Last night I was sitting in a room with a group of remarkable students, the DU Interfaith Advocates. Part of our time together was spent discussing the Syrian refugee crisis. And one of the students in attendance was at DU partly because of that crisis. His family had fled Syria because of the violence there. In the course of the conversation, he commented that what was happening there for many young people was that those furthering the conflict were "stealing our future". They young men and women growing up in Syria had a vision for their future and their country's future; what the conflict was doing was robbing them of those dreams.
Last night we also talked about the news of the day: the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR.* Details of the shooting are still coming out, but last night we knew enough to know that a young man decided, for whatever reason, to start shooting folks based on their religion (the news this morning confirms that he was asking victims if they were Christian before shooting them). The school year had just started at Umpqua; the shooter not only destroyed the future for his victims (and himself), but stole much of the future for the survivors.
Earlier in the day, before I had heard about the shootings, and long before the evening's discussion, I was listening to a podcast of the Brian Lehrer show (out of WNYC in New York). The particular episode was from September 11, 2015 (yes, I'm behind), and featured an interview with Farah Pandith, the first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US Department of State. She no longer works for the State Department but is researching the reasons WHY some young folks (in her case, Muslims) are so readily radicalized. She asserted that for much of their lives (i.e., since September 11, 2001), the front pages (paper and virtual) have been filled with negative news about Islam/Muslims. This has created, she claims, a crisis of identity for these folks. And it is that crisis that leaves these young people searching for meaning -- and groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. promise meaning.
Front-page news about religion in general, It occured to me, is rarely good (some of the coverage of Pope Francis' recent US visit to the contrary) despite the good that most religious traditions do as a matter of course. I look at the statistics of "millennials" fleeing their religious roots and claiming, when asked about their religious affiliation, to be either "spiritual but not religious" or "None of the above", and Ms. Pandith's conclusions seem to extend well-beyond radicalization-prone young Muslims. We have, unfortunately, produced (by many of our religious actions, non-actions, and subsequent reportage) a generation that wants little to do with the institutions that sustained their parents and grand-parents. Yet, many of those young people yearn for something that might provide meaning and identity. And the substitutes that often arise don't produce. In a way, their future has been stolen -- perhaps not intentionally, but they are bereft nonetheless.
In response to yesterday's shootings, President Obama challenged Americans by saying "our thoughts and prayers are not enough". The time for action has come. The president suggested some concrete ideas. But it seems that there are some other ones, not necessarily related to gun-control or mental health needs (as important as those issues are). I believe that it is incumbent on all of us, people of good faith, to speak out about the moorings our convictions provide. We must give up attacking others--by word or deed--using religious rhetoric to justify or bolster our bigotry and ignorance. We, who know better, must speak out; we must band together to speak in common. In fierce contradiction to those voices that would drive us apart, that would steal our future, we must declare: "We are better together! And, together, we will build a better, and less violent, world for those who come after us."
*As a native Oregonian, and someone who's been in Roseburg numerous times, this is particularly sad for me.
The Rev. Gary R. Brower, Ph.D