Panelists address recent religious violence in US

September 16, 2015 by Francesca Paris, News Editor

On Thursday, three professors and Jewish Chaplain Bob Scherr participated in “On Violence and Restoration,” a panel discussion focused on the recent wave of violence targeting various religious denominations in the United States.

Chaplain Bob Scherr led the panel of Professors Leslie Brown, Jacueline Hidalgo and Saadia Yacoob on religious violence.

Chaplain Bob Scherr led the panel of Professors Leslie Brown, Jacueline Hidalgo and Saadia Yacoob on religious violence. Arjun Kakkar/Photo Editor

On Thursday, three professors and Jewish Chaplain Bob Scherr participated in “On Violence and Restoration,” a panel discussion focused on the recent wave of violence targeting various religious denominations in the United States.

Professor of History Leslie Brown and Professors of Religion Jacqueline Hidalgo and Saadia Yacoob spoke about the historical contexts and present significance of violent outbreaks throughout the spring and summer, with Scherr moderating.

Catholic Chaplain Gary Caster and Muslim Chaplain Sharif Rosen opened the panel with a few words on transcending the present moment and honoring life. Dean of the College Sarah Bolton spoke next to offer context for the discussion. She reminded the audience of the actions of violence taken against members of certain religious groups: the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., last April; the attempted murder of Jewish employees outside a Jewish Community Center in Kansas that resulted in the deaths of Christian patrons and the shooting of black worshippers in South Carolina and subsequent spate of black church burnings throughout the summer.

In her opening statement, Brown addressed the “American tradition of burning down black churches.” She spoke about the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala. and the March on Washington, explaining that although late summer in 1963 felt like a moment of real change, only two weeks later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. She cited dozens of examples of burning attacks on black residences, workplaces and churches. In most of these cases, she said, police rarely found evidence of arson or conspiracy.

“The shooting in Charleston, S.C. is only a small part of a long history,” Brown said. In her talk, she questioned why black churches have consitntely been targets throughout our country’s history. She proposed a simple answer: the institution of the church belongs solely to the black people.

“The church is an expression of freedom, of dignity, of aspirations for equality. It’s a center of literacy, of voting registration, of community celebrations,” Brown said.

Most importantly, according to Brown, it’s a place of protest and organization. Burning black churches is not only about killing people, but also about destroying the physical location where blacks can work toward their own freedom.

Hidalgo approached the events from the lens of anti-Christian violence perpetrated by Christians. She said that many people make the mistake of viewing race and religion as distinct concepts, when there is often a “racializing edge” to violence against religion. She referenced the colonial history of the Spanish and the Portuguese. Before travel to the Americas, the Reconquista set the stage for blood purity laws that maintained Iberian Christianity as the norm.

“This norm becomes a rubric for categorizing Africans and natives and for categorizing religion versus superstition,” Hidalgo said.

Yacoob told the story of a Sikh man who was assaulted in Chicago. The assailants called the man bin Laden and told him to go back to his country, emphasizing a harmful stereotype of Muslims that has also affected the Sikh community. She argued that the anger and opposition toward Muslims does not stem from the past decade and a half, but rather from a long, pre-colonial trope of the barbaric Muslim man attacking Europe and the concept of the repressed Muslim woman, ideas that date back to medieval times.

“How do you talk about crimes against Muslims in the U.S.?” Yacoob asked. In this case, she said, “There’s an absence of a racial narrative because Muslims are racially a very diverse group of people.”

Following the opening statements, Scherr asked the panelists about “domination of the other.” He questioned whether there is any time when “the other” is safe.

Brown argued that there was a time when blacks could feel safe, especially considering the supposed role of the church as a sanctuary. Citing how Martin Luther King, Jr. had to edit his speech to please white allies at the March on Washington, Brown talked about how even at ecumenical moments of history, “blacks have to compromise their position just to sustain their religious coalition.”

Hidalgo pointed out that in many recent cases, Christians carried out violence against other denomations of Christians, illustrating significant internal divisions in Christianity.

“There’s a history of Christians trying to ferret out diversity within their own ranks,” she said.

Yacoob touched on Hidalgo’s idea of how the “lines of the other are drawn.” She discussed a crowd-sourcing campaign launched by a Muslim African-American following the burning of six black churches over the summer. African-American Muslims have always been a source of tension within the American Muslim community, she said, and this crowd-funding campaign demonstrates how the lines of the other can intersect and bring people together.

Brown pointed out that moments like this “become a history of progress when really they’re the exceptions.”

Scherr then asked the panelists if they thought interfaith coalitions interfered with the creation of a pluralistic society.

Brown brought up the ineffectiveness of the Moral Mondays coalition in North Carolina. “They believe diversity should give them credibility,” she said, “but in North Carolina, with the state legislature, it gives them none.”

Hidalgo thought that interfaith groups could model good behavior, but that it is important to think about what they are trying to accomplish and how they are using space as a resource.

Yacoob saw pluralism as a possible cover for hiding real power dynamics.

“Tremendous interfaith work happens when people come together over issues,” she said.

Brown agreed, adding that credit often does not go to black activists when white allies become involved and that this causes distrust in coalition building. She said it was important to dispel the notion that if there is a coalition, there must not be any problems.

“Should we continue coalition building?” Brown asked. “Absolutely. We should keep doing it until someone notices what we’re doing. But it has to become more creative and a little less celebratory of itself.”

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