not exclusively in its possession. This is a hard lesson to learn, but without it there can be no humane civilization."

Phil Stover is the author of Religion and Revolution in Mexico’s North: Even Unto Death . . . Tengamos Fe and a member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. He has served as a guest lecturer at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.