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Religious Leaders Battle Violent Extremism

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Joined in the battle against violent extremism, local Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Mormon and Muslim leaders celebrated  #WeWalkTogether, a multi-faith prayer service held this past Sunday, February 21, at the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, NY.  Looking for inspiration? Check out Msgr. Kevin Sullivan’s address below:

As we pray for victims of violent extremism this afternoon, let me ask that we also be mindful of those whose jobs are to keep us safe from the violence of extremism and ask God’s blessing on their safety and the success of their work.

I begin by disclosing that I hate extremes and try to shun them and its perpetrators – and yet my work at Catholic Charities does not allow it. 

Just last week a poignant large billboard announced: “Catholic Charities resettles Islamists – Evil or Insanity?”  This is the world you and I live in.

Let me mention three modest responses of Catholic Charities in New York in light of the extremist rhetoric regarding immigrants and refugees, particularly Muslims.  One involves Pope Francis, another Cardinal Dolan and a third involves people whose names will never be bolded on the New York Post’s “Page 6.” 

  1. Last September, Catholic Charities gathered 150 immigrants and refugees in a simple school gym in East Harlem to meet Pope Francis. Together were Muslims, Iraqis, Ghanaians, Christians, Buddhists, car-wash workers, children fleeing violence from Central America, people from every continent and religion.  There were no long speeches – an encounter, a few gifts, a blessing and sharing of God’s word in 6 different languages– a simple profound act of solidarity.
  2. At Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Dolan welcome and introduced  two refugee families – one from Central America, the other from the Middle East; one Christian one Muslim – and sitting somewhere between the two was a Jewish Rabbi also invited by Cardinal Dolan  - a simple act of inclusion and welcoming.
  3. This past Christmas, Catholic Charities added to our St. Nicholas Shopping list for those in need more than a dozen Muslim families helped by the Arab American Family Support Center. This was a simple expression that the spirit of Christmas should challenge sectarianism and divisiveness.  

So with that background, I invite you to reflect with me on how people of faith might deal with the extremism that undergirds so much of the unspeakable violence that bombards our media.

Let me share a change in my personal perspective. Over the years, I have written and signed on to strong statements.  I’ve spoken at impassioned rallies that denounced extremism. But, ironically, during these days of growing and intensifying extremism I generally no longer do so. 

As I share my reason, please understand I do not intend to be judgmental of others. 

I was finding my denunciation of extremists to be more about demonstrating my own self righteousness than advancing God’s righteousness and the common good, in addition to being moderately useless in changing the attitudes and actions of those being denounced. 

But merely “not denouncing” is not an answer and in fact would be an abdication of responsibility.  

I suggest an alternative:  As people of faith, we need to intensify how we engage extremism and extremists.   And we need engage in a way that does not endorse and does have an agenda.  Our engagement needs to take seriously the extremist, understand its roots and seek to transform it for the common good.  This is a tall and difficult task for which I do not know all the techniques.  It should also evoke certain skepticism.   

And so now I must rely on my own Christian tradition for inspiration and hope for this approach.  As I do so, I invite you to draw on your own traditions.  This is Lent, the time we Christians reflect on the extreme ending of Jesus’ life:  the ignominy of betrayal and abandonment by friends, his violent suffering and death at such a public way.  And in the end Jesus did not denounce.  He engaged and through that engagement transformed that extreme ending into, for us believers, a new beginning: the triumph of the resurrection and new life and salvation for “the many.” 

For those who are not Christian, there is no need to share this belief to understand the power of its narrative.  Use your own human experiences. Doesn’t each of us have an example of an extreme situation that has been transformed through engagement and encounter?  Think family, think relationships, think suffering or loss. We achieved little when we denounced and much when we engaged.

Let me end by turning to America’s greatest communal religious event, the Superbowl and, in particular, Beyonce’s halftime show and video. An extreme social media post I saw denounced it as – “cop hating anti-white, sickening.”  A news report I read quoted a sheriff attributing multiple police deaths to it.  No doubt the video is strong and extreme in its vocabulary and images.  And this is precisely why it is better engaged than denounced. 

This is not the place to exegete the lyrics. Instead I share with you some of the themes I encountered through engaging with that video: vision and creativity, strength and female empowerment, pride in one’s roots, hard work and discipline, success and capitalism, solidarity. Not a bad cohort of themes.  They certainly merit more consideration rather than a 256 character twitter denunciation.

Beyonce ends her video by singing a final piece of advice to her listeners:  “Always stay gracious.”  I’m willing to bet that Bey as a church girl from Houston is quite aware that graciousness and God’s grace are closely related.

As people of faith from New York, in the midst of our extreme world, let us denounce less, engage more and “Always Stay Gracious!

Thank you.

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan