Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

800px-Forbidden_fruit

I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

Homeland Security

I work just two blocks from the United Nations building in New York. While out to grab my lunch yesterday I was engulfed in a peaceful, if vocal demonstration. Many people were standing along Third Avenue with a perplexed look, myself included, I suppose, when a protestor from a great, surging throng thrust a paper into my hand. Headlined “Bring Justice to Guinea,” the paper outlined the brutalities being perpetrated against the Fulani in Guinea. I have to confess to being ignorant of most of the world’s trouble spots. In a society that is relatively free, we’ve been struggling to attain any real form of social equity without success for over two and a half centuries. When I read of the atrocities against the Fulani outlined on the flier, I wondered why I’d not heard of them before. I didn’t have to wonder long, however, because many of us have not received any real education beyond what has happened in the developed world. I decided to learn what I could in the brief moments after the commute home and before bed time. I discovered that the Fulani were once an empire in West Africa. Today in Guinea, according to the information at hand, they are subject to truly horrific treatment. The flier asks, “Would you stop a genocide if you saw it coming?”

I honestly cannot know what lies behind the suffering of the Fulani in Guinea, but historically genocides have either been about, or excused as being about, proper religious belief. One of the saddest commentaries on religion is that even in varieties of religion that claim peaceable teachings and human welfare, violence frequently breaks out. The distrust of the other runs very deep, and if the clearest dividing line is religion, so be it. The very nature of our brains causes us to divide the world about us into categories. The problem with categories is that they are often mental constructs that do not correlate to the reality they attempt to describe. Take people, for example. Does anyone really ever stick to a category or a label in all ways and at all times? Are we not prone to inconsistency and evolution? To use a label as an excuse to harm another is rightly called a hate crime today. Unfortunately, hate crimes are very common, if illegal in some places.

Homeland of the human race.

Difference may be perceived at least two ways—we might respond to it negatively or positively. As a culture, all but the extremist groups seem to have accepted that people are people and deserve equal treatment. On the religious front, however, we lag far behind. Religions often make universal claims, and if a universal claim is truly universal no variation can be accepted. Our deep-seated distrust of those different from ourselves often finds its release in the guise of religion. No other human institution claims a divine prerogative for abusing others. Some people would admit that their animosity stems from basic human motives. If they act upon it, they wind up imprisoned. If, on the other hand, it becomes a crusade with divine standards proudly waving, the perpetrator is more likely to run for public office than to be sequestered in jail. Religion thrives on double standards. Until we find an objective way to assess them (those who have ears, let them hear) we will find ourselves dealing with unreasonable religious demands until our genocidal distrust spreads to the entire remainder of the world.

Religion’s Double-Edged Sword

This podcast discusses a recent visit of Westboro Baptist Church’s “protesters” to Rutgers University. The issue is whether religious freedom includes the right to encourage hate crimes on the part of those not directly involved in the “protests.” Religious freedom is the phenomenon that allows such groups to develop in a democracy, but the end results of such groups is destructive to the democracy that engendered it. This is compared to the Scientology case that is simultaneously taking place in France and noting the differences between them.