Tag Archives: death

Atheist Shoots Young Muslims in North Carolina

Although how pertinent the perpetrator’s and victims’ religious identities are to the motive remains to be litigated.

I was reading an update on this story a few minutes ago, and I watched embedded video footage of Craig Hicks’s first hearing (the arraignment, I believe it’s called?), and as the video ended, I started crying a little. That’s not my usual horrified-yet-cerebral response to this kind of thing.

I didn’t know Deah Barakat, or Yusor or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. But Deah was attending college at my last alma mater. I immediately recognized the Old Well in one of the photos of Yusor and Deah that accompanied early news stories. I’ve been in the apartment complex where this shooting occurred. I guess that all makes this more tangibly real to me–more shocking–than if it had happened in some locale I’ve never been and don’t identify with.

This story mentions that Richard Dawkins, who Hicks admired, has done a horrified/outraged tweet about the shooting.

My brain’s on hold. In shock.

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JFK assassination anniversary: What the…?

So the anniversary of JFK’s assassination has finally passed—I presume it’s passed, anyway. Surely not even the 24-hour cable news networks can milk anything more out of this, can they?

I found this anniversary a puzzling exercise in civil religion. I heard on the radio that the President declared it an “official day of remembrance,” meaning that flags were supposed to be at half mast. Um… why? Of all the tragic events that have happened over the course of American history, why did this one rise to the level of needing to be officially remembered a half century after it happened? What interests are served by the memorializing of this particular tragedy?

Is this a baby boomer thing—people in my parents’ generation reliving their “Where you when you heard…” moments? Will my generation similarly want to commemorate, let’s say, the Challenger disaster a couple decades from now?

Does this anniversary reveal the intensity of charisma that Americans invest into the presidency: is that the reason a presidential assassination rises to the level of requiring a 50-year anniversary commemoration? If that’s the case, though—was Lincoln’s assassination so memorialized? What about Garfield’s? Or McKinley’s?

Is JFK the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan? That is: Did our current Democratic president want the country to commemorate JFK’s assassination in order to ensure a past Democratic president’s high standing in the American pantheon, much as Republicans do when they name things after Reagan?

To what extent was this act of civil religion driven by the news media’s fascination with the JFK assassination—which in turn was driven to a considerable degree, I’ll maintain, by both sensationalism and convenience? The networks had plenty of footage of the tragedy to work with, so it was a broadcast-friendly story; there were conspiracy theories to be discussed, magnifying public interest; and contemporary figures like Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow are still around to try to hit up for interviews. So: Did the JFK assassination become an event that seemed to call for some kind of solemn remembrance because media outlets had decided to give a lot of airtime to it for less solemn reasons?

Is the JFK commemoration part of a larger trend right now toward finding things in American history to commemorate? We just finished commemorating the Gettysburg address. Before that, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Are these commemorations being driven by a kind of cultural malaise—anxiety about how polarized the country is right now, a groping for things that can bring us all together?

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Jesse Jackson’s prayer at Chavez funeral

An interesting instance of American religion abroad: According to the BBC, Jesse Jackson was one of “three religious leaders” who led “ecumenical prayers” during the state funeral for Hugo Chavez. I don’t know who the other two individuals were. But as a text in the study of American civil religion–in an international setting, and with African American inflections–here’s my transcript of Jesse Jackson’s prayer at the Chavez funeral, as broadcast by Al Jazeera English. The line breaks in my transcript correspond to where Jackson paused to allow spontaneous interpretation into Spanish.


We pray to God today
that the soul of Hugo Chavez will find peace
and accept service in the kingdom.
Grant him mercy and grace.

The Chavez family mourns today–
comfort them.
Venezuela cries today–
reassure them
Venezuela is not left alone.

[Nicolas] Maduro–
grant him wisdom
and support
as he keeps hopes and dreams alive,
as he picks up the baton
and makes a great nation greater.

We pray God today
that you will heal the breach
between the U.S. and Venezuela.
Yea, though we walk
through the valleys and shadows of death,
we fear no evil,
for thou art with us.
Help us forgive,
and move on to higher ground.

We are neighbors.
We share the same hemisphere.
We play ball together.
We trade resources together.
We fight drugs together.
We share dreams together.
We’re bound by culture and environment.

Even the death
of this leader–
not even death–
will separate us from your love, dear God.
Neither heights nor depths
shall separate us.

Now, Jesus,
remove our doubts and fears.
Dry our eyes.

Today a great nation mourns.
How do we measure a great leader?
By how he treats the least of these.
Hugo fed the hungry.
He lifted the poor.
He raised their hopes.
He helped them realize their dreams.

And so today we do mourn
because we’ve lost a lot.
But we have a lot left:
a stable government,
an orderly transition.

We pray the presidents of our great nation
will meet soon
and find common ground.
While it may be politically difficult,
it’s the morally right thing to do.

Nothing is too hard for God.
And so, let us rise.
We fall down sometimes
by our own errors.
We fall down sometimes
because of our fears.
But we get up again
because the ground
is no place for a champion,
The ground is no place for a champion.
The ground is no place for champions.

Let there be peace between nations.

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San Francisco jazz funeral

A student recently shared this photo with me. It shows a New Orleans-style funeral procession (a.k.a. “jazz funeral”) moving through the North Shore area of San Francisco. It’s the funeral for the student’s godfather, who died in January.


I was intrigued when the student told me about this because of the geographical displacement involved–i.e., I wouldn’t have expected a jazz funeral in San Francisco, although of course in a country long characterized by migration, I should have expected it. Outmigration from the South to the western parts of the Sunbelt was particularly notable in the 20th century, which makes the New Orleans-San Francisco trajectory that much more “Oh, yeah, makes sense.”

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The Marigold Project

In recognition of Day of the Dead, a video about the Marigold Project, a non-profit that organizes an annual “Festival of Altars” in San Francisco’s Garfield Park. The video also includes some footage of the annual Day of the Dead procession in the city’s Mission District.

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Death of Sun Myung Moon

I just saw the news that Sun Myung Moon has died. This is an important transition for the Unification Church.

Photo from Unification Church News

I’ve taught about the church in a superficial way in a couple different courses: I briefly covered it in New Religious Movements, and I once had students perform an Eliadean analysis of a blessing ceremony (mass wedding) in Introduction to Religious Studies. I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the movement’s most recent history, but what I have read has left me with the impression that Moon is not as powerful an authority in the U.S. church as the “cult” image would incline people to imagine (an image sustained by incidents like Moon’s 2004 self-coronation in the Senate Office Building).

Moon is unquestionably a charismatic figure–the Messiah, the True Father. For a glimpse of that charismatic role, read this very recent speech by his daughter In Jin Moon, who is president of the church in the U.S. (She makes some interesting moves in her speech by way of legitimating Moon’s wife as successor and preparing members to make theological sense of Moon’s imminent death.) On the other hand, I see signs that there’s at least a limited, but well-placed, intelligentsia within the American movement who maintain some critical distance from the founder. Witness this article from the Religion News Service, which quotes Tyler Hendricks, the most recent past president of the church’s seminary in New York, saying that Moon “is always expanding even his own theological definitions and challenging those around him. . . . He doesn’t always speak clearly or logically.”

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the church in the wake of the founder’s death. RNS gives its coverage a juicy, conflictual ending: “Despite Moon’s intense focus on happy families, the handover to his heirs has been riven by internecine strife. Some of his children have split from the church, abused drugs and fought bitterly for control of the church’s business empire. With Moon’s death, the fighting is expected to intensify.” Likely enough. But I have a hunch that enough Weberian routinization has occurred–administering the church’s businesses would require that, no?–to allow the church to press on in the modest way it has been.

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Temple shooting memorial

Some random thoughts I’ve had as I’ve been reading news coverage of the memorial service following the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. I hope it doesn’t seem crass of me to be in “analytical mode” so close to events–the impulse to analyze these kinds of things is why I do religious studies for a living. Surely it isn’t any more crass of me to analyze these media performances than it is for people to be staging them in the first place.

It is encouraging that members of the larger (non-Sikh) community felt impelled to participate in the memorial service, inasmuch as their participation sends the message, “We recognize you as part of this community.” At the same time–you knew another shoe was about to drop; here it is–it would be worth knowing to what extent, and in what concrete ways, the Sikhs were, in fact, recognized by the larger community prior to this tragedy, and to what extent, and in what concrete ways, their membership in the larger community will be recognized in the future. To put it brutally: Is showing up to the memorial a cheap facsimile of solidarity that lets people feel like they’re good pluralists?

Given the multivalent nature of these kinds of public performances, it would also be worth knowing what other messages people are sending when they show up, besides “We recognize you as part of this community” or “We’re appalled by white supremacy.” Other possibilities include, for example, “I’m a frustrated Wisconsin liberal who sees this tragedy as a damning symbol of what Tea-Party conservatism leads to.” Or, “I’m a white Republican governor who wants to show that my party are not the racists, and xenophobes, and Christian bigots they’re made out to be.”

Speaking at the service (sans head gear, N.B.), Eric Holder called the shooting “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime” and said that, as such, it was “anathema to the founding principles of our nation and to who we are as an American people.” Those platitudes bear interrogation. Political work of one kind or another is always being carried out whenever the power-words “terrorism” and “hate crime” show up; when the Attorney General uses them, that’s definitely worth probing.

At the moment, though, my hermeneutic of suspicion is attuned to this question: Why does a representative of the presidential administration feel a rhetorical imperative to denounce–and to denounce as un-American, specifically–an act whose immorality goes entirely without saying? In other words, for whose benefit is Holder delivering this statement of the obvious? Who needs to be persuaded that shooting people is un-American? Rephrase that: “that walking into a house of worship and randomly shooting people is un-American.” Shooting people per se is clearly not un-American: supporting our troops while they do precisely that is a patriotic duty. And maybe that fact is part of why Holder feels the rhetorical imperative to say what he did? “Hey, world–including especially all you Muslims out there: This isn’t what Americans are about, contrary to the impression you may have gotten in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I get it: Holder wants to stigmatize white supremacy; he wants to stigmatize xenophobia; his comments may be intended to stigmatize Islamophobia more specifically. I’m most inclined to agree about the need to do that last. But I’m still left wondering: What exactly does Holder think the rhetorical situation is, that he feels he needs to explicitly denounce this shooting–and by extension, what does he then imagine that he achieves by denouncing the shooting? (Did people feel the need to denounce the random shooting of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado?) I don’t take it as a given that Holder’s denunciation needed to be made, or that the denunciation actually does that much good, despite how much significance the news media are assigning to it in their reporting.  If you disagree with my reading, I’d be interesting in hearing from you. I’m hoping, though, you have something more rigorous to say than impassioned platitudes about how religious intolerance is bad. I know that already, thank you. What I’m asking is: Why do you think repeating those platitudes actually does good?

UPDATE: One more thing I wanted to mention: One AP story paraphrases Holder as commending the Sikh community for having “responded without violence.” I haven’t been able to find Holder’s exact words yet, but my initial reaction is to find that a . . . curious statement. What is Holder imagining that the Sikh response might have been? Young bearded men rioting in the streets of Oak Creek, Wisconsin? Setting cars on fire? Chanting “Death to America”?

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St. John Maximovitch

Today is the feast day of St. John Maximovitch.

Last November, while attending the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Francisco, I boarded a bus one rainy evening and took a long ride across the city to visit the Holy Virgin Cathedral, where the saint’s incorrupt relics are on display. I first encountered John Maximovitch in the early-to-mid 1990s, at Brigham Young University of all places. While I was an undergraduate there, I saw a flyer that the BYU religion department had received announcing an essay contest: write away for a free copy of Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, write an essay about it, win $1000 for first prize. I was entering a lot of writing contests in those days. I sent away for the book, which turned out to be exactly 1000 pages long, an adulatory biography of an American convert to Russian Orthodoxy who is now considered a saint by his devotees. My essay won honorable mention, which meant they sent me four more of the man’s books.

Seraphim Rose was a protege of John Maximovitch, who therefore figured prominently in Rose’s biography. During the 1960s, until his death, Maximovitch was archbishop of San Francisco for ROCOR, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which I think of as the “fundamentalist” wing of Russian Orthodoxy in America. He had been born in Russia; his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution; he became archbishop of Shanghai, where he pastored Russian exiles and ran an orphanage; after he and his community fled China’s Communist Revolution, he ended up in France for a while before his final move to the United States. In Shanghai, he developed a reputation as a “fool for Christ” and a wonderworker–he would pray around the clock without sleeping; in response to his prayers, the orphanage’s needs would be miraculously met on a hand-to-mouth basis; that sort of thing.

Maximovitch was solemnly glorified (canonized) in 1994. In celebration, The Orthodox Word, a journal co-founded by Seraphim Rose with Maximovitch’s blessing published a Maximovitch-themed issue, free copies of which were sent to everyone on their mailing list. I’d ended up on that list because of my contest submission. Last fall, I used selections from that issue of the journal for a unit I was teaching on Russian Orthodoxy in America–at which point it occurred to me I was going to be in San Francisco that same month for the AAR. I figured I had to visit.

The Holy Virgin Cathedral is small but lavish, with icons covering every square inch of wall and ceiling. (Topic for a future blog post: why liberal Protestants love Orthodox icons.) I arrived thinking I was going to find the saint’s shrine in a basement crypt, but I discovered that after his glorification, his remains were moved from the basement into the sanctuary itself. I was assured it was fine for me to go take a look, even though a service was going to start soon, so I walked across the sanctuary floor feeling very self-conscious. I had no idea what the normal protocol would be–genuflections, etc.–so as I approached the shrine, I clasped my hands in front of me and tried to look reverential, though in fact I felt like a gawking tourist.

I’m sure there are lengthy theological disquisitions on what counts as “incorrupt” relics. Maximovitch’s body was not what I would have called “incorrupt,” but it was all there, under glass, in what looked like a state of mummification. Actually, the only part of the body you could see were the hands; the rest of the body was covered up with ritual vestments, plus a cloth covering the face. The hands were blackened and shriveled. It was quite a jolt to my Protestant-slash-Mormon sensibilities.

Before leaving, I stood in the doorway to the sanctuary and observed a service venerating the saint: a couple priests and perhaps 6-8 people stood near the reliquary and chanted–I don’t know what, it was Russian. St. John’s akathist, perhaps? I bought a copy of his akathist before I left (a long hymn in his praise), along with an icon of the saint. The akathist had been composed by Seraphim Rose.

The building John is holding in the icon is the Holy Virgin Cathedral, whose completion he oversaw (amid great controversy in the congregation).

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Desecrating enemy bodies

I will resist the temptation to wax polemical, but the desecration of the bodies of dead Taliban fighters by U.S. Marines–and people’s reactions to the incident–invites analysis. For starters, there must be commentators in peace churches who are arguing that there’s a perverse irony at work in the U.S. government’s official condemnations of the incident: Dead bodies are sacred; living bodies are not. It’s acceptable for soldiers to destroy living people’s bodies; they risk getting in trouble, though, if afterwards they piss on what’s left. Many Americans who regard the latter as deplorable have no problem with the former–someone might suggest that reflects a warped set of values.

I’m reminded of how the military made a point of washing and enshrouding Osama bin Laden’s body, in accordance with Islamic custom, before disposing of it. Treating the bodies of dead enemies in a way that can be represented as respectful appears to be one of the ways that Americans cast themselves as good and honorable and thus legitimate their use of violence.

Pamela Geller interpreted the urination as a parody of “the Islamic ritual of washing and preparing the body for burial.” I doubt–no, hope that the Marines involved hadn’t thought through the semiotics of what they were doing that far. But it’s striking that Geller is prepared to applaud an action that she understands as a literal desecration. The military institutions that the United States has charged with actually carrying out the killing of enemy Muslims at least make a show of treating Islam as sacred; Geller feels no compunctions on that count. Even knowing how vehemently anti-Muslim she is, I confess to being surprised. I would have thought that the forces of pluralism would exert enough of a gravitational pull on her that she would find it prudent to keep her approval of this particular incident out of the public eye. The fact that she doesn’t feel that need is a sign of how tolerated antipathy to Islam has become in American culture. I hadn’t realized our situation was quite that bad. It’s one thing to see outrageously Islamophobic statements being made by local officials somewhere, because you can chalk it up to provinciality; I didn’t realize that people like Geller felt sufficiently emboldened to approve an act of desecration on the national stage.

A similar observation can be made about the fact that the Marines involved seem to have felt so justified in the act that they saw nothing wrong with uploading the video to show a potentially global public what they had done. (I’m assuming that’s the scenario, i.e., that the video wasn’t uploaded by a whistleblower.) What does that tell us about the culture the American Marines in Afghanistan have created among themselves? The U.S. government wants, of course, to represent this incident as an aberration; but it’s not difficult to see why Marines whose lives are constantly endangered by the Taliban would develop a culture of disdain and loathing for the Taliban and their religion. Wouldn’t you have to, to psychologically survive that situation? Americans want to imagine that their soldiers can go to war with Islamic extremists while retaining high ideals of “respect” for Islam and Muslims and human rights in general–because that will make for an “honorable” war, true to American values. I find that an unrealistic expectation to place on people we’re sending out to kill or be killed, and I’m therefore not surprised to find evidence that soldiers don’t live up to it. But as long as Americans imagine it can be done, and is being done, they’ll feel fewer qualms about sending their soldiers off to war.

Okay, so I didn’t stay as neutrally analytical as I’d intended at the outset.

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