Why the faith of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects doesn’t matter, but yours does

It simply does not matter that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two Chechen-born brothers suspected of perpetrating the attacks were … Continued

It simply does not matter that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two Chechen-born brothers suspected of perpetrating the attacks were Muslim. Any religion, or lack of one, can be co-opted and used by a person or people as a justification for extremism.

What matters right now, and into the future, is the way the faith and values of every other American can either help us resist the fear-generating effects of terrorism, or help that fear grow and take root like a weed, choking out trust and diversity.

In a statement immediately following the capture of Dzhokhar, the younger brother, President Obama declared this attack had “failed” because “we will not waver from the character and the compassion and the values that define us as a country. Nor will we break the bonds that hold us together as Americans.”

Will that be true? It is not entirely true now, as the fearful fault lines of our society have been very much in evidence this past week: religion, race and even equal rights.

But we can make it truer if we access the values of community, compassion and trust-building held within our faiths.

There is a kind of American civil religion that has diversified in recent years, typified by the way the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are often quoted. This week my Twitter feed frequently contained versions of this iconic statement by King: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

Now that’s a civic and religious bond we can try to live into as Americans.

It is therefore telling that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was apparently kicked out of a Boston mosque about three months ago, after he stood up and shouted at the imam during a Friday prayer service. The imam had held up Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of a man to emulate, recalled one worshiper. Enraged, Tamerlan stood up and began shouting, “You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!”

Actually, you can, as that Boston imam proved, and other Muslims often do quote King. Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core is a prominent example of such Muslims.

We say in the peace movement, “When you mirror your enemy, you become your enemy.” So what you mirror determines your faith response, not the other way around. After the Boston bombing, the national Islamophobes immediately came out of the woodwork, engaging in “reckless scapegoating,” as Wajahat Ali described in an excellent article in Salon.

Racism along with religious bias was in evidence as well, typified by the incredibly insensitive statement by John King of CNN that the bombing suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” Untrue.

And now, we have pressure from some conservative Republican politicians to deny Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his civil rights as an American citizen, and treat him in the discredited category of “enemy combatant.” This proves some have not learned anything about the destruction of American civic and religious values that occurred during the Bush administration’s torture and detention policy, a policy that has not been completely overturned. To prove this point, Republican state Sen. Greg Ball tweeted about Dzhokhar, calling the suspect a “scumbag” and advocating torture.

Where are your religious and/or civic values, Sen. Ball?

But these are our fault lines as Americans, the deep fissures of religion, race and rights that travel under the surface of our society, and that sometimes crack under pressure. But unlike the fissures below the earth’s crust, these societal fault lines can be filled in and stabilized, and our religious faiths are one sure way to do that.

Many people of faith are, in fact, coming together and working to fill the gaps. The Interfaith service in Boston last week was one sure way. On a more individual level, this can be seen as some are actually including Dzhokhar in their prayers. “A wise young lady just reminded me that as we pray for everyone in Boston, we must pray for this 19 year old too…because we’re Catholic,” tweeted the Rev. Manny Alvarez, a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami, shortly after the arrest. I too tweeted prayers for Boston residents, for law enforcement, and for the suspect. My tweet was re-tweeted many times. Many Americans do find it in their hearts to pray even for those who may be enemies.

Your faith is what matters, your values are what matter, to how we as a country deal with these kinds of terrifying eruptions of violence that threaten the fabric of our communities, not the faith (or even lack of it) of the Tsarnaev brothers. Your faith is what matters. It matters immensely.

We may not be there yet, but it is a hopeful sign that there is a larger religious response, and, as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Greg Epstein, reminds us, a larger humanist response, that contributes to the grieving and the healing.

Even as mosques in Boston quote King from time to time, now in many diverse Christian, Jewish and other places of worship and contemplation, you can sometimes hear the Muslim poetry of Rumi, that is, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. This poem from Rumi, The Book of Love, seemed particularly apt:

“Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror

up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,

here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.”

On any given day, that face can be the face of any other person in our nation.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • 2mad to sad

    Made a movie laughing at Christians, made a movie laughing at Mormons nothing happens – even went so far as the Christ in urine – Make one laughing at Allah – and they will burn the placedown, not a few, not a little bit, but every one, everywhere. Islam is a message of hate, with a little group saying look how good we are. How many riots, bombings and massacures of Christians. If they are trying to kill you, they are not good guys…

  • bcarte1

    ‘………….suspected of perpetrating the attacks were Muslim. Any religion, or lack of one, can be co-opted and used by a person or people as a justification for extremism…………..’

    So I guess I missed in the news all the Hindu’s, Morman’s, Christains, etc., strapping on bombs and building IED’s and then walking into groups of women and children to MURDER them.

    Just some more rose colored, unicorn inspired liberal drivel from Thistlethwaite today.

    So Thistlethwaite, when the Muslims say ‘submit or die’ I guess we know what your response will be!

  • tatooyou

    ‘submit or die’

    Wasn’t that a popular phrase during the Inquisition ?

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