Rubble. Blood. Devastation. Death.
Scenes that emerged in the wake of the September 2013 terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Kenya had a sickening familiarity. By the end of the four-day siege, hundreds were injured and 67 lay dead — the latest innocents slaughtered in the name of God.
Video of the massacre even shows at least one terrorist stopping briefly to pray, laying his gun aside to worship before resuming the slaughter.In claiming responsibility for the carnage, a hate-filled audio Twitter message posted by members of the Somali militant group al Shabaab warned Kenyans to “... withdraw from our country, stop meddling in our affairs, set our captives free, and denounce all forms of fighting our religion. If you refuse to do so, you have seen what you will reap ...”
It is a now familiar story of killing intertwined with religion, an event happening far too often in far too many corners of the globe: from the Boston Marathon bombing to violence in Northern Ireland, from hate crimes in Europe to upheaval in Egypt. The incidents are too many to count.All have been stained by killing, as Bob Dylan wrote a half century ago, “with God on our side.”
Certainty that God has chosen a side is the reason that “religions give rise to one of the most dangerous forms of ideology, because we claim divine authority for our actions,” says Dr. Catherine E. Clifford, professor of systematic and historical theology at the University of St. Paul, Ottawa — who captivated many during her “Vatican II and Catholic Ecumenical Engagement” lecture at Alvernia this fall.
“Religions become violent when we allow them to become distorted and turn them into ideologies,” Clifford says. “I think what we need to do is avoid crossing the line from faith to ideology. To be sure that young people are not drawn into this distorted view of religion, we have to be vigilant in the kind of religious instruction that young people receive.”
That same idea crystallized in the mind of Eboo Patel on 9/11.
Then 26, Patel had long been active in the interfaith movement, inviting people of all religious and nonreligious beliefs to find common ground, working toward a common good. On the day that the Twin Towers fell, Patel was a graduate student at Oxford University in England, an ocean away from the death and destruction.
Amid the chaos, Patel saw one thing clearly: When young people are thirsty, they will accept water from the first person to offer it. The epiphany came as he studied photos of the 19 hijackers. The oldest was 33; the rest, barely in their 20s. Some didn’t look old enough to grow beards.His mind drifted to other religious terrorists like Yigal Amir, 26, the extremist Jew behind the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Benjamin Smith, 21, of the Christian Identity movement, whose 1997 shooting spree across the Midwest targeted Jews, Asians and African-Americans.
Patel saw in the smooth, unlined faces of the 9/11 hijackers a tragic truth: Religious extremists invested in terrible, hate-filled youth programs. The fledging movement he’d begun to build in his hometown, Chicago — centered on dialogue and service to promote pluralism — was a counter to this blood-soaked investment.