An Advent Awakening in Ferguson

“For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why, what wrong has he done? I have not found him guilty of any capital offense. I will therefore flog him and let him go.’ But they persisted with their demand, shouting that Jesus should be crucified. Their shouts prevailed.” Luke 23:22-23


This morning I went to church to worship a God who knows what it’s like to have a child deemed a criminal, seen as a threat to the state and public order, subjected to a shoddy trial resulting in an unjust verdict, and then killed by the state. Two thousand years ago this was done to Jesus with the tacit acceptance and even support of the socially privileged, some of whom cried fervently for his crucifixion.

We are now in the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical year. This time of year we acknowledge darkness in the world. As the days grow shorter and colder in the Northern hemisphere, our slice of earth tilting away from the heat and light of the sun, we call out for the heat and light of God. We see the shadowy places in the world: the wounds, the injustices, the disease and violence and indifference, and we cry out for hope, love, peace, and joy. With each cry, we are told that God responds, Jesus growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s large belly, preparing to break into this dark world as an answer, reminding us to love our way into solutions to the world’s suffering.

In Ferguson last August, an unarmed son was killed by the state. That morning 18 year old Mike Brown had done something criminal: he had shoplifted. Walking home, he and his friend were stopped by an officer. What happened next is not fully known. There’s disagreement about that, but no disagreement about how it ended. Officer Wilson shot Mike Brown multiple times, and then Ferguson exploded. When the officer was not indicted, the country exploded.

The fuel to the flame grew with the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case weeks later. Garner who was himself deemed criminal for selling loose cigarettes, who was confronted by police and responded angrily, saying “I’m tired of it. This stops today.” Have you watched the video? You can’t unsee it once you’ve seen it. The exhaustion in his voice is like a weight on your soul. He was weary, pleading for an end to the suffocating oppression, suspicion. The cops circled him, descended on him, compressed his chest and put him in a chokehold as he said eleven times, “I can’t breathe,” his arm outstretched, his hand reaching. He died. The cop was not indicted. And the country exploded again, the protests growing. “We can’t breathe,” chanted these crowds.

Something is arriving among us in this country. Something redemptive.

On Twitter and Facebook I have encountered countless voices saying that these dead men and boys deserved what they had coming. He was a criminal, they say to those arguing that black lives matter. Mike Brown was a threat to public order. He attacked like a demon. Crucify him, tweet the crowds fervently, crucify these criminals. It’s an old story. But remember how it ends.

Today I needed to see the Advent candles of hope and comfort blazing, to put my faith in the belief that even as the crowds cry for crucifixion, God is arriving to bring new life and light to this darkness, an answer to outstretched arms and hands up toward heaven. You can see the light building as the crowd of protesters grow across the nation, as their tweets calling us to awake and to love grow louder, overcoming the darkness, ensuring the voice of the oppressed is louder than the crucifixion cries. May the world be changed forever.

__________________  lightindarkness

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Ferguson is not just in Missouri


On Monday my plane was taxiing out to the runway to take off at 8:05pm CT when the press conference announcing the Grand Jury outcome in Ferguson was taking place.  Over the intercom, the flight attendant told us to switch our smart phones to airplane mode. I ignored him, furiously updating the Twitter feed of #Ferguson, through which I was able to follow the rambling, defensive speech of Prosecutor McColloch via the increasingly frustrated and despairing tweets of those watching. Even without hearing it directly, I could tell where this was going. The plane reached an altitude above the cell phone signal before McColloch had made the official announcement but it didn’t matter. I knew, and at thirty thousand feet above the country, traveling from Dallas to DC, I looked down out my window and tried to keep my heart from exploding.


On Tuesday I attended the #DCFerguson rally and march. Over one thousand of us gathered at Mt Vernon square and then marched in a two mile loop back into Chinatown, stopping traffic along the way. Most of the drivers seem nonplussed. Many opened their windows for high fives, lending their voice to our chants of “hands up, don’t shoot.” Metro bus drivers danced in their seats. Folks in apartment buildings we passed came out to their balconies and cheered us on. People at gyms got off the treadmills and stood jumping up and down at the windows. We passed a second floor boxing club where the boxers with sweaty hair plastered to their foreheads lifted big red gloved fists out the windows, grinning big. It was one of the most moving marches I’ve ever been a part of: nonviolent, diverse, angry and frustrated but also loving and hopeful, with a spirit of camaraderie. Some unfairly heckled the police officers that accompanied our march to ensure public order, but most didn’t. At the end hundreds streamed onto the steps of the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery, the rest of us facing them as final speeches were offered. “We must funnel our anger and frustration in constructive ways!” shouted the march organizer. “We must act in a unified way, putting aside petty differences!” The crowd cheered. And then, to honor Mike Brown’s family, we linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” It was cheesy in the most wonderful way. It made me love my city even more. Justice is love in the public square.

On Facebook and Twitter, there has been a severe backlash against those protesting in solidarity with those in Ferguson. As noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks these things, there has been a steady increase in hate group activity in the U.S. since 2000. This increase is no doubt linked to the changing demographics in the U.S., with whites poised to lose their majority status by the time the next census comes around. But the election of President Obama fueled white supremacy. According to SPLC: “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 – rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012.” While that number decreased in 2013, I have no doubt that the racial tensions resulting from the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson and the way in which the criminal justice system handled it, and the nationwide protests responding to these incidents, will bring those numbers back up.  I preached about these birth pangs of a new America two years ago, and those forces of hate pushing back against the  upending of the status quo, paraphrasing Dr. King by saying “hate anywhere is a threat to love everywhere.” Some of the comments on Twitter expose such callous dehumanization of blacks generally, and all those supporting the nonviolent protesters calling for justice. Some advocate violence. Here are just two examples of many:

I’ve seen this kind of rhetoric/attitude countless times in my work overseas in conflict zones. This is the same way some Burmans speak about Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This is the way some Hutus spoke about Tutsis before the genocide, the way Jews were described in Europe before the Holocaust, the way folks like Bill Maher speak about Muslims. This dehumanization is what justifies and perpetuates institutional and overt violence against an entire group of people.

(by the by, here’s a great plea to white allies about how to respond to those in their Facebook feeds who are expressing one of these kinds of arguments, written by Spectra: Stop Unfriending. Of course, some folks with very extremist views just aren’t worth engaging. You won’t get anywhere. But many folks should be engaged).

But this isn’t just about hate. This is about justice. This is about a system that consistently treats black bodies and lives as if they are less precious. This is about a prevalent social and legal norm that sees and treats young black men as a threat to the state and to the white community. The results are lethal. As a I wrote in my piece last year after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, “[Justice systems] are reflections of the broken nature of humans that established them.  This despite the ways the criminal justice process itself tries to mitigate the worst impulses of human nature by ensuring ethical standards, due process, presumed innocence, checks/balances/appeals. But human nature is persistent, and sin is pernicious.” Here’s just one statistic among the many: whites consume and deal drugs more frequently than blacks, but blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for so doing, and go to prison far more often (see here). Of the more than 200,000 people serving time in state prisons for drug offenses in 2011, blacks made up 45 percent and whites comprised just 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is just one statistic among many, many, many that show how the justice system is not colorblind. And as a result, more black males are imprisoned than ever before, and then, stigmatized as criminals with felonies on their records, they are stripped of basic civil rights — to vote, serve on juries, face nondiscrimination in employment, etc. They have power stripped from them. This constitutes a “new Jim Crow,” as argued by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander.  The efforts to restrict voter rights targeting minority communities further perpetuates this suppression.

Recently someone in my Facebook circle asked me: doesn’t the fact that blacks constitute  approximately 14% of the nationwide population and nearly 40% of the incarcerated population indicate that they are more criminal? The statistic above about drug use disputes that, as have various studies by organizations like the Justice and Policy Institute, which indicate that whites commit crimes at similar rates but are arrested and imprisoned less often, or face lesser sentences than minorities for the exact same crimes for which they are convicted. One can’t help but be cynical when thinking about how many rich white folks on Wall Street got away with committing egregious crimes affecting millions around the globe. Mass murders, mass shootings, parents who kill their children … these are all examples of crimes that whites commit more often than blacks in this country. No race is inherently more violent than any other. The system just treats them this way. It’s a story as old as time, described in the very first chapters of Genesis.

Finally, there is the question of police treatment of minority communities generally, and young black men particularly.  Several folks have pointed out the discrepancy between the police response this past weekend to 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was holding a toy gun and was shot to death almost immediately by arriving police, versus the police response to 63 year old Joseph Houseman who refused to drop his (not toy) rifle and kept threatening passers by with it. The police negotiated with him for forty minutes before successfully confiscating his rifle. He received it back the next day and was not arrested nor charged. This is just one example. There are many more. Can you understand why one would feel there is a double standard in our country?


Tamir Rice

The case of Mike Brown has illustrated these painful realities. It’s clear that Mike Brown committed a crime by smoking pot and shoplifting cigs (which, I would like to point out, I did both of in my teens. I also copped an attitude with Edina cops). What happened on his walk home, however, is much less clear. The testimony of police officer Darren Wilson is at odds with many eyewitness accounts (note that 16 of 18 witnesses say Brown raised his arms when Wilson started firing. Wilson fired at least six shots. Is that minimal use of force?), and without a trial he was never subjected to cross-examination (Mike’s companion that day, Darion Johnson, gives an account of events strikingly contradictory to Wilson’s). Looking through the mountains of testimony provided the Grand Jury, what took place that night remains frustratingly unclear.

Some have argued to me that because Mike Brown broke a law by shoplifting and charged at the cop, he deserved what he had coming to him. Well, first, shoplifting doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Second, I’m not convinced that Mike Brown did charge at Wilson, initiating the scuffle between them. Several witness accounts say Wilson initiated the attack.  There’s just enough conflicting testimony to leave me with reasonable doubt. That’s why I, like so many others, hoped for a transparent trial to be able to better discern what exactly happened that night and whether Wilson was in the right to shoot an unarmed Mike Brown multiple times, twice in the head. When someone dies, I want a thorough investigation and accounting. That was denied. Maybe Mike Brown did attack Wilson, initiating the scuffle. In that case, Wilson may have been entirely in the right to defend himself and my heart breaks for the threats and difficulties he’s faced since that day (which he shouldn’t face either way. This isn’t, after all, about Wilson and Brown — this is about something much bigger. Demonizing Wilson just distracts from the larger issue. We’re all caught up in the same system that perpetuates these kinds of events). But we just. don’t. know. That’s what’s excruciating. Moreover, given what I already know about the justice system being weighted against blacks, it’s hard not to assume that the process favored Wilson. McColloch’s apparent role in guiding the Grand Jury toward a decision of non-indictment and his history of police cover-up, and the failure of Wilson and the police to follow protocol that night and the hours of briefings with Wilson that remain unrecorded leave me skeptical, at best.


We can also see in Wilson’s testimony and the way in which whites sympathetic to Wilson have been describing Brown illustration of the phenomenon of defining black men in ways that dehumanize them. Wilson described Brown as demonic, as a Hulk Hogan compared to a 5 year old Wilson (they are roughly the same size — both 6’4″, 200+ lbs, MB had a few extra pounds on DW but I wouldn’t call DW a small guy). One sympathetic to Wilson’s account described Brown to me as acting in an “uncivilized” manner. Compare this with the accounts of his family, friends, and community members as generally a quiet, respectful, and silly kid who had been helping family members load their car that morning and was supposed to start college later that week (Johnson’s testimony of Mike’s behavior at the convenience store describes him in an unflattering way, however, even if his description of Mike’s behavior on the walk home portrays him as victim to Wilson’s provocation/aggression).  The contradictory descriptions are striking. Where is the truth? The media spotlight on the violence and looting being inflicted by a minority of protesters in Ferguson, activities which have been condemned forcefully by other protesters, only furthers the stereotypes of black men as more violent (despite the many examples of whites looting and burning cars and businesses, often in response to sporting events).


Mike Brown

Mike Brown’s case illustrates these realities, but Ferguson is not just in Missouri. Ferguson is everywhere in this country. This not an isolated instance.

On Tuesday I urged my church community to participate in that night’s march “because Trayvon, because Mike Brown, because Tamir, because Jesus.” In his ministry, Jesus taught his followers to see those who were being treated as less than human by the systems of domination: the prostitutes, the immigrants, the poor — those who were demonized by the privileged classes as somehow a threat or unworthy, and so exploited and abused. For challenging the status quo of the political/social/economic systems of his time, Jesus was in turn demonized by the privileged classes, and then unfairly sentenced and executed by the state as a criminal. How can one not see what’s taking place right now through the perspective of the cross? This is all about the cross, through which we see how our ideals of love, justice, and truth are treated by worldly powers. As a follower of Jesus, I am taught to love by seeing those hurt by the powers and principalities, the ones the world treats as expendable, and to act in response … to comfort, heal abuses, and to challenge … maybe even to overturn a few tables in provocative, nonviolent acts of public disruption (Matt 21:12). Black lives matter, despite what the system and the comfortable privileged say to the contrary. The Truth matters. That’s why I’m out there.

I’ll let Mike Brown’s last words take out this blog post:


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The Fundies and the Faithful     


The conference at USD was a test in patience and understanding, and I’m not sure I passed. The theme was “gendered responses to religious violence,” or perhaps more accurately: women’s rights and religious extremism. Throughout three days, scholars and practitioners from around the world discussed the exponential rise of religious extremism around the world, much of it violent, and its impact on women’s bodies and status in society. As was rightly said by a number of participants, the situation of women is a good indicator of a spike in religious extremism. Where women are facing more sexual violence and more formal and informal repression, this is often a sign that dangerous forms of politico-religious movements are on the rise that could spill into larger and more militarized forms of violence. Look at Iraq and Nigeria, where women have been kidnapped and forcibly married and converted for years as a tactic of ISIS and Boko Haram. Look at Myanmar, where the monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups have been pushing for legislation to “protect” women that would restrict their right to marry whom they want and practice the religion of their choosing. These groups, all of which are led by men who seek to impose some vision of moral purity on society, often inflict this agenda first and foremost on women – seeking to control them, stripping them of their agency, and claiming in the process that they do so to honor, protect, and dignify them, which is obviously B.S.

A central debate at the conference arose about what the solution to this is, and where religious doctrine and institutions fit in both propelling this phenomenon and addressing it. There were a handful of conference participants who were people (mostly women) of faith. There was me, the Christian minister, several Muslim hijabis (women who wear the head covering) and a Muslim imama (a female imam, or Muslim clergy). Ashima Kaul, a practicing Hindu from Kashmir was in attendance. At one point, Joyce Dubensky, a religious Jew, asked those participants who identify as a peacemaker motivated by faith to stand up.  A little under half the participants stood. The majority of the wider group of conference participants, I would say, was of the “spiritual but not religious” camp. They were not hostile to religion, and recognized its complicated role as a source of both peace and violence, justice and oppression (just as those representing the religious camp did). Finally, a small but vocal camp of participants was openly hostile to religion throughout. I referred to this group as the “secular fundamentalists;” they represented the most extreme position. Lord, did they test me.

This group of secular fundamentalist women’s rights activists had the same definition of religion as the religious extremists: one in which “authentic” religious doctrine necessarily oppresses women and compels violence. As a result, these secular fundamentalists shape religion in the same way as the religious extremists – they reify normative religion as patriarchal, exclusionary, and violent. They ultimately hurt us women-of-faith seeking to chip away at patriarchal and misogynist forms of religious interpretation and amplify the many religious teachings supporting women’s dignity and authority and the history of women’s religious leadership in our traditions as much as the religious extremists do. And so I often feel as angry toward them as I do the religious extremists. I am heartbroken by the distorted version of religion presented by the religious extremists and secular fundamentalists, the way they butcher sacred traditions and ignore their teachings supporting gender egalitarianism, tolerance, and peace, or dismissing them as somehow inauthentic and unpersuasive. But the alienation imposed by secular women’s rights activists is doubly heartbreaking for me. These so-called progressives force their version of what’s right on me. They force me to choose between women’s rights and my faith. This is a false choice that ends up dividing women against each other, and this fragmentation of the movement for gender egalitarianism in the end only benefits patriarchy.


In colonial America, Anne Hutchinson offered weekly religious teachings at her home, preached tolerance and religious freedom as commensurate with the Christian gospel, challenged the authority of male clergy, and criticized the subordination of women.

The fundies at the conference were exclusively from the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as is common. There political Islam has had negative repercussions for women, while the secular regimes of the past – including Saddam’s and the Shah’s in Iran – were much more gender egalitarian. Thus women’s rights activists from this region tend to see secularism (which in their mind often translates into utter absence or suppression of all forms of religion) as the solution and religion as the problem. As a result, the group at this conference was uniformly dismissive of religious actors and any role they can play in fostering inclusion and peace. The Lebanese moderator of a panel on which I spoke with three other women of faith – all of whom spoke about male and female religious actors supporting peace and women’s rights – said at one point that a “secular mindset” is the only one that can promote tolerance. My jaw dropped. Had she heard our presentations? Did she just summarily dismiss all those we spoke about, not to mention us panelists ourselves? I don’t have the “secular mindset” of which she was referring. I am a devout Christian and a stalwart proponent of high-order tolerance, someone who is appreciative of racial and religious difference, sensitive to majority/minority power dynamics and seeking institutional justice, a builder of religious pluralism not just in word but in action, and a defender of the legal separation of religious and state power for the good of both institutions (but note that this doesn’t mean I think they should not be in conversation with one another). I do not have these positions in spite of my faith, but because of it. The teachings of Jesus and many Christian theologians throughout the millennia motivate and shape my work for these goals. And this woman had just dismissed me as having an inferior mindset for this very reason.  Bear in mind as well that just as my Christian ethical commitments motivate and shape my work, so too did Christian theology and ethics drive the establishment of human rights law and the Geneva Conventions in the first place (ahem, Hugo Grotius). As Jimmy Carter has said, those that worked on crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were all people of faith.


Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 (with another woman of faith activist, Lehmeh Gbowee) for her activism during the Arab Spring in Yemen and her work to empower women. She has said: ” Islam is a religion that encourages freedoms and was based on the liberation of the bodies and the minds from slavery, oppression, and fanaticism.” (

As moderator, she had the final comment for our session, in which she dismissed religion as an avenue for supporting gender egalitarianism and peace. In a session earlier that morning, a small working group comprising all the secular fundies (they stuck together) said religious actors couldn’t play a role in the Gender Working Group of the Network of Religious and Traditional Leaders. Mind you, this is a network deliberately comprising religious actors, many of whom are concerned about gender justice. These kinds of comments and attitudes did not diminish throughout the conference, and as they were voiced I kept getting more and more offended, hurt, frustrated, and most of all: angry.


Bhikkuni Dhammananda is a Thai nun who has struggled to re-establish the practice of full ordination of women in Buddhism (while Buddha established the bhikkuni order, it died out in the 11-13th centuries). She is an advocate not only for gender equality, but also peace, poverty-reduction, and environmentalism.

I’ll tell you what did not help: when in the aforementioned panel, during the question and answer period, an Egyptian Copic priest stood up and through a translator, informed me that women cannot be priests and bishops because the Bible does not condone it. “If this were the case,” he asked, “why were all of Jesus’s apostles men?” I couldn’t help but think: great, one point for the secular fundies.

Now, I’m no apologist for religion, of course. I know these kinds of attitudes are a pervasive reality that have driven gender injustice, and I spoke to this reality throughout my presentation. But given where I was at emotionally and what I was up against, I sighed inside as the male priest dismissed my religious authority because I’m a woman. Fortuitously, this also allowed me to illustrate a point I’d made in my talk: that women-of-faith draw from theological and scriptural sources to defend their agency as leaders, their rights, and their religious authority. I informed my Christian brother that I was an ordained minister, belonging to a Protestant denomination that had been ordaining women since 1853 without negative repercussions for the institution. Turning to the scriptures, I reminded him that in the Book of Acts there are many women named as leaders in the early church. “As for the gospels,” I noted, “don’t forget that the female followers of Jesus are consistently portrayed as understanding who Jesus is when the men don’t get it, and of staying by his side while he was arrested and crucified while the male disciples betrayed, denied, and fled. So yes, I do think women have the religious insight, faith, and courage to lead the Christian community, and I think the scriptures support that position.” There was my illustration of how to draw from religious resources to support women’s rights and authority against religious actors seeking to undermine women’s empowerment. How would the secular women have responded to this man in a way that would speak to him? With secular arguments?


Sister Joan Chittister. a Benedictine nun, has been a vocal and visible Catholic advocate for peace and human rights, including women’s rights.

I did not persuade the Coptic priest about women’s ordination that day (and I wouldn’t have expected to with one conversation), but perhaps I planted a seed. Later he came up to me and we spoke further, digging into the scriptures some more. All-in-all I found it exceedingly easier to be in conversation with him about a topic on which we had divergent views than I did with the secular fundamentalist women. He was open, he listened, he engaged patiently. The secular fundies, on the other hand, were often combative, arrogant, and dismissive. Guess with whom I’d rather work.

In the end, religion is a reality. The secular fundamentalists (including the “New Atheists” like Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) would like all religion to go away. Or they think that it can be marginalized to a degree that it has no influence. When one of the secular fundamentalist women worried aloud that engaging religious actors at all will empower normative/patriarchal religion, I understood her concern coming out of her context and experience. But secular suppression of religion, history has shown us, only breeds religious backlash – often in “conservative” forms that differentiate themselves from secular liberal (Western) models of governance and social norms. Given this reality, why not work with people of faith who have the same end goals as you? Why summarily dismiss religious actors who are eager to advance women’s empowerment and/or coexistence and peace, drawing from religious values and arguments to do so, and willing to mobilize in support of international law and standards? Of course we won’t agree on everything, but that shouldn’t be a standard for collective action between groups with overlapping goals. And most importantly, one should never be forced to choose between a faith that is precious to them and their rights as a woman. To force this choice, which the secular fundamentalists do, is itself a form of violence and oppression against women. It denies the integrity and worth of my own voice and forces me into your vision of what’s right.


Ruth Messinger is a religious Jewish advocate for justice, peace, and women’s rights. She serves as head of the American Jewish World Service. She has said: “My strong drive towards social justice to me had direct links to core Jewish values.” (

I’m tired of the secular fundies. They bring me down, man, by defining religion in a way no different from the religious extremists. I’m tired of them telling me what religion teaches, what it is. Who are they, of all people, to say what my religion teaches? They don’t know it like I do. Recognize that fact, and then listen to what I have to say. Really listen. Don’t silence my voice. Don’t tell me that my religious voice, my religious interpretations, my values are not authentic or legitimate.


Amina Wadud is an African American Muslim scholar whose work has focused on Qur’anic exegesis from a feminist perspective. She co-founded Sisters in Islam, a Malaysia-based Muslim feminist organization with global reach.

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Will Extremist Buddhism Undermine Myanmar’s Path to Democracy?


At a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar, my path into the receiving room of Buddhist monk Ashin U Wirathu led me past a series of grotesque photographs of monks killed in violence between Buddhist and Muslims in southern Thailand, images illustrating the concerns of the monk I was about to meet. A week earlier, Time Magazine had released its latest edition with the face of U Wirathu above the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” To many in the West, it seemed an anomaly, the pairing of the seemingly pacifist Buddhist tradition with acts of terror. How had Buddhist monks in Myanmar come to propagate anti-Muslim bigotry, violence, and exclusionary policy?

In truth, of course, the current moment has seeds in the past. As Matthew J. Walton and I describe in a recent Policy Studies publication by the East West Center, current Buddhist monk-led movements, 969 and MaBaTha, in Myanmar can be understood as contemporary manifestations of traditional monastic mobilization for social, political, and religious ends. These movements are grounded in an anxious commitment to defend their traditions against foreign elements both within and outside the country. Without challenging these nationalist Buddhist arguments and addressing underlying political, economic, and social grievances, Myanmar’s transition to democracy could fail. To address the anxieties fueling the violence, Myanmar needs a multifaceted approach that incorporates Buddhist counterarguments and strengthens the rule of law.

After almost five decades of international isolation and repressive rule by a succession of military governments, Myanmar began a gradual transition to democracy with the handover of power to a quasi-civilian government in March 2011. While expectations for the genuineness and depth of these reforms were muted, hope surged when the new government passed a series of laws that allowed for freedom of assembly and press and legalized the democratic movement, and also released scores of political prisoners, including democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

But before long, violent episodes broke out, often led by young Buddhist men targeting Muslim communities. The violence began between Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims, but soon spread to other ethnic groups. While the attackers were primarily lay, some monks were accused of involvement in violence, while a precious few of their colleagues sought to protect Muslims in their monasteries, refute anti-Muslim rumors, and dispel angry mobs. Concurrently, monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups arose, including the 969 Movement, and later, MaBaTha, which has advocated for passage of laws that unfavorably target Myanmar’s Muslim community.

Many fear that this violence will turn back the reform process. Historically, the military has used internal violence to justify its authoritarian rule. Moreover, in a country in which Buddhist monks are revered, few seem willing to challenge these movements. When some women’s rights activists criticized proposed legislation requiring Buddhist women to receive permission from authorities before marrying a Muslim man, they were verbally attacked in public and social media.

In the shrine room in Mandalay, U Wirathu spoke softly, steadily, but passionately to me. “In truth, all communities are afraid,” he said. He explained that Buddhists and Muslims both feel the police cannot offer adequate protection. He expressed frustration with a Western media that he perceives to be unsympathetic to Myanmar Buddhists’ concerns. “We know that the Muslim world is seeking to spread its religion and influence in this country,” he said, “and if we are not careful, Myanmar will go the way of Afghanistan,” a country once home to a thriving Buddhist community now long gone.

To address these anxieties, which are manifesting in the midst of swift social, political, and economic changes as the country opens up to a deluge of foreign interests, requires a multi-faceted approach. Buddhist counterarguments will help challenge current nationalist rhetoric and promote attitudes that can foster tolerance. There is a great deal of fodder within the corpus of Theravada Buddhism that can advance these rhetorical challenges. For example, a monk in Mandalay involved in interfaith peacebuilding argued that proper defense of Buddhism is cultivated through right practice, not through aggression and violence, which only invites enemies. In a public speech in 2013, the well-known monk Sitagu Sayadaw appealed to Theravada Buddhist scriptural teachings when he argued that one must test rumors and claims, analyzing them critically rather than accepting hearsay on face value. Others have appealed to Buddhist principles of compassion, equanimity, and non-attachment.

However, Buddhist counterarguments alone won’t bring an end to communal violence. Words by themselves won’t fix the structural injustices that lie at the root of these and other inter-ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. Thus arguments for pluralism must be complemented by a series of political, economic, and legal reforms to address insecurities and long-standing inequalities. While the reform efforts in Myanmar, choreographed from the center, have been arguably successful compared to other countries undergoing political reform (especially those associated with the Arab Spring), much more remains to be done. Key will be strengthening rule of law so that all citizens feel adequately protected by police and assured that state institutions are capable and willing to ensure equality and justice.

As the country prepares for its presidential election in 2015, managing Buddhist nationalist groups and communal violence will be crucial. Without so doing, the people of Myanmar may lose that which they’ve fought so hard to achieve.

*Note, this piece is a repost from the Fletcher Forum website:

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USIP’s Religion and Peacebuilding Program

Several weeks back my boss David Smock, my colleague Palwasha Kakar, and I participated in an event at the Rumi Forum here in Washington, DC at which we discussed the work of the Religion and Peacebuilding Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. David spoke about how the program came into existence, and Palwasha and I discussed some of our work on-the-ground in Libya, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Burma, and elsewhere. Marc Gopin, a scholar and practitioner of religious peacebuilding in his own right, moderated the event.  I’ve pasted the video here for your viewing pleasure (clearly in the still shot of the video I am describing how I determine the ripeness of a cantaloupe).

In a similar vein, in December an anthology will be published by Cambridge University Press entitled Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics in which I have a chapter about the evolution of the Religion programs at USIP over two decades. There are lots of awesome contributors in the volume. I felt a bit out of my league (one of these things is not like the other ones!).

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“Isn’t Buddhism Supposed to be Zen?”


This is how the British-accented news anchor on France24 framed her question to me, late into the interview. After a slew of images of monks in Myanmar expressing anti-Muslim attitudes and slanderous misinformation, and Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim communities… after I’d explained something about what lies behind the rise of the monk-led Buddhist nationalist extremist 969 and MaBaTha movements in Myanmar, she asked me: “Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be Zen?” I tried not to look irritated nor amused, but…. I have a hard time controlling my face. I have no poker face. See above.

Of course, I knew what she meant, but the way she worded her question was revealing. Zen is a school of Buddhism in Japan (its Chinese equivalent is called Chan), not an adjective; it’s a particular school of Mahayana Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in Myanmar is Theravada) characterized, among other things, by confusing riddles (koan) and provocative acts like the burning of scripture, even more so than tranquil gardens. It’s also a school of Buddhism that produced several champions of violence and Japanese imperialism during World War II, including D.T. Suzuki, a figure often celebrated in the West for having brought Zen Buddhist teachings Westward. Given Zen’s own contribution to the sacralization of militarism and violence, the news anchor’s question was even more absurd.

But I knew what she meant. It’s a question I’m asked a lot by Westerners, whose notion of Buddhism has been shaped by the current Dalai Lama’s pacificism and charm, or the post-Enlightenment embrace of Buddhism as a “modern” religion, seemingly more compatible with science, more rationalistic, less encumbered by cosmological myth and ornate ritual. This romantic and Orientalist image of Buddhism held by Westerners as a rational, peaceful, and compassionate religion has been cultivated by Buddhists themselves who are motivated to propagate the tradition, and because of course — who wouldn’t want their tradition to be seen in this way? But the reality, as those who’ve spent time studying Asian history or living in Buddhist-majority countries know, is that Buddhism, like all religions, is constituted by humans, and reflects human nature. I still remember the first time I saw monks being violent; it was in a Tibetan neighborhood of Kathmandu where I was living as a college student of Buddhism in 2000. From my roof while I was studying one day I saw a trio of monks in their early twenties beat up a drunk man behind a building, kicking and punching him vigorously. It took my breath away, this act of violence so counter to Buddhist ideals of lovingkindness I was reading in the scriptures sitting before me on that rooftop table; violence enacted in a flurry of maroon robes.


I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. I grew up in a world in which Christianity, a tradition born out of the teachings of an absolutely pacifist and all-embracing preacher, had been twisted to support bigotry, slavery, crusades. So why wouldn’t other traditions be vulnerable to this, despite their own teachings privileging nonviolence? In graduate school I would go on to study the intersection of religion and violence in Sri Lanka precisely because it went against the popular assumptions in the West. There, Buddhist teachings and monks mobilized in support of the war, and the Muslim community, despite being ethnically cleansed by the Tamil Tigers and shot at by the government, never responded with violence, refraining with appeal to Islamic teachings idealizing nonviolence. With the Sri Lanka example, one was immediately forced into a more nuanced treatment of the relationship between religion and violence, beyond a mere reductionist nod to supposedly deterministic doctrines.

I love Buddhism. Studying Buddhism through the academy and in my practitioner work for the past sixteen years, and living in Buddhist-majority countries, has indelibly shaped my own Christian practices and beliefs in ways that have enriched them. I have been challenged by Buddhist meditation practices — perhaps the most difficult spiritual practice out there — and inspired by teachings in Pali suttas, Nagarjuna’s philosophical writings, Zen haiku. I have been blown away, felt God, while sitting under the towering Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at sunset, or circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, shrouded in incense and ringing with bells. I laud the vision of just governance carved into stone edicts in the third century BCE by Emperor Ashoka, believed to be Buddhist. I work with monks and nuns who act selflessly and with fierce commitment to the cause of justice, for humanitarian relief, to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhism is undeniably beautiful. But I have also met monks and nuns who have spoken with derision about Muslims (one monk in Myanmar last year described them to me as “crows, who steal eggs from the nests of others”), who have yelled at me or bossed me around, despite the fact that I am a clergyperson myself. I’ve watched video testimonials of young monks who have been repeatedly sexually abused by their elders in the monasteries. I study how Buddhist ideas have been used to support wars of conquest over millennia.

In the end, Buddhism is beautiful and complex, peaceful and violent, tender and complicated, just like humans. At its best, it inspires the best of human impulse, ideals that can help to create a world in which all suffer less. At its worst, it legitimates violence or bigotry for the sake of a cause it deems sacred and just. But so do all religions, and so do various secular ideologies/systems, including nationalism, colonialism, democracy-building, socialism. Don’t romanticize Buddhism, but don’t lambast it either. Just see it for what it is. A human endeavor.


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Group Shot Religious Actors

It has been a long time since I’ve written a new post. This is due to a number of factors. First, not long after I wrote the last post, in December 2013, I experienced a crisis in my personal life that left me distracted. My focus was directed to recovery, healing, and the logistics around some big life changes (among them: I’m now a homeowner! woah). That kept me from the rather narcissistic and, really, inconsequential, task of writing blog entries.

Secondly, it’s not been an entirely hopeful time to be a peacebuilder, and I don’t want this blog to devolve into a collection of Dear Diaries where I express angst and frustration about the world being directed against peace. I want this blog, ultimately, to lift up hope and optimism. Trayvon lives on. The story is not over yet. Truth and justice and love prevail in the end, always. And if I am in a place where I doubt that, I shouldn’t write for a public audience.

But I’m back.

Why? Well, the news has hardly taken a turn for the better. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is beheading Europeans and Americans. They are raping Yazidi women and assassinating those of all religious backgrounds. They are recruiting more people to their cause who are frustrated by seemingly contradictory, hypocritical, oppressive, foreign (especially U.S.) and domestic policies … and by a lack of real opportunity in places where violence and oppression reign. There are real grievances that motivate them, no doubt. But it is disgusting, what they are doing and what they are saying. It will not bring just peace. Nor will the anti-Muslim sentiments and policies being advocated by growing Buddhist extremist movements in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or the ongoing Christian extremism in Nigeria, Northern Uganda, or even here in the States, which is fueling a spike in hate crimes and hate groups targeting all sorts of ethnic, religious, and racial “others.” Everywhere, it seems, hate and violence are on the rise.

Nonetheless, I’m back.

Last week we brought folks from around the world to DC and NYC for a symposium on “religious actors countering radicalization and violent extremism.” We had representatives from Yemen, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — places where violent extremism is ascendant, couched in Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian frames. These were all people who are religious actors engaged in CVE (countering violent extremism) work, or peacebuilders who work with religious actors in CVE. They are prophetic, insightful, fearless, faithful people, unwilling to relinquish their faith to the ideology of extremism, and courageous — willing to stand up to these movements, to stand for what is good/God, to struggle to ensure love, justice, peace prevail, as their faith tells them, even if it puts them at risk of death (and it does, believe me — we just lost one of our researchers in Libya, an 18 year old, who was assassinated because of his work for peace and justice). They laughed easy, they were circumspect, and they instilled in me a kernel of hope I have not felt in some time. I needed this week. I needed these peacebuilders who are in the thick of it, the heart of darkness, many of them, but are still digging in their heels and hands to the cracked earth, and pulling out the Kingdom against all odds. I needed us all to be together to realize we are not alone, we have strength in numbers. There are a lot of us.  More than there are extremists.


Last Friday we had a public event at USIP where we featured Vinya Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, speaking about Sarvodaya’s efforts to counter Buddhist extremism, Pastor Esther Ibanga from Nigeria who works against Christian and Muslim extremist movements, and Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a prominent Muslim scholar who recently issued a fatwa against ISIS and spoke eloquently, along with Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, about the Muslim heritage of peaceful treatment to minorities, and the worthlessness of violence. Among the many things Sheikh bin Bayyah said was this: ‘There are some who say justice first, and no peace without justice. But from my perspective, if we say no peace without justice, then given the amount of grievances that we’re dealing with, let’s forget about peace altogether.” It’s true. I recognize there are real grievances that drive people into violent movements — very real issues of injustice. But violence and hate will not bring a solution. It will only fuel more injustice, more grievances, more hate. I see that in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where I primarily work these days, where Buddhist extremism and violence targeted against the Muslim community has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Communities that had previously been pacifist are now trending toward violence to protect themselves.

We have to work together. The world is dark right now, the circumstances bleak, but this is just the time when things can turn — when we can wake up, find one another in the darkness, and start struggling toward the inevitable end God promises. Thanks be for the Vinyas, the Sheikh bin Bayyahs, the Pastor Esthers.  Their stories are more powerful than the stories of beheadings and rapes and assassinations. I believe that, honestly, because that’s what my faith is about in the end: believing the promise.

To watch Sheikh bin Bayyah’s talk, which will no doubt light a fire of hope in your own bones, click here.  To read a letter signed by 126 prominent Sunni scholars against ISIS, click here. To read about monks in Myanmar who sheltered Muslims in a monastery to protect them from violent crowds, click here.  To watch a (beautifully shot) video about a monk in Myanmar who counters anti-Muslim rumors and helps build relationships between Muslims and Buddhists, click here. These stories are just as true, just as real, as the bad news stories we’re hearing in the media. Share them. Drown out those other stories.

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