A Fertile Summer for Violence

If we want to stop shootings in theaters and houses of worship, we'd better start paying attention to the seeds of hostility we're sowing in our theaters, houses of worship and even around our dinner tables.
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It's been a bad summer for corn, and a fertile summer for violence.

It sprouted unexpectedly in Colorado in a movie theatre. It just shot up in Wisconsin in a Sikh house of worship. Then there's the violence that hardly gets reported from the mean streets of the neighborhoods abandoned by much of government, media and the faith community. There, we've come to accept the unacceptable as normal.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, said, "That one plant should be sown and another be produced cannot happen; whatever seed is sown, a plant of that kind even comes forth." Jesus made the same point using a tree and fruit, and Paul made a similar statement: Whatever we sow we will reap.

If they're right, we Americans have a question to ask ourselves: What seeds have we been planting to produce this bloody harvest?

Whether in the fields of politics, race or religion, there is one under-appreciated seed that deserves our attention: identity -- identity that tells us who we are based on whom we're hostile toward.

In my upcoming book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World)," I talk about how many of us are suffering from CRIS -- Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome:

Whether we realize it or not, most of us who suffer from CRIS are trying to distance ourselves from religious hostility. By hostility I mean opposition, the sense that the other is the enemy. Hostility makes one unwilling to be a host (the two words are historically related). The other must be turned away, kept at a distance as an unwanted outsider, not welcomed in hospitality as a guest or friend.

Hostility is an attitude of exclusion, not embrace; of repugnance, not respect; of suspicion, not extending the benefit of the doubt; of conflict, not conviviality.

I'm sure there are parallel versions of CRIS we could call CPIS (and CEIS) -- Conflicted Political (and Ethnic) Identity Syndrome. Yes, I'm a Democrat (or Republican, or Libertarian, or Socialist), but I don't want to be associated with my fellow Democrats (or Republicans, etc.) who demonstrate hostility to their counterparts. Yes, I'm white (or African American, or Latino, etc.), but I don't see ethnic identity as a reason to be hostile toward anyone who isn't.

Hostility is a great short-cut to building identity. If we know whom we hate, whom we fear, whom we resent, whom we consider inferior, whose wrongs we will never forget, we know -- or we feel we know -- who we are. Religious and political leaders routinely build identity this way. Even parents and grandparents do it, albeit unwittingly. Because it works. And fast.

But when you plant hostility in the field of identity, the seeds will grow. And you get shooters in Colorado, shooters in Wisconsin, shooters in [insert next site of violence here].

When we realize how our leaders are stirring up hostility against "them" to create a sense of identity and solidarity among "us," we call them demagogues. And we withdraw our support. But when we don't realize what they're doing -- and we usually don't -- we keep voting for them, donating to them, revering them, defending them and imitating them. And seeds of violence sprout and grow.

In researching my book, I came to an unexpected conclusion: "The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity that draws strength from hostility."

If we want to stop shootings in theaters and houses of worship, we'd better start paying attention to the seeds of hostility we're sowing in our theaters and houses of worship -- and in our political speeches, on our cable news shows, in our blogs (and comment sections), and even around our dinner tables.

I reached another conclusion as I researched my book, one with which I think Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Muhammad and Nanak -- and maybe you? -- would agree: We are increasingly faced with a choice, I believe, not between kindness and hostility, but between kindness and nonexistence.

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