Healing a Community in Fear

by Elizabeth Bukey:

Yesterday afternoon we met two women who both work on healing in the Brownsville community: one a curandera and the other a medical doctor. An outsider, particularly an Anglo Seattleite outsider like me, might think that Maria and Marsha would be very different: a faith healer and an MD, a trance medium and a pediatrician. Instead, I was struck by the similar themes in our two visits.

Both women have a deep love for the community in which they work: the poor, Mexican-American, often undocumented population in this borderland. Both women connect spirit and health: Maria, deeply rooted in Catholic religion, is a medium for the spirit of a 19th-century healer; Marsha brings her background in theology to her work as a doctor. Both are affected by interacting with the illness affecting this community: Maria is exhausted after working and has to expel the bad energy she has received; Marsha spoke several times of the deep rage she feels over the injustice of the border, and needing an outlet for this rage “besides four-letter words.”

Most strikingly, though, was the way both women address the fear of the people here. People often come to Maria and other curanderas to heal illnesses which to me sound like symptoms of a community under enormous stress: overwhelming fright, panic, nervousness, upset stomachs, and many others. Marsha told us of the high level of fear affecting this community, affecting people who are effectively trapped here between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of it. Wouldn’t you get sick if you were afraid to drive, afraid of being separated from your family, afraid of losing your job, afraid your children will have no future?

Rethinking Military Spending

Information is Beautiful/David McCandless

Information is Beautiful/David McCandless

One of the accounts I eagerly follow on Twitter is from Information Is Beautiful. David McCandless truly does make information beautiful, crafting elegantly simple graphics out of nearly incomprehensible data sets. Bravo to him. What, you may be asking, does that have to do with a blog about religion in the media?

It’s not just the subheading on the Guardian blog to which he contributes which states that “Facts Are Sacred”. Rather, there’s a recent post that examines visually some of the data around military spending. One of the mainstays of Christian Pacifism has long been the critique that the United States’ military spending is a runaway cost completely out of proportion with the threat (real or imagined) of any other nation. McCandless shows that this may not be completely true.

If we cannot make an argument rooted in the economically outrageous nature of U.S. military spending, and it seems we cannot from this data, then we need stronger but still riskier grounds to oppose this expenditure. The gross amount of military spending in the U.S. is unparalleled across the globe: that much is not in dispute. However, the appeals to fiscal conservatives don’t hold so well when we understand that U.S. military spending is only 4% of our GDP, ranking us 8th worldwide behind Kyrgyzstan, Burundi and Oman.

I am not sure that this poses an insurmountable ethical issue for the peace movement. We still have other grounds on which to oppose war and militarism in general. What it does do is change the nature of the conversation. Common wisdom in U.S. politics holds that you want to quote the most conservative support for your opinion that you can find. McCandless illustrates that we need to find some different kind of economic argument against war.

Of course, these numbers leave out the human and ecological costs of warfare. The psychological trauma of either participating in or surviving conflict is only beginning to be understood. Perhaps we need to factor the post-conflict costs into the calculus of war. Perhaps we just need to abandon economic justifications or refutations of military engagement all together. I’ll leave it to you to debate in the comments.

Re: Fort Hood

We all have a polarity within us; magnets, so to speak, that pull on our moral compass. It’s in cases like Hasan’s, where the needle in the compass snaps, that we begin sifting through the deluge of questions of why his compass no longer pointed north and led him toward such destruction.

It’s been just over a week. That’s not near enough time to make definitive statements. This event is laden with complication and questions, ones that will be worked out for months to come. So, Peter, when you ask, “isn’t he like us?” I want to say yes and no. And the no must be investigated thoroughly.

We are all fallible and fractured humans, estranged from God’s love. It’s an estrangement buoyed by our backwardness. Whether it be greed, pride, apathy or in the case of Hasan utter despair—for only a deep tragic despair could fall to such destruction—we find ourselves separated from God’s wholeness. Then there is certainly undeniable distance between Hasan and “us”. This, however, has nothing to do with Hasan being Muslim. Any killing in the name of God is perversion. The difference centers on the proverbial compass needle. Maybe it’s a fallacy, but I’d like to think in all of our imperfection, we (the “us”) can and do value the good over evil and that we can distinguish between the two when we engage in thoughtful reflection. In doing so we ask ourselves, “how do we keep the needle pointing north?” For many of us it’s a reflection through religious imagination, which helps us make sense of our fallible characters and endows us with a power of transcendence.

But when that religious imagination becomes the vehicle for violent action, it is perversion plain and simple. It’s becoming more clear Hasan was a more troubled man than anyone ever recognized—a trouble that led to a manifestation of religious perversion.  It’s why American Muslims have been so vocal in the last week to say: “this is not who we are, it is in fact the exact opposite.”

So we can see Hasan as the wholly, evil “other,” ask for our pound of flesh, and move on in dismayed anger. Or, maybe we can thoroughly investigate the whys and the hows. That is, how did such undeniable distance develop between Hasan and us? How did this man become encumbered by such deep trauma? And how did no one recognize his troubled nature and fail to speak out, or even more, help him work through such despair?

If we’re about healing, we’ll not gloss over the difficult questions that indict us all. We’ll approach them stumbling forward, but we’ll do it together—rechecking the compass with each step. We have to.

Hasan’s Presentation to Senior Army Doctors on Adverse Effects of Muslims in US Military

More Unending News:

NYTimes: Tangled Story
Slate: “Is Hasan a Terrorist”
NPR: Interview with Muslim Military Chaplain
Hasan Family Statement
Face the Nation

Fort Hood

I was away at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting when news came through to Montreal that a United States soldier had opened fire on his fellows at Fort Hood in Texas. The initial media coverage was predictably scattered. Reports were coming in too fast to parse: the shooter was dead, the shooter wasn’t dead, we didn’t really know who it was, no–we know who it is.

It turns out that the man in custody for these shootings is a United States Army psychiatrist named Nadal Hasan. He is a Muslim. That’s about where the media coverage flew off the rails of discourse, crash landing in a smoking heap of polemic. Some bloggers have posited this indisputably tragic event in terms evocative of Armageddon. Other opinion pieces point out the thorny nature of the question posed by Hasan’s actions: namely, can we talk about one extremist’s beliefs without maligning an entire tradition?

I confess that I do not have an answer. I have known too many Muslims in my life to think that Maj. Hasan’s beliefs are normative. I want to assign him to a category analogous to Fred Phelps: a fringe figure who speaks for no-one but himself. Even this lets me too much off the hook. I need to think about a bigger issue raised by Maj. Hasan’s actions.

I want to know about the chickens coming home to roost. I want to know why the possibility of his being traumatized by exposure to war through his patients is not being explored any longer. This came up briefly in early news coverage. As soon as there was a simpler–dare I say reductionist–answer at hand, the complex and human picture was discarded. The news networks are no longer interested in interrogating the relationship between war and violence on one hand and the traumatized human psyche on the other. Now we just have a boogeyman to fear. Now we can just be thankful that he isn’t like “us”.

Isn’t he?

Further reading: