Religion and Polarity

Tim Townsend’s “Love Thy Neighbor: The religion beat in an age of intolerance” in the May/June 2008 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, is worth the read, in light of the Jeremiah Wright drama and the fundamentalist Mormon news of late here in the U.S., and the ongoing and manifold religious conflicts (and power conflicts cloaked in religion) all around the world.

Townsend is a reporter who has covered religion at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the last four years. The gist of this essay is that religion is divisive and religious folk — Jesus, too! — are polarising. (The Matthew passage he quotes at the start of the essay doesn’t convince me, but I agree generally with Townsend that a prophetic message can be polarising, and that Jesus’s harsh language at times is divisive. My view is that Jesus disrupts the ‘peace’ we cling to, the very peace Jesus threatens verbally in the Matthew passage, in order to displace that temporary, violent sort of peace with a shot-through-with-life peace …)

Townsend suggests that this polarity is nothing new in America, citing Puritan John Winthrop’s landing-in-America sermon outlining “a political system whose top priority would be … ‘the duty of suppressing heresy, of subduing or somehow getting rid of dissenters.'” Townsend doesn’t state the obvious, that suppressing heresy and marginalising dissenters had been the modus operandi of many in power, or seeking power, long before this.

Later, he speaks of the current chasm in the Episcopal church, which he says isn’t about “sex, or even theology, but about power, and who gets to make the decisions that will tie the hands of everyone else.” He quotes Cathleen Falsani, a religion columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times: “‘Heat is good for a story, and religion is consistently good for that. … Religion is polarizing. Maybe that’s not the way it’s intended to be, but it is.'”

I think adherence to religion both is and isn’t intended to be polarising; it’s intended to bring cohesion among some by excluding, marginalising, demonising, and polarising others, and it’s very effective. Townsend quotes Neela Banerjee, religion beat reporter for The New York Times, who, speaking of the ‘culture wars’ between ‘secularists’ and ‘the Christian right,’ says that “‘each sees the other as a profoundly dangerous influence on society.'” Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, agrees: “All parties, he says, feel their worldview is under attack.” Look at almost any conflict, geopolitical or interpersonal, and you’ll see the same mechanism, the same justification: the other is a danger, a threat, to what’s good, to what’s right.

Quickly, Townsend himself, when in his reporting he sought to respect all beliefs, became seen as the dangerous other and became the target of accusations: “Besides being called ignorant, arrogant, balding, stupid, rude, fat (my new nickname was Burger Boy), lazy, and incompetent, I was depicted as a Satanic baby. My mother was insulted. I was accused of lying about my academic degrees, having a comb-over, being a paid agent of the Saudi government, and acquiring ‘numerous social diseases.’ I was, apparently, a plagiarist and a terrorist. Someone did a search to see if I was a pedophile.”  And not only was he accused, his life was threatened.

I think, from a Girardian perspective, one could say that it’s never the other who is the danger; the danger — the real obstacle to love and to life lived fully — is the perception that it’s the other who threatens us and our worldview. (For more, read an excerpt from René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning at Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary).

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