On Lighting a Candle

On Sunday night, I attended a vigil for refugees held at my institution. My work email was filled with notices about it, so I decided to go because it is at least doing something.

One of my core moral litmus tests is how other people treat people who are not in positions of power or authority. I watch how people treat servers in restaurants. I watch how others treat cashiers and customer service agents. My moral judgment of the people who saw the dead Syrian child, the ones who then turned around and said we needed to ban refugees, is that they’re in error. How people treat the displaced and the dispossessed is very telling because the suffering is not (usually) in front of them.

At the vigil, the Muslim chaplain spoke, along with several students from the banned countries who are now trapped in the city with little ability to move without risking detention. A Vietnamese refugee also spoke out. The Muslim chaplain and Muslim students offered prayers. One read from the Quran, a passage on Muslim-Christian relations, and it was abstractly very interesting that the passage had no relevance to my own person.

In the conversations about conversion and violence, I sometimes think that the human elements get lost. Hélio left blogging at Polytheist.com because the rhetoric against Christians and Muslims in the polytheist community (and Hélio discussed this in terms of turning back the clock) often focuses on these religions’ extremist elements at the expense of the humanity of their other members.

Galina and I are in agreement on the pathology of extremist monotheism even when we disagree about so many other things. The Christian extremists who have taken over the US Government are equal to the ones in Uganda are equal to Al-Qaeda are equal to totalitarian Saudi Arabia. The only differences are the legal limitations of what they can accomplish — and these limitations are now being eroded in America on a daily basis. When a nation’s adviser recommends war with China and cites the Chinese lack of acceptance of Christianity as a problem — and of doing this war to show that the Judeo-Christian West is not in decline — what is the difference between conduct like that and the Muslim extremists’ positions on wars with infidels? As a polytheist, the rhetoric is alarming because it amounts to an all-out war against those who do not share Judeo-Christian values. How are my beliefs any different from those of the Chinese in that we diverge from what Christians believe? What does this mean about my personal safety? Is it even OK to write a blog post expressing my uncertainty?

I believe that the majority of Muslims and Christians are good people, but that the extremist elements within them are the most vocal: Passionate people tend to dominate discussions. This has led to the Christian extremist takeover of the American government here. I can handle microaggressions and assumptions that I practice an Abrahamic religion (with some annoyance, admittedly), but the limits of my tolerance are when someone claims that their religious laws (i.e., prohibitions against same-sex marriage and women’s equality) apply to me. My identity is not oppositional: I can allow for the existence of those who do not share my value systems. I only push against people when it’s a matter of human and civil rights.

I am against profiling all members of a religion as being part of extremist groups because I have a brain and recognize that a vocal minority does not speak for the majority. There are 1.7 billion Muslims and 2.2 billion Christians worldwide. The number of people involved in extremist activities is quite small. In America today, the animosity between Islam and Christianity has led extremist Christians to attack the First Amendment rights of Muslims because those Christians are terrified of Islam, and that terror is inappropriate. Extremist Christians are introducing laws in Congress that infringe on my rights in their efforts to police the morality of everyone as if we were all subject to their religious tenets. The moderate and progressive Christians are fighting alongside us non-Christians for our rights. The Christian extremists don’t represent their views, just as the Muslim extremists do not represent the views of most Muslims.

Secularism should be an effort to ensure that civic society can accommodate the heterogeneity of religious obligations and experience, not an enforcement of Christian morality or an effort to shove religion under the table. Humanistic values are for people. Religious obligations are for gods. Evangelism is not a right, but a violence inflicted on others. Decent people should not do it.

The ban on Muslim entry from those seven countries is horrifying to me for all of the reasons above. The ban on refugees is even more appalling because I believe that one can tell the morality of a person by how they treat the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Listening to the stories, fear, and uncertainty among the Muslims and refugees who spoke this Sunday was heartbreaking. My power to make things better for them is limited, but I will stand beside Muslim Americans, refugees, and legal residents because it is the right thing to do. I will also stand beside Chinese citizens who are US residents and Chinese Americans regardless of what our Dominionist government decides to do in the next few years.

Etiquette’s rules are fundamentally about preserving human dignity in complicated social situations. I am just as frustrated as anyone else that etiquette and decorum have been politicized as radical and un-American. Ideologies that strip dignity from groups of people are an anathema to etiquette and human rights. In other words, you just don’t treat people like that, and you do not associate with people who behave poorly. Citizens don’t protest when they are actually treated with respect by officials with integrity.

I would like to close with Solon’s Tenets, which are a grounding space in times like these.

  1. Consider your honor, as a person, of more weight than an oath.
  2. Never speak falsely.
  3. Pay attention to matters of importance.
  4. Be not hasty in making friends; and do not cast off those whom you have made.
  5. Rule, after you have first learnt to submit to rule.
  6. Advise not what is most agreeable, but what is best.
  7. Make reason your guide.
  8. Do not associate with the wicked.
  9. Honor the gods.
  10. Respect your parents.

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