Like many of us, I have been deeply disturbed by the developments in Afghanistan. Our congregation has an incredible woman from Afghanistan. Another amazing member of our community spent several years there with her husband and their family. That’s why the developments hit so close to home.
As I’ve watched things play out, two things have been at the forefront of my mind. One relates to my 12 Step work; the other has to do with my interfaith commitments. Let me begin by sharing the thoughts motivated by my 12 Step work.
One of the foundational principles of the 12 Step movement is that we as individuals should not attempt to control or manipulate the decisions and actions of others. The heathiest way of living is to focus on doing our own work and support others as they do their work.
It’s easy to affirm that principle in the context of personal relationships. It is MUCH more challenging to apply it in global situations.
As I thought about what that principle might mean on a global scale, I’ve realized that for years after World War II ended the United States has seen itself (and been seen by others as well) as the world’s police force. Many expect us to do things like defend good things (like human rights) and defeat forces that work against those things we understand to be good.
On the surface that sounds noble. As you dig deeper, however, such an approach denies others the process of living through things that can help them make healthier decisions. In 12 Steps, the difficult things we live through are part of a process that causes us to “hit rock bottom”.
Watching a loved one hit rock bottom is hard enough. Watching an entire country hit bottom is beyond torturous to the soul.
So, what do we do in such a horrible set of circumstances? Do we simply stand back as bystanders and let hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives be lost?
Again, the principles of the 12 Steps helps me here in that they take me away from a “black or white” (or “all or nothing”) approach that we addicts are so fond of. First, we can acknowledge that the past 21 years spent trying to manipulate circumstances to produce our preferred outcome didn’t work the way we imagined. Clearly, Afghans did not buy into the infrastructure we tried to create in a way that would have empowered them to stand up to the Taliban. But that doesn’t mean we simply walk away. The principles of the 12 Steps tells me that we stay engaged with our beloved siblings in Afghanistan and do things that allow them to move forward in their manner of their choosing. And when the Taliban commits violence against Afghans or limits the basic rights of those most vulnerable, we set boundaries as we work with a broad-based global coalition to give the offenders appropriate consequences. I hope we will also take meaningful action to support those who are committed to the safety and rights of all Afghans. At the end of the day, we will begin to realize that this is a struggle that must be determined – first and foremost – by Afghans themselves.
Of course, this process won’t be quick or easy. Like all relational work, it will push and challenge us to our very limits. The Afghans I have been blessed to know in my life have shown me that the people of Afghanistan are up to the challenge and will make the healthiest decisions – if we allow them to do so for themselves.
The other thing that came up for me involves the way many talk about the conflict itself. Much of the coverage uses language that ties a faith tradition (Islamists or Muslims) to words such as extremists or terrorists. Sadly, this reinforces the stereotype that all Muslims are violent extremists.
So what can we do about this?
My work in the LGBTQIA+ community taught me that language does matter: especially the language used in covering world events. Back in the 1980’s, leaders from the LGBTQIA+ community came together to form an organization called GLAAD (Gays and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). The group worked hard over the past 36 years to carefully monitor the ways in which events – and LGBTQIA+ people themselves – were portrayed. Whenever an unfair characterization was broadcast or published, GLAAD would mobilize its members so they could quickly work to end the derogatory portrayals and generate more accurate coverage.
I would love to see a similar group form to monitor the ways in which members of religious traditions are portrayed. When a news outlet reports that a Christian bombed an abortion clinic, for instance, the group could work to say a religious extremist bombed a clinic. When a reporter says that a Jewish person attacked a Palestinian, the group could correct the language to say a violent nationalist attacked a Palestinian. And when an organization like the Taliban encourages its members to lash out and commit acts of violence, the group could work to ensure that a reporter doesn’t blame the violence on Islamic forces. Instead, they could cite religious radicals. Every time an entire religious tradition is maligned due to the actions of extremists, it perpetuates the notion that the traditions themselves are the source of the violence.
Each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) are beautiful, peace-loving traditions that have contributed so much to the world. Sadly, each of the traditions have also had adherents who took their beliefs and – more often than not, their thirst for power so they alone could be God/Allah’s mouthpiece – used them as an excuse to commit atrocities.
If those of us who belong to a faith tradition work cooperatively and collaboratively together, we could begin to change some of the assumptions that exist about our traditions. And in that process, we could show the world that each of our faith traditions can be a powerful force for healing, reconciliation, and hope for the world.