Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 – the day before this was written – was a convergence.
It marked the one year anniversary of the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife of six weeks Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her younger sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, murdered in their home.
It marked the resolution of the ongoing drama between Dr. Larycia Hawkins—a Christian political science professor who donned a traditional Muslim head covering to express her solidarity with her oppressed Muslim sisters—and Wheaton College, her former employer.
It marked Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Ash is a traditional Biblical symbol of lament, and Lent is a season of repentance, a “turning away” from fault and sins.
Whether you believe in fate, providence, karma, or coincidence, the convergence of these three events is powerful.
It is especially powerful when it is framed against an election season that, evidenced by the success of certain candidates, has revealed some alarming facts about the prejudices of the American people.
This is a time in America—a place that has been called, at various points in history, the richest, most stable, and most welcoming country in the world—when it is socially acceptable to distrust broad swaths of the population based on their race, their religion, and their appearance.
If it looks bad on paper, it looks horrific in practice.
Dr. Suzanne Barakat, sister of Deah Barakat, had this to say at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions:
I was born and raised in this country, and I grew accustomed to just accepting these microaggressions that happened to me on a daily basis… The way I used to handle it is to smile and to just say, ‘you know, if i can just show them that who I am—and I’m just a human being—that maybe they can change their mind about whatever stereotypes they have built in their mind about me.’ Then that can change things. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s enough.
When your family is murdered it’s not enough—clearly it wasn’t enough—and so, I can’t do this work alone, and it’s time that we, all of us, collectively, find this responsibility on our shoulders; to stand up in the face of injustice, when we see these micro-or macro-aggressions, to stand up and say, ‘Hey. This is actually not ok.’
Dr. Barakat and her story have been spotlit in large part because of the heinousness of the actions committed against her and her family; the story is newsworthy. But she has used her platform to speak articulately and urgently about the unnoticed root causes of the stories that make the news; everyday, barely visible occurrences of dehumanization. Suspicious looks on the subway; parents teaching their children to “keep an eye for these types of people;” public, embarrassing, “random” security checks; propagation of the fallacy that a small, outlying, same-in-name-only faction of a billions-strong community is an accurate representation of that community.
Dr. Barakat is a victim of an avalanche, and she has wisely and accurately placed the culpability on the small, seemingly innocuous trickles of snow that eventually, invariably accumulate into disaster.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins has sought to be an ally. She has stayed on message, even as she has been severely scrutinized, harangued and intimidated by various factions for a comment meant to show solidarity with her Muslim sisters. Donning the hijab was a quiet, symbolic action in which Dr. Hawkins sought to highlight similarities between Christians and Muslims, and to strengthen and clarify her own empathy with the oppressed.
When she took the stage at her final press conference yesterday, she had every right to speak out against Wheaton. She had every right to describe her struggle, to talk about the pain that she has endured over the past few months. Instead, she used her entire speech to repeat the message that she has been sharing since the beginning; that, in order to truly find ourselves, we must look to our neighbors. To truly be a human, we must find ourselves in the rest of humanity. To truly make sense of our struggles, we must find ourselves in the struggles of others. Dr. Hawkins sees this “embodied solidarity” at the heart of her faith, a fact that she distilled into one sentence: “There is no righteousness without justice.”
Yesterday, Christians observed Ash Wednesday. This day marks the beginning of preparation for Easter, when Christians believe that Jesus died and, three days later, rose from the dead to redeem humanity from their transgressions against God and, very importantly, against one another. On Ash Wednesday, Christians are marked on the forehead with ash, a substance that holds deep Biblical significance as a sign of shame, of regret.
Easter Sunday itself is a day of celebration. But there is no resurrection without death; there is no forgiveness without sin. In the book of Job, Job cries out to God and says these words: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Here, during this Easter season, let us follow the exhortation of Dr. Suzanne Barakat, the example of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, and the action of Job. Let us humbly turn away from the habits and prejudices that prevent us from connecting with the heart of our humanity. Let us lift up our oppressed sisters and brothers to their rightful place, the place that they deserve solely on the merit of their own personhood; a place beside us.
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