“And Lincoln says to the woman, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?'”


The writer’s impulse, when an occasion comes to pass which begs for words, is to do what we do: write.

Since Friday’s devastation in Paris, I have white-knuckle-tamped it down.

I have tamped that impulse down, despite my heart aching, my amygdala firing, my fingers itching to type.

I forced myself to wait, to honor the horror, the panic, the unclarity.

I needed to grasp the magnitude of the recent terror.

So I read, and watched, and walked, and wept at all of the blood: France, Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia.

(Good God, there’s even a wiki page dedicated to listing terrorist attacks in just 2015! Just 2015!)

To learn and listen, I leaned my attention into political and religious and military perspectives.

This morning, though, I heard the voice that was missing in my store of reflective sources: the voice of an anthropologist.

It dawned on me, as I was listening to Dr. Scott Atran, an American and Frenchman, that in these inhumane times, it was right and good to sit at the feet of an anthropo-logist: anthropos is the Greek word for ‘human.’

Dr. Atran is no newbie or outlier to the study of terrorism: in fact, he just recently published a well-reviewed book entitled Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists. He’s been on the University of Michigan faculty, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, France’s Center for Scientific Research, the Ford School of Public Policy, and a consultant to the UN Security Council.

No slouch.

You know what this anthropo-logist does?

He anthropologizes, he makes human, the terrorists.

He studies all that might compel someone to strap on a suicide vest, to bombard innocents with bullets, to strike contagious fear into the entire world.

Of all of Dr. Atran’s insights, here’s what grabbed me most: he maintains that these terroristic attacks are really, at root, not born out of religious fervor.

Islamic extremists?

Not the point.

Dr. Atran (self-described as non-religious) says that the greatest predictor of terroristic action is–get this–whether someone has a close group of friends, or, say, plays team soccer.

Soccer, people.

Most terrorists, he says, are between 18-24, and have had little to no religious training.

When they are taken in by terroristic groups, these young men are, he says, born again, in a manner of speaking, into extremist views.

It’s not the religion that pulls them in though.

It’s about a desire for communal identity and glory. Connection. Friends. Being part of something of import, bigger than they are when they stand alone.

In fact, says Dr. Atran, it’s about familial identity.

I know of no political movement or territorial movement or even transnational movement — that is, no large grouping of human beings that don’t consider themselves in terms of brotherhoods or sisterhoods or fatherlands or homelands or motherlands.

He’s right.

Powerful movements band together, around genetics to be sure, but also around concepts that bind people together as if they were family. Think sorority, fraternity, fraternal organizations (Elks, Masons, Eagles, and so forth): even former incarnations of insurance companies for my denomination (Lutheran Brotherhood)!

When you combine a powerful narrative of family under the notion of monotheism (the idea that there is only one God–a belief held dear by Jews, and Christians, and Muslims), then there can be, Dr. Atran says, a danger of creating powerful and all-inclusive notions of the Evil Other, in order to protect the Good Family tribal identity.

However, make no mistake: he is not bashing monotheistic religions here.

Dr. Atran says that secular groups have the same thing going on in their traditions.

But if you think about it, these secular ideologies, all modern secular ideologies, all the isms: fascism, communism, socialism, anarchism, colonialism, democratic liberalism, are all variants on this monotheistic theme, however secular they are in appearance. They’re salvational Messianic ideologies which believes the world must be saved and should be saved whether they like it or not, and that’s what drives us. (Emphasis mine)

Janine di Giovanni, Newsweek’s Middle East editor, says the same sort of thing, but directly in light of Paris’ decision to lob bombs in Syria as answer for the violence of 11-13.

I think that it’s very complicated, launching airstrikes like this as a retribution, but also as a way of wiping out ISIS…[b]ecause, the other thing is, that you can’t wipe out an ideology. You might be able to suppress them militarily, or you might be able to cut off some of their lines, but you can’t suppress the key message they’re spreading. (Emphasis mine)

Here in the States we are in the throes of election fervor.

Ideologies are palpable these days.

Every candidate, every party, every activist is doing their best to ‘convert’ others to their ideology, their ways of thought, their principles, their policies-in-action.  Our way is right, the other way is bad, wrong, misguided, dangerous, and must be disparaged and beaten (note even the etymology of the word ‘beaten’ here, which ties the root to actual violence).

Fact is, we don’t know what to do with tranquility.  Nobody, for example, goes to movies where there is no strife, no contest, no conflict.  Here’s Dr. Atran again:

In addition to dealing with fear and revenge, there’s something which I like to call sort of the principle of enmity. Human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Just look at novels. Look at the news. No one’s interested in happy, good-feeling cooperative things. I mean, people — when they’re tired of war and they’re tired of conflict and competition, then they’ll go back on it. But what really drives interest and passion is competition and conflict.

We’re conflict junkies.

So what are our options, when plain old peace isn’t satisfying, disturbing though that might be?

Dr. Atran asks it this way:

So the question is, can we actually lessen conflict without having enemies?….

Or we can change it to a sort of abstract enemy like poverty or killing or something like that.

And that sort of reminds me of how I actually ended the book. You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.

And a woman, an elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. And Lincoln says to the woman, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Read that phrase again: “…he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.”

Just look at what anthropo-logists do, when left to their own devices.

They up and humanize people, even the Southern Rebels.

Even terrorists.


Make no mistake: I understand the desire to return violence with violence.

My children and I have been wrapped in more monkey-pile snuggles than usual, this weekend.  They didn’t realize it, but I held each one in my arms with extra closeness, extra protectiveness, extra love, imagining my horror and despair and rage if either of them were to be victim of a terrorist attack, a casualty due to the perverse need to satisfy and feed warped notions of vainglory.

But as for me and my house, though I might on occasion have to white-knuckle-tamp my fear down, we will chose not a religion, not a people, as our enemies.

Instead, our enemy will be xenophobia, namely fear of a different people.

Our enemy will be ignorance.

Our enemy will be fear.

Our enemy will be inequity.

Our enemy will be loneliness.

Our enemy will be desperation.

Our hope will be transformation.


As I was finishing (I thought) this blog this afternoon, my news feed was suddenly ablaze with the announcement of several US Governors who wish to refuse Syrian refugees.  Some politicians–including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, candidates for President–have tempered that a bit: some Syrian refugees ought to be allowed…the Christian ones.

It’s appalling.

Harleen Gambir, counter-terrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote a column for the Washington Post yesterday.  In it, she makes the same sort of case as Dr. Atran.  Her article is called “The Islamic State’s Trap for Europe,” though it could surely be extended to include the US.

She writes that the Islamic State “hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.”

Prohibiting desperate and persecuted and innocent Syrian Muslim refugees counts in her mind, I imagine, as fodder for “alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.”

If we want to talk about inhumane behavior, inhumane, it seems to me, is to deny the principle of the saying engraved on our most treasured gift from France, of all places: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Inhumane, it seems to me, is to ignore that the Christian Savior (and his family) were, according to Matthew, themselves refugees fleeing persecution–and were not Christian.

Inhumane, it seems to me, is to ignore the warnings and the wisdom of people like Dr. Atran and Ms. Gambir, warnings and wisdom such as she penned here:

But backlashes against Muslims who have no part in the Islamic State’s ideologies or actions make the situation much worse. Europe must avoid the trap that the Islamic State is setting by focusing its responses to the Paris attacks and other outrages against the perpetrators and their supporters. (Emphasis mine)

And we are surprised when the trap of which she speaks snaps.

These US politicians–most, if not all, who claim to be Christian!–who want to ban Muslim refugees (refugees fleeing the very terrorists we fear!), give context and credibility for a cartoon tweeted from a cartoonist of Charlie Hebdo (a French satirical magazine which was itself the victim of a terrible terrorist attack) which states, “friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! our faith goes to music! kisses! life! champagne and joy! #parisisaboutlife


I so respect the sentiment.  I get it.  It’s well-earned.

But Dr. Atran speaks to this distaste and distrust and disillusion of religion as well.  He writes:

Everything good you can think of has been religiously inspired from creativity in art and music to intellectual endeavors. And everything bad from war and genocide and murder to torture. But that’s also been the case with secular governments as well.

I don’t deny that religion is an element of this terribleness.

But to focus only on religion–Christian or Muslim–misses the other issues at hand: fear, racism, poverty, distrust, inequity, ignorance, xenophobia, violence.

Or, to put it conversely, focusing only on religion misses that those who join terrorist organizations have  a desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, to join an inclusive group, to be treated with respect.

But those of us who are religious, pay heed: our faith makes claims on our interactions with the stranger, with the homeless, with the hungry.

We have the possibility of not only making an enemy into a friend, but preventing the creation of enemies in the first place.

I do believe that God, not to mention those who are a-religious and those who are on the cusp of joining a militant group (instead of, say, a peace-loving, welcoming, justice-seeking, healing group), are paying close attention to how we engage those who are different than we.


As a result of listening to Dr. Atran today, my family is making plans to invite a Muslim immigrant family to our table for Thanksgiving.

We hope that our offer can find a taker!

We’d like to not just tokenize that meal, but rather begin to establish a relationship (limited though it might be before our move to Omaha).

Once we are settled in Omaha, we hope to establish a new relationship with a new Muslim immigrant family: again, not to tokenize, but to do what we can to make friends, and to live out our faith commitments.

I invite you to do the same, not only on Thanksgiving, but as a habit, as an extension of your faith, as a manifestation of your commitment to the Least of These, no matter from where they come or in which God they trust.

Intentionally and flagrantly defy the fear, defy the terrorist, and defy the xenophobes in our own country.

Destroy an enemy.

Make a friend.

Doch the terror.


Here is a link to Dr. Atran’s article about the violence in Paris.