David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

In the first half I looked at the life and work of St. Augustine (354-430), mostly focusing on his multiple identities and how this may have helped him carry out the momentous mission he believed God had given him. I also discussed his view of politics and the surprising fact that, considering his strong views on original sin, he seemed fairly hopeful about people banding together around “the love of peace or the desire for security.”

Amazingly, dozens of articles and books on this greatest of Church Fathers are still published every year in many languages around the world. Yet the most surprising fact of all, as I see it, is that in this new century Augustine has been claimed by Algeria as one of their own.

The story begins officially in 1999 when the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, attended the annual conference of an Italian Catholic movement (Communion and Liberation) in Remini. On the occasion of a speech he gave there, Bouteflika launches into a chorus of praise for the fourth-century theologian. I translate here an excerpt from that speech in French. After a section mentioning the great Berber kings of the second century BCE, Massinissa and Jugurtha, he turns to Augustine:


“And then, what can we say about the Algerian Augustine who contributed so much to the Church? Theologian, philosopher, writer and activist, author of the Confessions and the City of God, he was the bishop of Hippo, today’s Annaba in the western part of this land where he died. He was rightly considered one of the most influential and prestigious Catholic Church Fathers. It was said of him, ‘He treated legal questions like a Roman lawyer, and exegetical questions like a great theologian of Alexandria. He argued like an Athenian philosopher. He told anecdotes like a nobleman from Carthage and stories of the exploits of Berber militia like a worker from Hippo.’ Do I dare add that he was Cartesian before Descartes himself?”


Then he announced that in 2001 Algeria would host an international colloquium on Augustine, “the Algerian Philosopher.” More on that below, but in the meantime, during a 2000 state visit to France Bouteflika addressed its National Assembly. Surprisingly (think of France and its laïcité!), in one passage he pays homage to the work of the Catholic Church in Algeria. And I quote from an article in the French Catholic periodical La Croix that in his speech he called all Muslim nations to dialogue with other cultures and religions and even to emulate the Church’s public apologies and repentance. He also wanted “to pay tribute to the Church’s acts of abnegation,” and in particular “when it resolutely pursued in the darkest days of its tribulation its mission of witness and human solidarity in my country.” Specifically he condemned the assassination of the seven Trappist monks and of Bishop Claverie in 1996 during the civil war period. These acts represent “a grave insult to Algeria, a land of hospitality, and to Islam, a religion of tolerance.”

[The ordeal of the seven Trappist monks was beautifully and dramatically captured in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men , which won first prize at Cannes that year]

The 1990s were indeed Algeria’s darkest days since it achieved independence from the French after a brutal eight-year war that killed over a million of them (see these two blogs). Around 200,000 Algerians, mostly civilians, died in the civil war from the bomb blasts, shootings and massacres of entire villages. No wonder the president, who had recently declared a unilateral amnesty, was eager to work for national healing and mend Algeria’s reputation for murderous violence in the name of religion and politics!

The international colloquium on St. Augustine did take place as planned in 2001 (April 1-7). In the end, it was co-sponsored by the Swiss Confederation and the Algerian High Islamic Council of Algeria. Bouteflika had chosen that year, partly because the United Nations had proclaimed it as the Year of the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations, and partly because it was the beginning a new millennium with high hopes for new and joyful developments. It was a resounding success. Close to fifty Augustine scholars and archeologists from twenty-seven countries came together for sessions both in Algiers and Annaba.

There was plenty of national and regional pride on display too. I have in front of me the book gathering all the papers presented on that occasion: Augustinus Afer: saint Augustin, africanité et universalité (eds. Pierre-Yves Fux et al., Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 2003). In his opening speech, the president thanks his “friend and brother,” the Sorbonne Augustinian specialist André Mandouze for pointing him to the words given by a colleague (Henri Irénée Marrou) at a Mediterranean congress in 1976:

“Today I would like to show that a transfer has been made from the south to the north … from Africa to Europe … I don’t know if you North Africans have given this enough thought … I believe that you North Africans should be quite proud of the fact that you offered Europe the masters who formed its thinking, whether it be Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine … All of Europe was thus fertilized and educated by your ancestors, your fathers, dear North Africans.”


Two North African witnesses

Just as an example, I would like to cite two of the conference contributors whose papers are found in this book, Augustinus Afer. Both have North African names and both are archeologists working for UNESCO in Paris: the Algerian Mounir Bouchenaki, and the other, the Tunisian Azedine Beschaouch. Both write in French (four fifths of the book is in French).

Bouchenaki’s chapter (131-9) is entitled, “Augustine and African Identity, from historical works and the study of the sites of Thagastus, Hippo, and Carthage.” His thesis is that Augustine’s rich correspondence has been under-studied so far, and with some examination his letters contain a rich record of the political, legal, social and economic context of Augustine’s writing. It also sheds light on his attitudes toward the people, towns and villages of his native land. He has often been accused of being overly pro-Roman, but do the writings bear this out?

His review of the historical literature on this period in North Africa, whether under Rome’s imperial rule or independent of it, shows that Christianity had largely replaced paganism and “had acquired incomparable influence and prestige.” As dominant as it was, however, it was also racked by internal divisions, which at times could turn violent. But just to give an idea of the numbers, 565 bishops took part at the Church Council of Carthage in 411, with both Catholics and Donatists present. That is a huge representation, considering that there there were only 600 towns in North Africa at the time.

But how was Augustine different from his fellow countrymen? He was certainly not distinguished from them by race. Besides the indigenous population of the countryside and mountainous regions that spoke a punic language (lingua Punica, the ancestor of today’s many Berber dialects), those living in the towns were educated in Latin and identified much more with their Roman identity. Some of them were transplants from Italy, but others were Greek-speaking from other parts of the empire.

Augustine was of local stock, though well educated. According to the sources Bouchenaki quotes, Augustine grew up in more humble circumstances than I thought (using the sources I did for the first part of this blog). His father owned a vineyard, but in his letters Augustine himself uses the adjectives “modest” and “poor” to describe his upbringing. His father apparently struggled to send his son to Madaurus to study with a famous grammarian for three years. After coming back, Augustine was then stuck for a whole year in Thagaste before his father could persuade an acquaintance to finance his son’s rhetoric studies in the capital city, Carthage, some 280 kms east of there.

Bouchenaki quotes a number of scholars to show that Augustine’s sermons contain a treasure-trove of information on the various basilicas dedicated to martyrs in Carthage, on the various localities in the vicinity of Hippo, without mentioning notes on his other travels on Church business east and west. Thus by perusing his hundreds of letters and sermons, we see a man profoundly connected to his African soil and to the people he serves with such attachment and love.

At one point Augustine corresponded with the famous grammarian of Madaurus, Maximus. The latter had spoken disparagingly about Christians who gave more honor to the martyr Namphano than to the immortal gods of Rome. Augustine was no pushover and he wrote back, “You could have found plenty of things to mock in Rome, with the god Sterculius [god of feces], the goddess Cloacina [associated with Rome’s sewers], and the bald Venus [one of her post-classical forms]. How could you have renounced your own African origins by attacking Punic names? Are we not both Africans?”

I love Bouchenaki’s pithy conclusion paragraph, summing up so well his own love and esteem for this fourth-century “ancestor”:


“In the town of Hippo now under siege in 430 by the Vandals, seventy-six-year old Bishop Augustine, son of Numidia and pillar of the Roman Church, is about to experience the distress of its population and breathe his last in August of that same year.”


Azedine Beschaouch’s shorter article, “Saint Augustine and the land of Carthage,” tells of his love for Carthage, its ruins and its glorious history, and how, as an archeologist who has covered most of the Roman sites of Tunisia, he has at times, “with the help of Providence, walked, as it were, in the physical footsteps of Augustine in the regions surrounding Carthage.” Once, in the ruins of ancient Mustis on the road Augustine would have taken from Thagaste to Carthage, he discovered a commemorative plaque with the first ever inscription bearing the name of the proconsul of the African province Helvius Vindicianus dated 380-381. He wrote up the finding and his article was published in 1968.

Another discovery brought him much closer to Saint Augustine. For years archeologists had been searching for the town of Abitina, where the famous African martyrs, men and women, were tortured and killed in February 304 under the reign of Diocletian. Augustine had written about this event in great detail in several places. Thanks to some of these details, Bouchenaki discovered the exact place by means of two inscriptions. Perhaps they should have trusted local lore a bit more, because the Arabic name for that place was “Shuhud al-Batin,” literally, the “the martyrs of Batin” (or Abitinia).

Besides the archeological discoveries, Beschaouch’s piece tenderly reflects his own affection, both for Carthage and Augustine. He writes,


“Carthage represented for Saint Augustine the privileged site for his preaching and his doctrinal stands. In that respect, one should think of one of his most beautiful sermons, the one he delivered end of June or beginning of July 397, which he dedicated to the theme of love, both the love for God and the love for neighbor. He was referencing the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind’; and the second commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”


I cannot help but interject the following thought here. Beschaouch wrote these lines at least three years before Prince Ghazi of Jordan penned the historic “Common Word Letter” addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and all Christian leaders and signed by 138 leading Islamic scholars and clerics worldwide. It was an invitation for Christians and Muslims to unite in dialogue over the heart of both traditions: love of God and love of neighbor (I explain this in more detail in the following blog post).


Last words from the Augustinian priest in Hippo

Lucien Borg is the Augustinian priest serving at the Saint Augustine Basilica above the ancient ruins of Hippo in Annaba, Algeria (see picture above). He wanted to record his own version of how this historic conference went. In his article in the September/October 2001 issue of their Augustinian Assumptionist journal, Borg quotes another Catholic author, Michel Kubler, who stated that “the colloquium which Algeria consecrated to Saint Augustine constituted a genuine rehabilitation.” Indeed it was, he adds. For years the Catholic Church in Algeria dreamt about such an event, but it seemed very unlikely. Naturally, he writes, some of the islamist factions opposed it from the start, “seeing it as a veiled attempt to Christianize the Algerian people and therefore as a threat for Islam.” He then cites a front page article in an Algerian newspaper only two weeks after the conference which stated that “six Algerians convert to Christianity every day.”

Borg had been part of the planning committee for the colloquium, and he mentioned how carefully he and his colleagues were to avoid any unnecessary polemics. The result, therefore, exceeded all expectations. As we saw, it was spearheaded by the president from the start, and let me add that despite the appearance of democratic governance, Algeria remains a mostly authoritarian state. So let’s not be surprised that the High Islamic Council co-sponsored the event with the Swiss authorities. The Algerian postal service even issued two stamps on the occasion.

Still, Borg believes this represented a sea change in official Algerian political and cultural attitudes. Now they are drawing up plans to have a museum dedicated to Augustine in Annaba. In 2015 the University of Annaba sponsored an international conference on Augustine. Now back to 2001, Borg quotes from the president’s official address:


“[A conference on Augustine] offers a privileged platform for a common reflection which will allow us to highlight our similarities, indicate our points of convergence, and lay the foundation of an ethics of inter-civilizational relations built on respect, mutual understanding and solidarity … The study of Augustine is incredibly relevant today, and the debates that will naturally flow out of it can contribute to our making progress together, as diverse as we are, toward a peaceful world, a world of justice and brotherhood to which all people of good will have aspired since the beginning of time.”


Borg here is certain that Mr. Bouteflika was sincere in stating this. I think too that Augustine himself would be heartened – sad to see the disappearance of the church in his region for so many centuries but glad to see that it is slowly growing again. He would especially rejoice that his life and writings can still spread some of the values of the Heavenly City among the inhabitants of our earthly city, and especially in his native land.

St. Augustine (354-430), dubbed “Foremost Father [of the Church],” was as prolific a theologian and philosopher as he was influential, down to our day. Eminent nineteenth-century theologian and church historian, Adolf von Harnack, saw him as “the incomparably greatest man between St. Paul and the reformer Martin Luther.” Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon entitled her review of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1995 book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, “A Saint for Our Times.”

So why am I suddenly writing about Augustine? Since I arrived in the Philadelphia area in 2006, I have been a part of a Thursday noon discussion group called the “Faculty Staff Christian Forum” at the University of Pennsylvania. While I have attended more sporadically in recent years (I now have less to do with Penn), I stay in touch. This week in the context of a series on “Great Souls” (of the Christian past), I gave a talk on Augustine. This blog post draws on some of that material in three parts: Augustine’s multiple identities, Augustine and politics, and Augustine, the Algerian philosopher.


Augustine’s multiple identities

We talk a great deal about identity nowadays, whether in politics, in the classroom, or in the work place where many of us have undergone “diversity training.” From experience too, we know that we all draw on different elements that make up our “self,” depending on the context and on who we are with. Ethnically, I am Swedish on both sides of the family, but on my mother’s side I am also an eighth English and an eighth Chinese. She in fact was living in Hong Kong when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was only by the grace of God that she and her family survived the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the war years. I often bring this up when talking with Chinese people.

Our past experiences can help to define our identity as well. Having lived sixteen years in three different Arab countries, I seek out Arabs and enjoy their company. My efforts over the last two decades to bring Muslims and Christians into conversation obviously impacts my relationship with Muslims in general.

Augustine himself carried within himself multiple identities. Born in Thagaste (today’s Souk Ahras in Algeria, not far from the Tunisian border), he was an “Afer,” Latin at the time for a Roman living in the African province of Numidia, once a Berber kingdom with the same capital, Carthage. His father was an upper class Roman (Romanized Berber) who owned a large tract of land employing Berber day laborers (“circoncellions”). Though he might have owned slaves to till his land as well, we do know that Augustine wrote against slavery later in life. His mother, a devout Christian, was from an indigenous Berber family. We remember her as Saint Monica.

Augustine studied some in his hometown, then at age eleven in neighboring Madaurus (today’s M’Daourouch), and finally at seventeen he went to Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) for the equivalent of a university degree in rhetoric, which is public speaking and the art of persuasion. By all accounts, he fell in love with Cicero, and he stayed in Carthage to teach rhetoric himself.

Augustine must have been very good at what he did, for he was given the opportunity to teach rhetoric in Rome and then in Milan. Clearly, he was on his way to a brilliant political career, but he was also a spiritual seeker. For a few years he even embraced Manichaeism.

He never married the Berber woman he lived with for nineteen years, but he fathered a child with her. For this and other reasons he increasingly struggled with feelings of guilt and restlessness. Around this time he began to listen to the famously eloquent Ambrose, bishop of Milan and was deeply moved by what he heard. Ambrose noticed Augustine too and urged him to move to Milan so he could take him under his wing, though he was not yet a Christian. Augustine jumped at the opportunity to sit under this wise elder churchman.

He turned to his mother’s faith at age 33 and was baptized, together with his son. Soon he traveled back to Thagaste, his birthplace, selling all his land and giving the proceeds to the poor. He then turned his family house into a small monastery for him and his friends. Ordained priest in 391, he was named bishop of Hippo in 395. This is where he served God and the church for the last thirty-five years of his life, leaving behind over a hundred books, more than seven hundred sermons, and hundreds of letters.

We know from various references in his writings that his African identity meant a lot to him. For instance, he once referred to famous second-century writer Apuleius, who hailed from Madaurus, as “the most notorious of us Africans.” We know too that his father’s family had been given Roman citizenship about a century before his birth and with his high profile presence in Rome and Milan – not to mention his great eloquence as a Latin rhetorician – Augustine must have been a proud Roman, at least to some extent.

A topic to be explored would certainly be how proud he was of his Numidian heritage. His household growing up spoke Latin, as it was a class issue. But his mother spoke fluent Berber and that was her heritage, though she was very comfortable in Latin. She even came to Milan to live with Augustine there for a period of time.

This is relevant for other reasons too, though I cannot pursue the question here. When the Arab armies swept through North Africa in the seventh century, there was military resistance from the Berber population but, unlike Egypt and the Levant, the church in North Africa totally disappeared within a century. Augustine sharply opposed the Donatists, a puritanical sect that did not want to belong to the Roman church, partly because they were Berbers from middle and lower classes. Another reason I have heard is that the Bible was never translated in their language. Had Roman imperialism divided the church?

Now back to Augustine’s multiple identities. He was the shepherd (bishop) of a network of churches, spiritually overseeing mostly Berbers and Romanized Berbers for over three decades. At the same time, through his voluminous writings, he was taking positions on important theological questions being debated all over the Roman world, including the eastern capital, Constantinople. He was in dialogue with the other church luminaries of his time and led the charge in refuting the Manichaeans' beliefs and the “heretical” claims of the Pelagians and Donatists. In all of these herculean efforts which turned out to be very fruitful for the church, one has to believe he was well served by his multicultural upbringing in Roman Numidia and by his expert practice and teaching of rhetoric in Carthage, Rome and Milan.


Augustine and politics

As most of you will know, I have been immersed in issues at the intersection of political science and religion over the past two years. Translating Rached Ghannouchi’s classic work mostly written from a Tunisian prison cell (The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State), I have reflected a great deal from both a Muslim and Christian perspective on the why and how of politics. Augustine sheds some interesting light on the question.

I mentioned earlier Glendon’s review of Elshtain’s book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics. This paragraph of hers is a perfect place to start our reflection on this topic:


“In making Augustine’s thought relevant to the contemporary world Elshtain discusses how, for Augustine, wisdom comes from experiencing fully the ambiguity and division that characterized the human condition after the fall, and how human beings are fated to narrate their lives within temporality and to work at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity. This is the central feature of what Augustine called our business 'within this mortal life,' and he insisted that any politics that disdains this business, this caring for the quotidian, is a dangerous or misguided or misplaced politics.”


Let me make three simple comments based on this quote about Augustine:


1. Augustine was the early church father who in his writings contributed the most to the doctrine of the fall (“original sin,” which is opposed by Jews and Muslims). Here he says, we would be “wise” to seriously consider “the ambiguity and division” that plagued the human condition as a result of the fall. Politics in every society will be messy by definition.

2. Another consequence of the fall is that humans are born “broken” to some extent. Part of this dilemma stems from our inheriting some of the sins of our bloodline (in the context of the second of the Ten Commandments, God says that he will visit the sins of individuals onto the descendants up to the third and fourth generation, Exodus 20:4). Another part comes from our own sin growing up into adulthood. Consider too the great diversity of the human race, which is at the same time a great blessing and a curse, as it tends to foster tribalism, racism, horrible injustices and unspeakable violence. All of this and more complicate the task each one of us has in narrating our “lives within temporality,” working “at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity.” Notice again how modern this talk about identity is!

3. Any political system that is too centralized and authoritarian will inevitably oppress people who need some freedom and space to work out how to manage their daily lives as useful members of their families, their social groupings and their state.


The best place to read about Augustine’s view of politics is in his most famous work, The City of God Against the Pagans, or just The City of God. It’s an 800-page book in a recent translation, so it’s definitely Augustine’s magnum opus! The following offers a brief introduction to some of the major discussion points.

In a 1992 political science journal (History of Political Thought), Peter J. Burnell argued that twentieth-century scholars of Augustine have overemphasized the role of the fall in his view of politics. Here is how he summarized the general consensus:


“[B]ecause civil institutions are a necessary response to sin, they are not something natural in the full sense; in the end civil life is theologically neutral and serves ephemeral ends; it constitutes an ‘area of indeterminacy’ between the City of God and the City of this world; the state is intrinsically coercive in its methods, it involves to some degree domination of one human being by another, so it could never have come to exist in the Garden of Eden. Such an institution is regrettable, but in the circumstances acceptable. This implies that there is no part of natural law that is intrinsically political; politics are a technical matter and do not engage our full humanity.”


So at issue here is this: to what extent has the fall corrupted the image of God in humanity? And can our doctrine of humanity not offer a higher view of what God intended for human social and political life? Burnell wants to answer that question in the affirmative. His article divides the question in two parts: first, the relevance of politics to Christianity; second, the relevance of Christianity to politics. First, then, how can we speak theologically about politics? Here is his conclusion:


Firstly, in principle for Augustine the civil state is the chief natural means of justice; hence the rectitude of the state is the pre-eminent natural form of moral goodness in man, though it can be fulfilled only by reference to man’s relationship with God. Secondly, in practice the goodness of civil society (as of all kinds of human relationship) has been much diminished (not annihilated) by the Fall, which has necessitated coercion and also much institutional pluralism – for states find themselves in a plurality of circumstances as they attempt (when they do attempt, and then only with partial success) to approximate to rectitude.”


I may shock some readers here, but that first conclusion is exactly what the islamist position is, and that of the current American Christian Right. I can tell you with confidence that it is what Ghannouchi is arguing in his magnum opus, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Additionally, already in the book and especially in his thinking now that he has declared that “political Islam” is no longer relevant for Tunisia, the second point is also germane to his thought. In a nutshell, though far from perfect a democratic system of governance is the best means to foster “rectitude” or justice. Checks and balances are necessary, because people in power are easily corrupted.

I will end this first part with an article on Augustine from 2007, which specifically looks at the policies of the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and its declaration of a War on Terror (Michael Wolcott, “The ‘War on Terror,’ the Liberalism of Fear, and the Love of Peace in St. Augustine’s City of God,” New Blackfriars 88).

Wolcott asks whether fear is a good emotion to drive “men and women to submit to sovereign power”? He answers that although Augustine has been the most influential thinker in political theory leading up to Hobbes, the latter’s view about fear as the “governing emotion” does not truly represent Augustine’s view. Here is a good summary of his argument:


“In Augustine’s definitive account of political emotions in Civitas Dei [The City of God] he suggests that a commonwealth is a multitude of people who are bound together by their ‘common objects of love’.The moral quality of a commonwealth therefore depends on the kinds of things that are loved. The supreme love is the love of God, and this love characterises those who inhabit what Augustine calls the heavenly city or the Church. But there can also be worthy loves in an earthly city, even although in such a city there will not be so much common agreement about the love of worthy objects. And the love that is most widely held in the earthly city is the love of peace or the desire for security.Wherever men and women live together it is possible to discern that they will act together socially in order to bring about a state of affairs in which they can enjoy peace. This is because peace is that collective condition without which it is much harder to pursue such other worthy goals and ends as the nurture and education of the young or the contemplation of the eternal” (emphasis mine).


Though much more could be said, I will simply end here with the thought that “the love of peace or the desire for security” is a good place to start out our thinking about the role of politics in our increasingly globalized and pluralistic world of the twenty-first century. And this seems to be the thought that motivated the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 to call for an international colloquium on Augustine of Hippo, “the Algerian philosopher,” in his country in 2001. This is where we will pick up in the second half of this blog post.

Until last year, the only time Native Americans captured headlines was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. It was the culmination of a whole year of protests, which included sit-ins on Alcatraz Island and then at Mount Rushmore in a bid to force the federal government to honor past treaties.

The standoff was organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) on the very sight where in 1890 over 150 Lakota Sioux were massacred, and the days of this occupation turned to weeks, and then over two months. In the end, three people had died.

During that time, Marlon Brando, who had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards, decided to voice his public support for the AIM’s action at Wounded Knee. To do so, he declined his award (he won, as expected) and sent in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to read a statement. She was not allowed to do so on stage but was able to read a portion of it to the press afterwards. Other celebrities expressed their support for the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, including Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and William Kunstler.

There can be no doubt that sympathy for Native rights was on the rise after 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, arguably the first president to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, also had signed the American Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which partially reads:


This legislation sets forth the policy of the United States to protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiian people to 'believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. In addition, it calls for a year's evaluation of the Federal agencies' policies and procedures as they affect the religious rights and cultural integrity of Native Americans.”


Then there was the document President George H. W. Bush signed for the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. When the project was finally completed in 2004 – with native consultation and participation the whole way through, the opening ceremony saw “the largest known gathering of American Native communities in history,” according to the Smithsonian archives.

That record was arguably broken, however, with the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests from April 2016 to February 2017 at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, a writer from neighboring Montana, described her stay at the encampment in early September, staying for about a month. She then wrote this article for The New Yorker (“Standing Rock: A New Moment for Native-American Rights”). Unlike the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee with a few hundreds native Americans, most of them armed, the protest gathering on the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 saw thousands of native American participants with the flags of over 200 Indian nations lining up on both sides of the entrance of the camp (see photo above). Thousands of other well-wishers, including many veterans, came and went over those months, bringing food, supplies and cash to sustain the movement.

The other difference is that this movement was thoroughly nonviolent. If anything, the day before Crane-Murdoch’s arrival, protesters had attempted to stand in the way of the bulldozers and were attacked by dogs and pushed back with pepper spray. On another occasion, when some protesters had chained themselves to bulldozers, they were bitten by the dogs.

For the multitude of indigenous nations gathered at the confluence of the two rivers this was a sacred duty -- resisting a pipeline that cuts through property sacred to one tribe and that threatens to pollute the river that sustains the life of all. Sioux historian Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, notes that in the twentieth century Native Americans had witnessed “a more devious but hardly less successful war waged against Indian communities.” Crane Mudoch lists some of these indignities visited upon them:


“the lack of funding for tribal education, which forced parents to send their children to government-run boarding schools; the termination of federal recognition for scores of tribes, which caused the loss of services promised by treaty; and a disregard for the sovereignty of tribes, manifest in the building of infrastructure on Indian land without honest consultation or consent.”


Then on December 4, 2016, the campsite exploded with shouts of joy and celebration. The federal government had just refused to issue the mighty and well-connected company building the pipeline (Energy Transfer Partners) the needed permit to run the pipeline under the Missouri river, pending an environmental impact assessment.

Award-winning writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote on that day, “From the start, this has been an against-the-odds battle.” Almost the whole length of the pipeline had been laid before any significant opposition could be mounted. But by now the Dakota Access pipeline construction had awakened a sleeping giant. As McKibben puts it, "Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe" – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia.” Then he explains the nature of this protest:


“It wasn’t standard-issue environmental lobbying, nor standard-issue protest, though there was certainly some of both (lawyers took the company to court, activists shut down bank branches). At its heart, however, in the great camp that grew up along the rivers, this was a largely spiritual resistance, David Archambault, the head of the Standing Rock Sioux who demonstrated great character and dexterity for months, kept insisting that the camp was a place of prayer, and you couldn’t wander its paths without running into drum circles and sacred fires.”


Of course, they didn’t win in the end. A new president took office in January and on February 9, 2017, construction on the pipeline was ordered to resume. But this had certainly been a high-water mark of Native American unified action for regaining their legal rights.

As David Archambault wrote in the New York Times, however, resisting a pipeline that threatened the quality of a major river’s water is much more than about native rights. Here is how his piece ends, and it’s a fitting segue back into John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds:


“We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now. As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie, we need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of the millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline.

As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said: 'Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.' That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.”


John Dawson’s theology of the nations

“Satan,” intones Dawson, ”has never created and holds no title deed to anything: he is only a creature.” By contrast, “Peoples, cultures and nations have a redemptive purpose because they bear God-created gifts. They all have a power to bless the world that is an outgrowth of their unique attributes.” That blessing is love, and God’s ultimate purpose in creation is “that love be poured out on His creation, and that loving relationship be multiplied throughout time and eternity” (120).

Created as we are in God’s image, we bear his purposes in our souls, whether we fully understand them or not. As Dawson puts it, “therefore, something of God’s own nature is revealed through our creation” (121). And this includes the intentional fact of ethnic and cultural pluralism, as I mentioned in the first half of this blog post, referring to both Qur’an and Bible.

“As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie,” said Archambault. Dawson's version reads like this, “The peoples of the earth have all been created with the purpose of worshiping God uniquely and contributing unique service to other peoples.” But this is a double-edged sword: “These diverse gifts bring power to serve or to dominate, to wound or to heal, and God judges or blesses each people group according to their moral state as He works His redemptive purpose in the seasons of human history” (121).

Because of the fall and the reality of human sin, nations war against nations and seemingly endless cycles of aggression and retaliation play out. Still, that is not the whole story. God’s blessing in individuals, in nations and specific cultures continues to flow outward as well. Healing and blessing are passed on, sometimes through the arts and music, civil society activism and deeds of compassion, and practices of good governance and international cooperation.

Think of nations coming together after two mind-numbingly devastating world wars and agreeing on a covenant dedicated to human respect and dignity. It was called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This led to a series of other covenants and conventions we consider "international law." These are all signs of God’s redemptive purposes placed in humanity – and Christians might add that these are also evidence of the Holy Spirit “blowing where He will” (John 4:8) in the far corners of the globe, even in the midst of horrific acts of violence and war.

About five years before I read Kenneth Craggs’ works and discovered his insight about a Muslim-Christian theology of humanity (“the human caliphate” or trusteeship of humanity), Dawson wrote,


“Adam was commanded to cultivate the earth’s resources and build with the things placed at his disposal. He was to organize and govern, under God, the world in which God placed him” (125-6).


So what about the Healing of America’s Wounds?

I hope to come back to Dawson’s book when I look more closely at Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin. But for now, I’ll just reproduce his own summary, that is, the four points that define the strategy of an organization he was helping to lead at the time, the International Reconciliation Coalition, whose greatest accomplishment turned out to be the three-year Reconciliation Walk that retraced nine centuries later the steps of the first crusade (read this article on its climax in Jerusalem, July 15, 1999).

But now here are Dawson's four steps to reconciliation and healing (135-6):


CONFESSION: Stating the truth; acknowledgment of the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people group toward other persons or categories of persons. (The main theme of this book because it is the place to begin and we have neglected it.)

REPENTANCE: Turning from unloving to loving actions.

RECONCILIATION: Expressing and receiving forgiveness, and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies.

RESTITUTION: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed, and seeking justice wherever we have power to act or to influence those in authority to act.


I am guessing that after a flurry of speaking engagements and an actual movement across several major US cities during the 1990s, this work that John Dawson and others gave their heart and soul to petered out because of step four – restitution. As we saw with the Dakota Access protest, there are still so many areas of restitution that need attention if there is to be healing both within the Native American nations and between them and the wider American society. Changes have to take place in people's hearts, but ultimately changes also have to take place in the political realm.

If the first step is telling the truth, perhaps none did this better that Marlon Brando when he wrote this text to be delivered at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973. As mentioned earlier, Shasheen Littlefeather was not allowed to read it on the stage yet managed to read part of it to the press after the ceremony. It was then published in the New York Times.

After an opening paragraph in which Brando recapitulates the last 200 years of settler-Native interaction in the phrase, “Lay down your arms, my friends, … [then can] we talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.” He goes on,


“When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them [American leaders], we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.”


Brando captures well the American myth of “Manifest Destiny,” the mentality that might makes right, and that sentiment that human rights are nice ideals but our priority is to “make American great again.” Sadly, it’s a global issue too, as even the UN is despairing of being able to raise the issue of human rights on so many fronts. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, just announced this week he will not seek a second 4-year term, “citing concern that his voice would be silenced in an age when the United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.”


A theology from the Fourth World for us all

In my parting words, I simply want to refer you again to the excerpts I posted from my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in “Resources” on my website. It is a necessary complement to this two-part blog post. The part I would like to draw your attention to here is the one about Osage-Cherokee Lutheran theologian George E. Tinker, who has been teaching at the Ilif School of Theology in Denver since 1985.

As a Native American theologian he takes issue with traditional Protestant theology, which starts with “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ.” Important as this is for Christian theology, it’s the wrong place to begin, avers Tinker. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. He explains, “To make fall/redemption the beginning point in theological proclamation generates traumatic experiences of spiritual and emotional dislocation for American Indians which some people survive and many do not.”

What is needed is a theology that integrates the worldview of all the native peoples and that starts with the created world and the land in particular. In his words,


“Respect for creation and the recognition of the sacredness of all in creation is a deeply rooted spiritual base for American Indians, rooted in the soil of the tribal cultures of North America . . . . It is a matter of relatedness and interdependence that finally results in a necessary relationship of interdependence with all nature” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation: Restoring Trinitarian Balance,” in Constructive Christian Theology in the Worldwide Church, ed. William R. Barr; Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 202-13, at p. 209).


If however one proclaims the Good News of Jesus on the basis of a common ground of God’s good and sacred creation, then “it can generate genuine healing and life-giving response.” By doing so, at the same time the idea of interrelationship and harmony at the heart of all created things leads naturally to the crucial values of peace and justice among and between human societies and nations:


“On the one hand a proper prioritizing of First Article/Creation concerns will enable the churches to appreciate and value the inherent spiritual gifts that many cultures, especially indigenous, tribal, fourth-world cultures, bring with them to Christianity. . . . Secondly, . . . We will discover that respect for creation can become the spiritual and theological basis for justice and peace just as it is the spiritual and theological basis for God’s reconciling act in Christ Jesus and the ongoing sanctification in the Holy Spirit” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation,” 207).


You can see why I was keen to bring this up in my book. This concept of the integrity and harmony of creation ties in nicely with a holistic doctrine of humanity, according to which God empowers humankind as his stewards, deputies or trustees, to oversee his good creation and ensure that their governance leads to the wellbeing of all creatures, from the smallest to the greatest, as well as to the reign of peace through justice for all the peoples of the planet for God’s greater glory. This is a vision sorely needed in our politically polarized societies of today, at a time when we wantonly pollute our planet and sabotage its precarious climate.

Truly, we need to listen to the collective wisdom of our indigenous brothers and sisters, as we also commit to supporting them in their bid to gain their full rights as fellow citizens and to experience the healing we all need, by God's grace.

I got interested in the indigenous peoples of the world while doing research at Yale University. Though my main focus was writing about Islamic law and how modern scholars like Morocco’s Allal al-Fasi, Algeria’s Malek Bennabi, and Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi were recalibrating its traditional methodology and concepts, I was also reworking my dissertation into book form.

I just posted in “Resources” a couple of excerpts from that book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in which I crafted a Christian theology of creation in parallel with the Qur’anic one, best expressed in contemporary Islamic theology as the “trusteeship of humanity.” It’s clear from the Qur’an and Bible that God empowered humankind to take care of the earth and of one another in his name – and for how well or poorly they fulfill that mission they will each give an account.

As the Qur’an puts it, “On that day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, and whoever has done an atom’s-weight of bad will see that” (Q. 99:6-8, Abdel Haleem). Or: “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad” (Q. 2:286, Abdel Haleem). Each individual will stand on the Last Day before God to be judged.

But this Christian, Muslim, and Jewish eschatological vision also has a collective dimension to it. Again and again, in the words of the Hebrew prophets, nations are called out for blessing or judgment. God chose Israel as a nation for a purpose. In the words given to its progenitor Abraham: “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, NLT). They did not live up to this great calling, reneging on the covenant they agreed to at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the curses of the covenant eventually came crashing down upon them.

At the same time, Babylon, the nation chosen by God to carry out his punishment upon the nation of Israel, was to meet a terrible fate:


You rejoice and are glad, you who plundered my chosen people.

You frisk about like a calf in a meadow and neigh like a stallion.

But your homeland will be overwhelmed with shame and disgrace.

You will become the least of nations – a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.

Because of the Lord’s anger, Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.

All who pass will be horrified and will gasp at the destruction they will see there” (Jeremiah 50:11-15, NLT).


Amos, the shepherd turned prophet from Tekoa in Judah, receives God’s messages for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Israel. Here’s just one example:


This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished!

Whey they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.

So I will send down fire on the walls of Rabbah, and all its fortresses will be destroyed.

The battle will come upon them with shouts, like a whirlwind in a mighty storm.

And their king and his princes will go into exile together’” (Amos 1:13-15).


This small kingdom of Ammon occupied the Trans-Jordan plateau (just south of the Syrian Kingdom of Damascus) from about 1800 BCE to 500 CE. Their capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, Jordan. The military campaign mentioned here took place at the same time the Babylonians attacked the Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The Israelite tribes which had settled east of the Jordan (Gad and Manasseh) in Gilead thus became an easy target for Ammon. But notice that it is not so much their attack to enlarge their territory that God is condemning here but their utter cruelty toward the general population, and pregnant women in particular.

The prophet Jeremiah goes into more detail about their crimes, but singles out their worship of the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom his people sacrificed their children through fire. He also lists their arrogance, announcing that God will “bring terror” upon them. Yet God intends to “restore the fortunes of the Ammonites in days to come” (Jeremiah 49:1-6).

God singles out cities for judgment too. Babylon was both capital city and empire. By contrast, Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah, Yunus in the Qur’an. In fact, a whole sura is named after him (Sura 10) and his story is told in Sura 37:139-148. Sadly, the ancient and impressive mosque that bears his name and housed his tomb (previously an Assyrian church) was destroyed earlier this year by ISIS.

Similarly in the Qur’an we find a recurring pattern according to which God sends a prophet to a particular people to warn them of impending judgment but there were always those who turned away and were met with God’s wrath as a warning to others. This was the case of the Arabian prophets Hud and Salih sent respectively to the people of Ad and Thamud. Others like Noah and Lot were met with total rejection and had to be saved miraculously by God himself. Here is the brief story of Noah, who preaches this message, “My people, serve God: you have no other god other than Him. I fear for you the punishment of a momentous Day!” They answer that he was “far astray,” to which he responds,


“‘My people, there is nothing astray about me! On the contrary, I am a messenger from the Lord of all the Worlds: I am delivering my Lord’s messages to you and giving you sincere advice. I know things from God that you do not. Do you find it so strange that a message should come from your Lord – through a man in your midst – to warn you and make you aware of God so that you may be given mercy?’ But they called him a liar. We saved him, and those that were with him, on the Ark and We drowned those who rejected our revelations – they were willfully blind” (Q. 7:61-64, Abdel Haleem).


So both in the Qur’an and Bible God deals with individuals and nations, calling them to repentance, and then to follow his ways. This part of the Apostle Paul’s message to the philosophers in Athens seems so close to the oft quoted Qur’anic verse, which says that God created people from a single couple and then made them “into races and tribes so that you should know one another” (Q. 49:13):


From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27, NLT).


John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds

Dawson is a missionary from New Zealand who came with his family to work in East Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Then in 1992, just a block from their apartment, an African-American man, Rodney King, was brutally beaten by four police officers. Largely because it was caught on video, five days of looting and burning followed. Fifty people died in the riots and over 2,000 were injured.

This is where John Dawson’s book begins [it is out of print, but you can find used copies on the internet: it was published in 1994 by Regal Books, Ventura, CA].

Dawson’s message, primarily addressed to American evangelicals, is that they should pray with hope and faith for God to heal their land. That’s the easy part of his message, but the second part is a harder pill to swallow: the deep wounds in the American psyche can only be healed by facing our egregious crimes of the past, by repenting and asking forgiveness from the aggrieved parties, the African-American community we enslaved and the indigenous population we decimated and betrayed again and again.

This message deserves to be heeded once again. That healing never took place. In fact, since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, riots have spread to numerous cities, the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up, and White Supremacists march openly, brandishing Nazi symbols in defiance.

Now back to the Native Americans and their plight … Dawson speaks about a groundswell of engagement with the issue by “prayer networks all over the nation,” with close coordination with Jean Steffenson who heads up the Native American Affairs chapter of Colorado. They were holding “solemn assemblies” in churches as well as on the actual ground where atrocities have taken place. I quote,


“In November 1992, such an assembly was held at Confluence Park, the birthplace of Denver. The event was attended by politicians, pastors and representatives of the Native American peoples of the front range. This was followed in January 1993, by a gathering of Christians of all races at a remote massacre site near the town of Chivington, Colorado. Events took place there in the 1860s that are a major cause of bitterness and rejection of Christianity by increasing numbers of young Native Americans” (137).


Dawson devotes a whole chapter to that massacre, because it kept coming up in his conversations with Native Americans over the years. Yet few anglo Americans have ever heard of it. Though he goes into great detail, quoting from several history books, I’ll close this first part of the two-part blog post with some details I found on the Smithsonian website. The good news here is that several archeological teams accompanied by Native observers discovered the site of this horrendous massacre in 1999. One thing led to another, and in April 2007 the site was dedicated as America’s 391st National Park, the only one with such a tragic name (“Sand Creek Massacre National Park”).

Tony Horwitz, the author of the Smithsonian article, a substantial one, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he includes not just details of the massacre itself, but also the trail of bloodshed and numerous broken treaties that followed (300 altogether, before and after, writes Dawson). He also details some of the controversies, from 1998 on, that marked the development of this national park.

Here is the short version of what happened. Around November 1864, “about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho lived in tepees here, at the edge of what was then reservation land. Their chiefs had recently sought peace in talks with white officials and believed they would be unmolested at their isolated camp.” Then the unthinkable happened:


“When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.”


To add insult to injury, Col. John Chevington who carried out the raid was a towering man with a booming voice. He was also a preacher who had been an active abolitionist. How is this possible? Only God knows, but he carried on the slaughter in many more Native settlements. Part of the answer is that there was a reigning paradigm in American culture, which we know as “Manifest Destiny.” Horwitz puts it thus:


“There were many such atrocities in the American West. But the slaughter at Sand Creek stands out because of the impact it had at the time and the way it has been remembered. Or rather, lost and then rediscovered. Sand Creek was the My Lai of its day, a war crime exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government. It fueled decades of war on the Great Plains. And yet, over time, the massacre receded from white memory, to the point where even locals were unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.”


Hence his title, “The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More.”


Last thoughts …

The continuing plight of America’s First Nations came into focus for me recently when in nearly Carlisle, PA, the Army exhumed the bodies of three Arapahoe boys forced to assimilate and erase their own culture. Like many others of the 10,000 Native children who were subjected to such horror in other locations, they died within the first two years of their stay. One of the Arapahoe elders, Crawford White Sr., said, “It’s a long time coming. It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”

Healing is the operative word in Dawson’s book too. I will start the next half with the historic gathering of indigenous nations from all over North America and several other continents at the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Over 280 Native tribes and many allies, including Black Lives Matter people and various celebrities, came to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The action failed in the end. But that was the first such gathering since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Such unity brought with it hope, and even a palpable dose of healing within the Native community.

My book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text is about forging a theology of creation common to Muslims, Christians and Jews, so as to encourage and sustain mutual cooperation toward a more just and peaceful world. In my research I was struck and saddened by the tragedy of millions and millions of indigenous peoples wiped out by the Western colonial expansion of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The message of the Qur'an may or may not be behind the breathtaking military expansion of the Arabian tribes in the seventh and eight centuries, but an empire even greater than Rome at its height emerged.

Coming out of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in bringing together the League of Nations. I doubt that he intended for his nation to supplant the British and French colonial empires, but that's what happened after WWII. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, only one superpower remained standing, and it may be for the best that US global power is waning so dramatically under the current administration. Empires may have some benefits for the people and nations under their sway, but the resulting repression and suffering outweigh any of those benefits. At least, that's how I see it.

Here are twenty pages expanding on this idea, but with a laser-like focus on the indigenous people, the so-called Fourth World. In the last part I raise the issue of human rights, not only on an individual basis, but on a collective basis as well. We must, as people of faith who believe that God created the nations and cultures of the world from "one soul" (Q. 49:13), find a way to work together to manage much better than we have up to now our natural enviroment -- God's "good" creation -- and our life together as humankind, a tapestry of many different languages, races and cultures.

I began this two-part blog post with the invasion and subsequent colonization of the small Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. Yes, Jeremiah along with many other prophets since at least two centuries had warned its rulers that unless Israel repented of its sins, this calamity would surely strike them. At the same time, the short book of Lamentations which he wrote after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its elites also reflected God’s lament in the face of such horrific human violence, cruelty and suffering.

The colonization of Algeria, you might say, was much tamer and humane than that of the Babylonians. After all, they took no one into captivity but only brought their own people to colonize the land. I would hope that if you read the first part of this blog (and taking into account that this all began in 1830), you would think twice about using the word “humane.” Those 132 years of colonization were anything but that, mostly because the vast majority of the population (France’s “Muslim citizens”) had practically no civil rights. Further, the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) killed nearly a million of them.

Enter Léon-Etienne Duval. Pope John XXIII moved him from his administrative post in the French Alps region and sent him to Algeria, naming him in 1947 bishop of Constantine and Hippo (where St. Augustine’s was bishop in the fourth century). Then in February 1954 he was installed as archbishop in Algiers and overseer of three bishops in the church of French Algeria. Eight months later, the Algerian resistance ignited the war.

In this second half I will light on various passages in the French book of interviews with Duval (pictured in the first half), highlighting two main aspects of the cardinal’s calling in that land: missionary and prophet. I’ll follow that up with some personal recollections.


Cardinal Duval’s missionary calling

This is especially interesting to me not only because in a much humbler position I too served as a pastor in two different expatriate churches in Algiers (1978-1987), but also because I now teach as an adjunct professor in the field of missiology (the study of Christian mission) and Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Remember that it was the pope himself who appointed Duval bishop in French Algeria. In 1950 a special envoy from the Vatican came to spend three weeks there and Duval invited him to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the basilica at Hippone (near the ruins of ancient Hippone near the city of Annaba in eastern Algeria). Regarding this visit, Cardinal Duval recalls one of his words, “My brothers, let us resist the voices of hatred, holding on faithfully to love, peace and gentleness. That is how to build or rebuild” (67).

For Duval, this was an affirmation of his calling to build bridges with other Christian confessions and with Algeria’s majority Muslim population. This papal envoy was none other than Monseigneur Roncalli who would soon become Pope John XXIII. So Duval looked back on his visit as “prophetic” – and especially this particular word: “Remembering the words of the Apostle Saint Paul, I love to contemplate them in the light of Abraham, the great patriarch of all the believers” (67).

He even talked at length with Duval about how he saw the church’s mission in Algeria: “a mission of universal openness, with a great respect for the freedom of persons and populations, a mission of love with humility in a spirit of service.”

A year and a half into the war, Cardinal Duval issued a statement addressed to all Algerians:


“God is with those who desire to build with justice a fraternal Algeria. In the midst of our cruel anguish a great hope remains: the friendship which, despite the storm, persists between true Christians and sincere Muslims” (102).


The journalist had quoted this to him, and he responded by saying he believed that friendship was still evident and bearing fruit. Then this statement: “I can summarize my apostleship [or “mission”] in Algeria in one word: friendship. I believe in the power of friendship.”

Further on in the book the journalist asks the Cardinal about the relative importance of evangelization (“preaching the gospel to save souls”) or social and political action to further the cause of justice. I quote the greater part of his answer here:


“The church must announce the Good News, that is clear. But it announces it to people who live on this earth in concrete situations. To ignore the situation in which people live would be to announce the Good News in an abstract way, divorced from its historical context. Further, there is a close connection between the gospel and the demands of justice. To do away with the latter would be a dangerous proposition and could lead to a betrayal of the Good News. One cannot speak of a God of love while ignoring the injustices that bear down on people” (139).


Then too Christian witness includes dialog with people of other faiths, and in that sense there is a dynamic of mutual witness:


“Seeing Muslims faithfully practicing prayer, fasting and pilgrimage increased the Christians’ motivation to practice their own faith. Conversely, I remember the president of a Muslim association in Annaba telling me, ‘We have no trust in a French administrator who does not go to Mass’” (84).


Finally, what I find remarkable in Cardinal Duval’s view of Christian mission is the role played by the Holy Spirit. The following statement seems to anticipate the revolutionary document he would contribute to in the next decade, Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”) from Vatican II. Duval in his Pentecost 1956 radio address said this:


“The Spirit of God fills the universe. He is sent to all the Church’s sons [and daughters] scattered throughout the earth. He is even sent beyond the walls of the visible church to all people of good will whom he prepares by his grace for salvation and enables to actively participate in the salvation of the world” (104).


Further on, Duval tells of a member of the Army of National Liberation (ALN) , who was betrayed by a compatriot and then brutally tortured by the French. After the war the betrayer became very ill and was hospitalized. The man who had been tortured by him nevertheless came to the hospital every day to keep him company and shave him. “I had to care for him, because no one would come to visit him.” The cardinal concludes:


“How could the Church possibly survive in Algeria unless the Holy Spirit sustain it by working outside of its visible borders? There is outside of the Church a movement which converges with what God’s Spirit is accomplishing within the Church” (168).


Cardinal Duval’s prophetic calling

I use “prophetic” here by associating it to the role and calling of the Old Testament prophets, including Jeremiah. They received God’s words for the people and transmitted those messages to them. Often those words were for rulers, in which case “they spoke truth to power,” as the adage goes. Allow me highlight just a few examples.


    • Just two months into the war (Jan. 1955) Cardinal Duval issued a public declaration condemning all forms of torture.
    • The next year, in a letter addressed to all the clergy, he spoke of the Algerian people’s right to determine their own future.
    • At independence, within the framework of the Evian Accords, Cardinal Duval took on Algerian nationality. Over a hundred priests and nuns followed his example.
    • When the agenda for the 1971 world synod of the Catholic Church was focused only on the role of the priesthood in the Church, Cardinal Duval insisted it also deal with justice in the world.
    • For Christmas 1979 Cardinal Duval was accompanied by Algeria’s Foreign Minister to Tehran in order to celebrate Mass with the American hostages. The Algerian government was hoping he could negotiate for their release with the Islamic students holding them.


In fact, he never stopped calling attention to the disparities between the French citizens and the Muslim natives of the land. He also called for French farmers and business owners to treat their Muslim employees kindly and fairly. This earned him a derogatory title from many in France – “Muhammad Duval”! He had this to say about that:


“I was not surprised that people called me ‘Muhammad.’ They were actually rendering me a great service. Many Muslims warmly congratulated me. They knew that I remained Catholic, but they were happy to see that the Church was not a ghetto. They understood that it was an open community. It was open, because of its love for all people; open too, because of its concern to promote justice, dialog, mutual understanding, and to work for the common good of all humanity” (146).


My own connection to Cardinal Duval

During my nine years in Algeria, as a pastor I benefited directly from the cardinal’s Christian leadership in that nation. Thanks to him, we had regular meetings between Protestants and Catholics leaders. Usually present would be himself and one of his assistants, along with Gerald Brittenden, the priest of the Anglican Church (where I served for four years) and Bible Society director; Pastor Hugh Johnson, the senior pastor for the Protestant Church of Algeria (where I served for five years); and Gilbert Carayon, pastor of the small Seventh-Day Adventist Church. There was wonderful collegiality and friendship among us, and out of those meetings was birthed the establishment of the Bible Society’s shop in Algiers, the only one in all of North Africa.

Thanks also to the cardinal, Hugh Johnson and I would precede the radio broadcast of the Mass in Algiers’ cathedral by quickly switching places with the two radio journalists who had just given the 7am news bulletin. This was “Alger Chaine 3,” the national radio station in French, which was the most popular one by far. Four times a year we did this – Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and Pentecost. I must have preached at least six times over the years. It was a bit surreal to speak live into a microphone, knowing that a minimum of two or three million Algerians were listening to me. But it was Duval who had paved the way, especially during the war years. He recalled this:


“I knew that people in the mountains listened to my messages on the radio. A Muslim man who lived in a region far away from Algiers once said, ‘We always listen to the pope on the radio, because he always defends justice.’ I am happy in this regard to be associated with the pope!”


Then finally, on a more personal note, God used the cardinal to lead me to my wife. Years before, my mother had responded to the request of a French teacher in a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia and found a French family near them in Lyon to receive her student named Charlotte for a year. Some twelve years later, this student, now a nurse, ran into my father during one of his visits to the US. After hearing from her that she felt called to serve abroad as a missionary, my father suggested Algeria. Charlotte came for a visit and my boss, Hugh Johnson, invited her to come and work in our parish, mostly to visit some of the elderly shut-ins.

I was 33 and single, though for a long time I had been in a long distance relationship with an Algerian woman. We had spoken about marriage, but the obstacles were many. Charlotte and I worked closely together that year and at one point she confided about being in love with me. I thanked her for being so brave and open about it, but added that I could not reciprocate. “Let’s just remain friends.” A medical student in our church from Zaïre (at the time) had an amazing gift of prophecy, often with visions “in Technicolor,” as he put it. I had many opportunities to see that this was clearly a gift from God. At one point he told me I would marry Charlotte. Still, I was not convinced.

Then on April 15th, 1986, the Reagan Administration bombed Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli. A few days later Charlotte, who had just come back from three months in France because her residence papers had not gone through, had just stepped into the immigration office in Algiers to apply again for a residence permit. This time she was insulted, yelled at, and kicked out. “Americans, out of Algeria!”

Hugh Johnson mentioned this to the Cardinal Duval, who answered, “We too have had difficulties with this office. There are a few fundamentalist hotheads who are blocking out people too.” So he went to see his friend who happened to be in charge of national security and a week later Charlotte received her final residence card, a process that in the best conditions would take three or four months.

I clearly saw God’s hand in this and I said to God, “OK, I’m open. Show me the way.” In the next few days my feelings for her flipped dramatically and we were married that fall. Cardinal Duval, the new archbishop Henri Teissier, and a few priests and nuns joined our very international congregation for the wedding ceremony. We are still very happily married today thirty years later!


A life poured out for Jesus and Algeria

I end with a story and a quote. Cardinal Duval lived another ten years in Algiers, but he likely would have lived longer had it not been for the tragedy that weighed so heavily on him. Algeria collapsed into civil war in 1992 when the islamist party (FIS) was poised to win the second round of parliamentary elections and the army stepped in. It was a brutal war with bomb attacks almost daily in Algiers and numerous assassinations of politicians, secular intellectuals, foreigners and especially priests and nuns. I remember Hugh Johnson telling me, “After going to the fiftieth funeral for one of my friends, I stopped counting.”

Already in the 1950s during the war, Rome had urged Duval to shut down the Cistercian monastery in the mountains near Medea. He said no. “This is a witness that needs to remain,” he insisted. Forty years later, an extreme offshoot of the GIA (Islamic Armed Group) was hiding in the Medea area committing numerous atrocities. One of the monks was a physician and he had long taken care of the medical needs of the surrounding villages free of charge. Add to that the wonderful dialog the monks had carried on with some local Sufi Muslims (the mystical side of Islam), and you can imagine how beloved those monks were among the local population. At this point they urged the monks to leave. “These fighters will come after you,” they warned.

The film “Of Gods and Men” in 2010 recounts that brewing drama over several months in gripping and beautiful fashion. It took France by storm and won Best Film at the Cannes Festival that year. I want to believe God used it to bring some healing to the French who suffered most from the Algerian war. It certainly was a tribute to the sacrificial faith of the monks, and indirectly, a tribute to their cardinal’s faith.

The seven monks were indeed kidnapped and after disappearing for about two months, the GIA reported that they had been executed on May 21st, 1996. Their heads were discovered ten days later, but their bodies were never recovered. This ordeal must have been too much for Cardinal Duval to bear. As it turned out, his funeral Mass was celebrated in his beloved Basilica of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers and the Mass also celebrated the lives and sacrifice of the seven monks.

Léon-Etienne Duval’s life was “poured out for Algeria,” as you see in my title. But that is because it was first poured out for Jesus. I end with the last paragraph of Le Cardinal Duval: ‘Evêque en Algérie’:


“It is in Jesus Christ that I feel bound, not only to the Christians of my diocese, but to those of the whole world and of all ages; yet not only to Christians, but also to Muslims, Jews, and even to those who call themselves atheists. All the marvels of creation are for me messengers of one of Jesus Christ’s thoughts, for all was created in Him, for Him and by Him. He fills the entire universe. He is present everywhere in history. Even more so than in creation, I search for Him and at times I find Him in the movements of true love, which His Spirit brings forth in the hearts of the humble, the poor, and the suffering members of the human family. All authentic love, all love that is disinterested and directed to all is a manifestation of Jesus Christ.”

From one angle, human history is an unbroken chain of strong nations invading, abusing and controlling weaker nations. With time they lose their grip, weaken and fall prey to other rising powers; and the cycle goes on.

Empires rise and fall, and as young male lions compete, sometimes to the death, for the honor of leading a “pride” of mostly females, so ascending nations vie for a greater share of economic, strategic and political power at the expense of surrounding nations. Today this process is unfolding before our eyes in ominous ways.

The prophet Jeremiah had the most challenging and tragic calling of all the Hebrew prophets. He spent his whole life transmitting God’s message of judgment to the remaining southern tribes of Israel (Judah and Benjamin), after the northern kingdom had been carried away into exile by the Assyrians two centuries before – yet all in vain it would seem.

Because of the violent oppression of the poor by the rich and because of their idolatrous ways, God’s wrath, as Jeremiah and others had predicted, swept over Judah in the form of a Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE. Jerusalem and its temple were razed, most people were slaughtered, while the elites were taken into captivity and a few hundred common people were allowed to stay under a governor chosen by Babylon. Jeremiah stayed too, now an old man, but soon the governor revolted and had to flee to Egypt, where Jeremiah soon died.

We now have a whole, separate book by Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem, five chapters long, entitled “Lamentations.” But I believe God laments every single act of conquest and dispossession. Here are a few excerpts to give you an idea:


Judah has been led into captivity,

oppressed with cruel slavery.

She lives among foreign nations

and has no place to rest.

Her enemies have chased her down,

and she has nowhere to turn.

The roads to Jerusalem are in mourning,

for crowds no longer come to celebrate the festivals.

The city gates are silent,

her priests groan,

her young women are crying –

how bitter is her fate!

Her oppressors have become her master,

and her enemies prosper,

for the Lord has punished Jerusalem for her many sins.

Her children have been captured

and taken to distant lands. (Lamentations 1:3-5)


Algeria, French colonialism, and the Church

As I convalesce from a total hip replacement last week, I’ve had more time to think, pray, and read outside my usual box. For some reason, Algeria has been on my mind. I did live there between 1978 and 1987, but also I’ve been meaning for a while to read the above book and write a couple of blogs on it. After all, I knew the Cardinal personally and many of the priests who worked under him. What is more, he came to our wedding in Algiers! Yet more significantly, he was the single most influential Christian leader in Algeria in the 20th century and his legacy has much to do with the values of this website.

Then our son just finished writing his Masters’ thesis in history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and I read it this week. It was about a French colonial education administrator in Tunisia. He did a great job untangling some of the complexities of colonial rule using some recent racial theory. He also passed on another goldmine of a book: Darcie Fontaine’s Decolonizing Christianity: Religion at the End of Empire in France and Algeria (Cambridge UP, 2016).

Finally, this afternoon I watched a French film by David Oelhoffens (starring Viggo Mortensen who speaks both excellent French and Algerian Arabic!), Far from Men, which won three awards at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. It was set in the beginning of the Algerian war (1954) and is loosely based on Albert Camus’ short story, “The Host.” It was an excellent portrayal of the dilemmas of war and human friendship across cultural and religious boundaries.

But none of this makes sense without at least a bare-bone knowledge of the history of French colonialism in Algeria. The story begins in 1830 when the French invaded Algeria under the pretext of destroying the Barbary pirates who over decades had enslaved thousands of Europeans (and some Americans along the way, see my blog on this) and their nominal overlords, the Ottomans. Because this campaign started under the weak ruler Charles X, it was couched in lofty religious language, “crusading” even.

Yet within the interior of the country, the Algerians offered fierce resistance, which the French in turn stamped out with resolve and cruelty over two decades. French settlers were immediately brought in, who were followed in time by Spaniards, Italians, and Maltese. Much of the northern lands were quite fertile and the settlers took over the best parts. Then in 1848, under the Second Empire, France annexed the three northern provinces. But even if this wealthiest part of the land was now “France,” Algerian Muslims could not be French citizens and therefore had no political rights. It was apartheid on steroids, as I like to put it.

So by the 1940s, at least six generations later, you had over 800,000 colonists and about ten million Algerian Muslims. It was not hard to predict that the situation would explode, especially after World War II when so many other colonial nations were achieving their independence. Keep in mind too the brutality with which the French stamped out the Algerian uprising and the continual warfare that the Algerian nationalists managed to keep up between 1954 and 1962.

Yes, torture and atrocities were committed by both sides, but if you take into account the huge discrepancy between war casualties (somewhere between 30,000 French deaths and 700,000 Algerian deaths), you see that the ragtag Algerian fighters were no match for a world class army arrayed against them. There is no doubt that the French committed war crimes, most notably when they wiped out whole villages in acts of reprisal. In the end, that is what created the most international pressure for them to come to the negotiating table. And though the colonial terrorist organization (the OAS) killed many Algerians as well as fellow Frenchmen both in France and Algeria, victims of Algerian infighting numbered in the tens of thousands and post-war revenge killings likely surpassed 100,000.

This was not the Babylonians sweeping into sixth-century BCE Judah as in the beginning of this blog, but it certainly follows the same pattern. Then the civil war of the 1990s produced another 200,000 victims, most of which were civilians. There is so much to lament in this one nation’s history.

So how did Christian leaders react to all of this? Were they simply churning out religious rhetoric in support of the colonial rulers’ policies and the colonial ideology of the French state? Or did they voice any opposition to it in the name of the gospel?

There was certainly plenty of the former, though not in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church (Protestants were very few in Algeria). Many of the colonists held on to a very conservative Catholic ideology and were primarily motivated by a “defense of Christian civilization.” But there were plenty of “progressive” voices too at all levels in the latter category, as Darcie Fontaine amply documents in her first chapter. Then in 1947 the pope sent Léon-Etienne Duval from the Haute-Savoie region of France (the Alps south of Geneva, Switzerland) as the new bishop of Constantine and Hippo (St. Augustine’s original bishopric). In Fontaine’s words,


[Duval] “became the symbol of the Catholic Church during the Algerian War. His mythic status derived from his public statements against the use of torture and other forms of what he called “injustice”; his vocal and tangible support of peace and reconciliation among the Algerian population, especially across religious lines; and his eventual words and actions at Algerian independence” (62).


Cardinal Duval’s convictions before Algeria

The book photographed above came out in 1984. My copy was a gift from a priest in his administration. A couple of years before, a well-known French journalist, Marie-Christine Ray, interviewed Cardinal Duval over several months and the book reports those conversations. Le Centurion is one of France’s oldest and most popular publishers and I’m guessing it sold over a million copies, only because the Algerian War remains a gaping wound in the French psyche. The Vietnam War was traumatic for Americans on many levels, but it was in a land far away. In France’s case, close to a million “pieds noirs” returned to France fearing for their safety after independence. France has yet to heal from this trauma and process it in a healthy way.

I have to interject a personal note here. I grew up in the Paris suburbs and remember as a child being fascinated and troubled by gory pictures of bombings in France or Algeria in the popular weekly magazine Paris Match which came to our home. In France alone several thousand people were killed in terror attacks during this period either by the FLN or the OAS. Still in elementary school I would read a good part of those articles. Little did I know I would be living there nine years.

Now back to the Cardinal. From a young age Léon Etienne Duval knew God was calling him into the priesthood. At eighteen his bishop in Annecy sent him to do theological studies in Rome, where he came out with a specialty in philosophy. After briefly serving as parish priest he taught from 1930 to 1938 in the Catholic seminary at Annecy. Then he was named as the bishop’s top administrator as the war seemed imminent. This put him in touch with lots of Catholic social activists who by 1940 were organizing discussion groups about how to push back against the Vichy government, resist German forced labor, and manage the hiding and care of Jewish children pouring in from Germany and Switzerland. Then Duval reflects on how crucial this emphasis of mobilizing lay people for this work turned out to be:


“By inviting the laity to deepen their faith and review their lives in the light of the gospel, chaplains and lay leaders were admirably preparing them to exercise their own responsibility and to act ‘politically,’ in the best sense of this word, that is, in the service of the community’s common good. The events that followed largely bore this out. I often came to realize that to erect a wall between the political and the religious spheres is just as harmful for politics as it is for the Church. I fondly and vividly remember this time spent with those activists. I saw the Holy Spirit moving in the conscience of most members of that diocese” (38).


His bishop had clearly led the way by visibly supporting the Resistance and making sure no Catholic would be tempted by the ideology of Nazi Germany. This applied to the Vichy government as well. Duval himself states how he quickly he came to realize how nefarious their policies were. He knew people who joined the Resistance and those who chose not to. But his concern was “to lead Christians to rise above partisan views and to take a stand for justice and solidarity between all French people” (39).

It is not surprising, then, that before the pope sent him to Algeria as bishop he had already come to his own conclusion with regard to the French colonial project in Algeria. Here’s how he puts it:


“I recall that one day at the seminary where I was teaching we were having a conversation as colleagues and I had come to the conclusion that the Second World War had shaken the nations so deeply that it must mark the end of the colonial empires. By what means and in what form this change would take place, I was far from guessing. But I thought it inevitable.”


I will begin the second half of this blog with the Cardinal’s role during the war.

Founded by Rick Love around 2010, this is the organization with which I work most closely. They have grown very rapidly and have now hired a consultant to enable them to take their operations to the next level. They are have ongoing projects in at least nine US metropolitan areas and continue to expand their partnering with local and national Muslim organizations.

I recently did a webinar for them, and we collaborate in other ways as well. I feel very privileged to be so closely associated with them. We are very much "on the same page."


This is a recent venture (started in 2014) with a great deal of promise. Grayson Robertson is the founder and executive director, and Dina Malki, who together with him completed Masters degrees at the Hartford Seminary, have put together some interesting projects. Another sign that this project is going to bear fruit is that they have Joseph Montville on their board of advisors. Montville is an experienced US diplomat, a highly respected academic, and the director of the Abrahamic Family Reunion. Perhaps another indication of potential reach is that Robertson is located in Washington, DC.


In a sequence now all too familiar in Europe, a truck careened down a busy shopping street in Stockholm last Friday afternoon killing four people and seriously injuring nine others before going up in flames as it rammed into a department store. The driver, as was later discovered, was a 39-year-old Uzbek, a Muslim likely radicalized through ISIS propaganda.

An article in The Guardian carries a likely title, “Swedish truck attack: shock gives way to fear of open society.” Sweden and Germany, after all, are the two nations that by far have welcomed the most migrants and asylum seekers since the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Last year alone, Sweden resettled 130,000 more refugees. Understandably, “compassion fatigue” has set in, as the Economist puts it. In addition, right wing parties are leveraging these rising fears of terrorism to attract people to their populist cause.


Please take a deep breath

I named the last part of my library lecture on the risk of terrorism “Why take a deep breath.” As I said in the the first half of this blog, the fear of Islamic related terrorism is greatly overblown. I mentioned Harvard’s Steven M. Walt’s Foreign Policy article, “Five ways Donald Trump is wrong about Islam.” In particular he writes,

“… based on the evidence since 9/11 (and including that attack), the likelihood an American will be killed by a terrorist is less than 1 in 3 million per year, and the lifetime risk is about 1 in 45,000.”

The incredible discrepancy between the fear level of the average American and the actual risk of becoming a victim of terrorism (which is practically nil) is in itself a telling sign of the terrorists’ success. They do succeed in terrorizing! And ironically, this is in a country plagued with by far the highest rate of gun violence among Western nations (there are at least 10,000 gun-related homicides in the US every year).

Those facts led two terrorism experts, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, to write a book together: Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Jack Anderson on the Homeland Security Community website reviewed the book. The authors, he noted, remind the reader …


“that according to the START Global Terrorism Database, all Islamic extremism, globally, claims some 200-300 lives per year, roughly equivalent to bathtub drownings in the U.S. Bathtub drownings do not take up such a significant portion of the U.S. discretionary budget, and Mueller and Stewart consider this imbalance to be a deeply irrational use of public money, betraying public trust by chasing inconceivable and unlikely contingencies.”


In the first half I also mentioned leading terrorism expert, Jessica Stern. This is from her piece on Boston University’s website in September 2016, “Is the war on terrorism really winnable?”:


“The United States is generally far less prone to terrorism than is Europe, and even less prone to terrorism than the rest of the world. This is true even with respect to attacks inspired by ISIS. On average, terrorism kills about as many Americans per year as lightning strikes do. (Several organizations collect data on terrorism, and figures differ, but only slightly for terrorism inside the United States.)”


Right-wing terrorism is a greater threat

These figures on terrorism include attacks by right wing movements, which from 2002 until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting killed more Americans than Muslim terrorists did (48 compared with 45). Newsweek ran a cover article in February 2016 entitled, “Right-wing extremists are a bigger threat to America than ISIS.” This is certainly the belief of most law enforcement agencies in this country, it notes. But notice the political incitement that feeds these hundreds of groups bent on hatred and violence:


“These Americans thrive on hate and conspiracy theories, many fed to them by politicians and commentators who blithely blather about government concentration camps and impending martial law and plans to seize guns and other dystopian gibberish, apparently unaware there are people listening who don’t know it’s all lies. These extremists turn to violence—against minorities, non-Christians, abortion providers, government officials—in what they believe is a fight to save America. And that potential for violence is escalating every day.”


This is why the Trump administration’s sole focus on Islamic-related terrorism is so out of line with reality. This is the message that three authors in a joint article published in Foreign Policy wanted to convey: “The Trump administration’s focus on fighting ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ could not only hamper counterterrorism efforts, but it could even embolden right-wing and anti-government extremists, experts and former government officials say.”

Part of the problem is that if these policies are actually implemented in the Department of Homeland security (DHS), they would seriously jeopardize the ongoing collaboration between the DHS and the Muslim community to counter radicalization. Further, it would reinforce the dangerous perception that the US is at war with Islam. Of course, that’s precisely the message that ISIS, al-Qaeda and their ilk are using to recruit more foot soldiers.

The other problem is that they are underestimating the threat of right-wing extremism. Another article cites figures from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) funded by the DHS and the Justice Department. If you discount both the Oklahoma bombing and the 9/11 attacks, between 1990 and 2017 far-right violence killed 272 Americans, while Muslim terrorists killed 136. Between 2015 and 2017, Muslim extremists staged five homicide events killing 74 people, while right-wing extremists staged eight such events and killed 27. If you exclude the Pulse nightclub attack (49 dead), then the number on the islamist side is 25.

That is the general pattern: “far-right extremists tend to be more active in committing homicides, yet Islamist extremists tend to be more deadly.” But terrorist experts, as mentioned above, are predicting an uptick of non-Muslim terror in the US. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups.” Have a look at their recent “Hate Map” and you will notice a 197% rise in anti-Muslim hate groups since 2015. Part of that can be attributed to the emboldening of white supremacy groups during and after the electoral campaign.


What you and I can do

I have to end on a better note. You took a deep breath and now you’re stressed once again!

First, the overall threat of terrorism in the US is very marginal. Whether it’s inspired by islamists or right-wing militants, remember, you are more likely to drown in your bathtub than be killed by one of them.

Second, I don’t want to convey the impression that because Islamic-related terrorism marginally affects us in the US we have a license to remain unconcerned about it. Especially if you add the sectarian violence in the Middle East and South Asia, general political instability, and the participation of jihadi organizations in the Syrian civil war, the number of victims climbs astronomically. Then too, just this morning (Palm Sunday) ISIS militants bombed two Egyptian churches killing well over forty people. Last December in a Cairo church they killed 29. This is an ideology of hatred, and though the victims of ISIS have been mostly Muslims, they have clearly targeted other minorities, and in Iraq above all Yazidis. This should move us to prayer, advocacy, and certainly a large dose of compassion!

Third, I believe that with all this information in hand there is much you and I can do to allay people’s fears about Islamic-inspired terrorism. More than that, I believe we have a God-given responsibility to build bridges, first between Muslims and Christians in order to foster greater understanding and empathy within our communities; and second as non-Muslim Americans or Europeans to stand with our Muslim friends, who more than any other group these days live in fear (to better understand why, look at this SPLC page).

Many groups in the US have come together to stand with Muslims in fighting Islamophobia. Some are interfaith groups, like Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, or the Abrahamic Alliance; some are Jewish, like Jewish Voice for Peace; some are Catholic, like the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University; some are evangelicals like my friend Rick Love and his Peace Catalyst International.

Finally, you can lobby for the US to welcome many more refugees than it has in the past. They are the first victims of our irrational fears. Polls show that 76% of white evangelicals approve of President Trump's "Muslim ban." Other white Protestants are around 50 percent, whereas 84% of black Protestants, 62% of Catholics, and 74% of the religious "nones" disapprove of it. We have lots of work to do!

I write this as a Christian at the beginning of Holy Week. “God is love,” repeats the Apostle John in his first New Testament letter. He then adds, “perfect love expels all fear” (I John 4:18, NLT). As those who follow the one who sacrificed his life for all on Good Friday, Christians should be the first to cast off fear and love their enemies as their Lord did.

Keep in mind that the Coptic Orthodox, who suffered these brutal Palm Sunday attacks, said prayers not only for the victims and their families but for the perpetrators too. Their souls are in grave danger, they said.

Sadly, most Christians attend churches where Islamophobia is, if not rampant, at least tolerated.

This you and I, from any angle and in whatever measure, can help to change.


Addendum (Nov. 2018): a comprehensive study was just completed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on terrorism. There are nearly four times as many Sunni salafi-jihadis operating now than did in 2001. Counting all al-Qaeda and ISIS-related fighters and potential fighters, and including all other independent groups on various agencies cooperating around the world, there might be as many as 230,000 in 70 different countries. So the threat is real. But this NYTimes article on the study shows that miltary counter-offensive is only a very small part of combatting this ideology which has metasthetized over the last couple of decades. In its conclusion it says that the following objectives are the most important: “Perhaps the most important component of Western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian and other grievances.” Finally, a long article in Politico by a top-level Justice Department official under Obama traces the fascinating story of how they were able to disable (at least the first wave of) the virulent combination of jihadism and cyber warfare in the person of Junaid Hussain, a Pakistani British youth who managed to mount a huge campaign of recruitment of youths in the US and elsewhere.