I have taken a few days to reflect on the latest tragedy that struck in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning, June 12. When I first heard about the shooting I was, like everyone else, stunned, yet weary and dismayed that yet again, a mass shooting has hit our country, once again people going about their ordinary lives, doing ordinary things suddenly find themselves victims of a shooter who was able to easily get his hands on an assault weapon which he used to kill 49 and injure 53 innocent people. This shooting is just one in long litany of shootings that we have endured in recent years in this country. This time is was the LGBTQIA community that was targeted, although that community is now in good company with small children, African American Christians engaged in Bible Study, office workers enjoying a holiday party, ordinary citizens attending a movie or going to the mall. No one is exempt from this insanity.
In the torrent of commentaries and blog posts and essays that are being written this week, many aspects of this complex event are being discussed. The need for more serious gun control in the United States to include a complete ban on assault weapons, the dangers of “Islamic extremism,” homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, the climate of hate and bigotry that permeates our society right now, the violence and ugliness that our current presidential campaign has both fostered and nurtured. The more I reflect on this the more I see this particular shooting as a “perfect storm,” the coming together of so many strands of our collective fears and prejudices, blind spots and weaknesses, corruption and complacency. As our friends in the Eastern world religious traditions would say, karma is at work here. We reap what we sew and if we sew hatred, bigotry, fear of anyone or anything that is “different”, and if we allow and even promote a culture of violence, we should not be surprised when this kind of violence continues to occur.
From what we know now, it appears this gunman was an American born Muslim and someone who likely suffered from some mental illness and emotional issues. His numerous visits to the very nightclub that he chose as his target suggests that he might have been wrestling with issues about his own sexuality, resulting in this violent expression of his own internalized homophobia. In part his Muslim religious tradition would not have helped him, if he was trying to reconcile homosexual tendencies with his religious and ethnic tradition. However homophobia is rampant in our culture and is often expressed in strident ways by all kinds of “religious people” including many vocal Christian denominations, so I caution us not to blame Muslims or Islam for that aspect of this tragedy. In addition, being a Muslim in America means this man has had to live under the shadow of the increasing Islamophobia of this nation for most of the last 15 years, which Islamophobia has only increased during this most recent election cycle. The hateful rhetoric in this presidential campaign directed at Mexicans and Hispanic immigrants who make up a significant portion of the population in this country, may well have made Mr. Mateen even more inclined to hit the nightclub on its Latinx night. Lots of strands of hatred and bigotry and intolerance converged in this particular act of violence.
It is quite likely that this gunman was mentally ill. But to dismiss this as the act of a deranged person, is to ignore the reality that we are all responsible for the cultural soup in which our mentally ill citizens swim. Those who are mentally ill are often keenly tuned into the emotional atmosphere around them. They absorb the emotional vibrations that permeate our communities and, because of their mental illness, they are the ones most likely to express what so many others keep in check. Mental illness reduces their inhibitions and destroys their boundaries, and so they act out. When they do so, they are carrying much of the emotional baggage that all of us as a society are putting out there. We cannot excuse ourselves from culpability or simply dismiss these acts of violence as “lone wolf” isolated occurrences perpetrated by someone who is mentally unbalanced. We are all implicated in the society we have created. We all have a share in the emotional and spiritual imbalance in our culture and we need to own it and address it.
For those of us who work in the interfaith movement, there are so many ways we can and will respond to this tragedy. As interfaith activists and dialogue partners we will likely rally together, across our traditions to address many of the issues that this tragedy brings into focus: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, the need for gun control laws that have some teeth in them, lessening the violence in speech and action that has become the hallmark of our current culture and the way we talk to and about one another. Those are all issues that we can easily coalesce around and for which we can, with relative ease, find spiritual and/or religious authority for our activism within our particular religious traditions.
But Orlando pushes us a little further as interfaith people. Now, we must stop tip-toeing around the issues of human sexuality, which we have mostly avoided talking about as interfaith dialogue partners because those issues are not issues upon which we all agree. Now is the time to be courageous and begin genuine interfaith (and intrafaith) conversations about human sexuality. The Mainline Protestant Christian traditions, the Reformed, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish movements, and many Western Buddhist groups have done a lot of work on these issues in recent decades and we have wisdom to share with our brothers and sisters in other religious traditions that have not yet waded into these waters. If we want to prevent future Omar Mateens from cracking under the psychic pressure of self-loathing, we must change our religious and spiritual discourse about human sexuality and our treatment of people who do not conform to the cisgender, heterosexual norm.
It is time for us in the interfaith community to create safe spaces for these conversations, recognizing that our Muslim brothers and sisters are already bearing an enormous burden as they contend, daily, with living in a culture that eyes them with suspicion at best, and at worst, outright hatred. For our Muslim dialogue partners the fear of the conflict and pain that such conversations might bring within their own community is likely a deterrent to having those conversations, particularly in the climate in which Muslims must now live and practice their faith. And for members of other world religious traditions that have yet to confront the LGBTQIA issues, simply being a minority or immigrant religion in America is enough to make it difficult for them to embark on these kinds of conversations. The religious traditions and denominations that have already worked through these issues had the relative luxury of doing so from their positions of religious privilege in our culture.
To foster these tender discussions, all of us in the interfaith community need to create a place where these conversations can be held safely, and with trust, kindness, compassion and a genuine willingness to listen and learn. The demonization, name-calling, and hateful rhetoric of our current public discourse is not consistent with the teachings of any of our religious traditions. Now is the time for us to model an entirely different way of approaching difference and diversity based upon our respective wisdom traditions. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said so beautifully, “The challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in the one who is not in our image… The critical test of any order is: does it make space for otherness? Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?” (p. 60-61, Dignity of Difference)
Orlando brings home to us that none of us is an island. No religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, sex or gender identity exists in isolation. What hurts one segment of the human family hurts us all. We are all in this together, and we will flourish or we will perish in large measure according to the degree of our willingness to embrace those who are not just like us and to see the face of God in those who’s faces do not look like ours. Interfaith dialogue partners, we need to talk.