“You don’t understand”–Finding a Path in an Era of Religious and Political Extremism

“You don’t understand…Hamas wants to wipe Israel out of existence, off the face of the earth. I have no compassion for Palestinians.”

“You don’t understand…you can talk about love all you want, but if you don’t let gay people live out their sexuality to the fullest, you are spreading hate.”

“You don’t understand…Islam is not a religion of peace. Their only solution is to kill all infidels, and we saw the result on 9/11. You’re crazy if you think you can negotiate with a terrorist.”

In some unexplained freak loss of good sense, in a two week period I used social media to post about Israel/Palestine as well as human sexuality.
I’ve been processing the responses, public and private, taking a step back and trying to learn something about how we all deal with these issues that seem to be able to push us instantly out of the middle and to the poles.

Back in college, I had the best/worst job of all time. I would get up at 3 or 3:30 in the morning, drive 20 minutes to the UPS sorting facility, and stand by a conveyor belt as thousands of packages would come down the line. My job was to pick out the ones that belonged on the three trucks I was loading for delivery, and place them in the right space on the shelves to make delivery easy for the driver. I would hope that it is self-evident (3:30) from that description (3:30) why it was (3:30) the worst job ever (3:30). But it was part time and paid well and had insurance, which as a college student made it pretty much the best.

People do not smell good at 3:30 in the morning. Odors emerged from my own body that, thank goodness, have not emerged since then. I tried to ignore the morning breath of my manager as he trained me the first few days, doing my best to concentrate and figure it out. But I was struggling.

My manager was a rote teacher. “See you look at the address and then you look up the code on this sheet and then you write the code on the box and then you look in the truck at the shelf map and then you put it on the shelf and then…” And I was lost.

“Um, hang on, could you just…could you just take a minute and tell me what’s going on in this whole building? Like what are we doing and what’s the whole operation?” I’m a big picture, context person. So once I understood how the tractor trailers were unloaded on that side of the building and sorted to four major conveyor belts, and how we were the Hillsboro/Beaverton belt, and I had three Hillsboro trucks with Baseline and TV Highway as the boundaries…well, then I had a place to store the details of codes and shelf placement.

I like to understand. I like perspective. I like history. I like learning. So why, when people kept telling me over the past couple of weeks that I don’t understand…why was that making my stomach churn?

The answer came in an unlikely place. In an attempt to find relief from controversial subjects (does sarcasm work in written pieces?), I decided to finish a book on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. “Allah: A Christian Response” is written by Yale Professor Miroslav Volf, the same Volf I studied under at Fuller Seminary in 1992. I can still picture my first evening class with him. He was freshly returned from teaching for a quarter in his home of Croatia. The Balkans were exploding in war, and he was blowing our minds as he wrestled theologically with the practical questions of how peace could work in the middle of ethnic cleansing. His quest to understand came after he had offered a paper with careful theological musing on “embracing the other”. But the messiness of the real world returned when his mentor asked, “Yes, but can you embrace a Chetnik?” Even then, early in what has become a stellar academic career, you could see Volf’s cutting logic that would not accept easy answers. You couldn’t miss the impact of his voracious reading habit. Volf was one who helped cement what my dad had first laid down in me as a child: don’t accept easy answers. Strive to understand.

I digress. I was telling you how Volf’s book about Allah helped. I’ll be honest–in the first two-thirds of the book, there were only a few parts that really grabbed me. It was all good, but it wasn’t until near the end, when he left the careful philosophical argumentation and addressed the “so what?” that I was really drawn in. In a world of globalization and increasing religious adherence (those social scientists in the 1960’s were wrong…Peter Berger even changed his mind and believes now that religion is growing, not declining); in our ever more connected and ever more diverse world, we have all got to learn how to get outside of our own perspectives and see from another’s. We have to understand.

At the poles of thought lies extremism. We’re good at labeling extremists on the other side, less adept at seeing it in ourselves. We see Muslim extremists, but there are Christian extremists as well. Palestinians live under the check points and oppression of right wing Israeli extremists, and Israelis see Hamas terrorists launching missiles. LGBTQ persons are screamed at by Westboro Baptist, and some Christians fear the “Gay Agenda”.

“Extremism thrives where reasoned debate about important issues of public concern is absent,” writes Volf (Allah, p. 259).

“Extremism thrives by feeding on prejudice and the demonization of others; it starves when the light of knowledge falls on others and their humanity becomes manifest.” (p. 261)

“Commitment to love and justice is a commitment to learn the truth about others–the pleasant and the unpleasant–and to understand their motivations and aspirations. Commitment to love and justice is also commitment to truth about oneself and to deeper understanding of one’s own relation to others.” (p. 261)

“The command to love neighbors demands that we refrain from…disrespect. We don’t need to agree with the views of [insert opposing group here]; we just need to be civil rather than mean-spirited as we disagree.” (p. 262)

And finally, “Extremism thrives where people do not have legitimate and effective ways of expressing their perspectives on common life and attending to their grievances.” (p. 262)

I don’t understand. I don’t understand, fully, life in Gaza or in Tel Aviv. I don’t understand what it means to be a gay man or a lesbian. But too often, when we tell each other “You don’t understand”, we are trying to shut down conversation and sum up a deep and complex issue with one answer. Too often when we tell each other “You don’t understand”, we are trying to end the discussion, not deepen it.

I want to understand. I want to explore. I want context, and history, and difference, and questions, and unanswerable perplexities.

I want to understand.

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