Monday, April 24, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (6) The Journey Into Islam

This is the 6th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.


Because Charles experiences within Islam were what first piqued my interest in reading his story, I’d like to spend the next several posts reflecting on how Charles characterizes those experiences. 

So what attracted Charles to Islam?

Perhaps it’s necessary to look at this question by way of contrast.  There are, of course, competing narratives about the “nature” of Islam in our world today.  A popular narrative in modern America is that Islam is “inherently violent” – that its teaching and ethics, its history, its founder, etc. necessarily lead a “true believer” towards a violence and hatred that’s expressed naturally and legitimately in the sort of ‘acts of terror’ that we see today.  Theirs is a “god of hate”, some would say.  This can be supported in any number of ways – through a careful proof-texting of Quranic texts, by pointing to the history of Muhammed and the development and spread of the religion, through the witness of the ex-faithful or of suicide bombers and their heavenly aspirations. 

The implications of this narrative, the way it shapes cultural attitudes and perceptions, are numerous.

Relevant here are the corresponding ideas that (1) violent people are attracted to Islam precisely because their own violence and hatred finds expression and authorization in Islam as ideology and (2) that if it hasn’t already, “true Islam” will naturally cause people to become violent and hate-filled.  As the narrative goes, Islam both attracts and creates violence because of what it “inherently” is.  And because this inherent nature of Islam simply is what it is, this claim can be made apart from any economic, social or political factors.  These factors may accelerate or decelerate the process, but the underlying argument is that there is no real distinction between “Islam” and “radical Islam” (“radical” in the sense described here).

Now it’s not my intent to address any of that general narrative here.  The only thing that I’m concerned with for the purposes of this post has to do with Charles’ particular narrative and how it doesn’t fit that popular narrative.

A few or my earlier posts centered around Charles’ childhood – his anger, loneliness, his perceptions of power, etc.  Charles was angry before becoming Muslim.  So was his becoming Muslim borne of the desire to express this anger and rage without pretense?
I wasn’t drawn to reform.  I didn’t want to make America work better – I wanted to damn it and burn it down. (p 77)
What was I looking for?  What did I want?  Some kind of justification for the urge to do violence, some way to legitimize my rage at the world I lived in.  That’s what I wanted.  I had a nihilistic urge seeking a pretense, some sort of idea, some mess of words to cover the naked desire to simply burn everything down. (p 79)
But conflicting with this rage and nihilistic urge is the desire for a kinder world:
My nihilistic desires struggled mightily with this wanting a kinder world.  And lost.  And thank God.  Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I realized that I could do the kindness I sought in the world.  Islam, with its emphasis on good deeds, helped guide me to this place. (p 80)
Charles did not become Muslim because it was a natural fit for his nihilistic world view or gave him free reign to “burn everything down”.  Quite the opposite.  In his own words, he became Muslim because in it he perceived a way to “do the kindness I sought in the world”.  I suspect that his vision of what the world was – the nature of power – did not permit a vision interested in fundamentally “changing the world”.  But Islam was, perhaps, a means to protest the ways of the world.  A doing of kindness that was, if nothing else, a form of resistance.

So Charles’ narrative is the opposite of the popular narrative I outlined above.

That was my 1st observation. 

The following series of quotes led me to a 2nd observation:
In becoming Muslim, I had found that parts of the African American experience were useful in explaining both my life and my experience of living in America.  This is akin to what Norman Mailer wrote in his 1957 essay “The White Negro”.  Though Mailer is speaking of 1950’s hipsters, with their existential cynicism, I think what he says can also describe some white Americans who, like myself, found themselves growing up on the wrong side of America, in which whiteness conferred no social advantage because the people abusing us were also white. (p 76)
Rather, what spoke to me was the experience of social power and state power as a constant, almost existential threat that African Americans like Malcom X wrote about.  That a “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” – think Citrus Elementary School – could also lead to other responses – to separatism, because “if you don’t want me, then I don’t want you either. (p 77)
He’s careful not to characterize the connection here as one of race, but one of experience and understanding:
I am not pretending to be anything or anyone I am not – I am not claiming blackness.  But the story Malcom X told of how he experienced America made sense to me.  It made an awful lot of sense.  It was an America I experienced and understood. (p 77)
So this “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” is the backdrop for the allure of Islam.  We needn’t and shouldn’t suppose that Charles choice was driven primarily by rationale deliberation or theology – that would all come later.

For me, this series of quotes demonstrated the inability of the Christianity that he had been exposed to – the dispensationalist variety that I wrote about here – to speak to his situation.  It was not a fit for a person with Charles’ experience of America - for the lonely, marginalized outcast.  Tragic, but I have to confess that I’m not surprised.  Why is this?  

This is not to suggest that if the church were to “do it right”  - whatever that means, that anyone and everyone is just going join up with a traditional church the moment a representative comes knocking.  That hasn't been my experience.  That’s naïve, condescending, and sidesteps the complexity that is a human life.  

Still.  Who and what is the church for and what does it represent?  What does it bring to the world?  Is the church for “the least of these”?  Is it really?  How? 

This demands, I think, some serious soul searching for anyone who identifies as “Christian”.  Speaking to myself as much as anyone else.

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