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Demonization in America

Rabbi Rami Shapiro


This is a talk I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Murfreesboro, TN in response to the murder of two people, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, and the wounding of six others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville last Sunday.[1]


We live in frightening times. We live in times when shouting passes for conversation, and reasoned dialogue is too boring to air. We live in times when, in the name of free speech, we allow ourselves to be inundated with hate speech. We live in times when it is not enough to disagree with others, we must demonize them. We live in a demon-haunted time.

Jim David Adkisson, the man who murdered two people and wounded 6 others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville last Sunday, was slaying demons. He called them liberals, and was fed a never-ending stream of vile lies that told him these demon liberals hate America, hate our soldiers, hate the family, the flag, the fetus, and God. They are out to destroy everything for which America stands. Killing them is a moral imperative.

What Jim Adkisson heard, and what tens of millions of other Americans hear every day is the steady demonization of our fellow Americans. Demonization is the fifth of a five stage conditioning process Dr. Anthony Stahelski of Central Washington University, has identified as the key to turning people into terrorists. The five stages are: depluralization, self-deindividuation, other-deindividuation, dehumanization, and demonization. I believe that our entire culture is in the grip of this process. We are becoming a nation of potential terrorists haunted by demons.

Depluralization removes you from any influences outside your group. What you read, watch on television, listen to on the radio, where you worship have to be all of a piece- each reinforcing the other. It is not that you stop thinking, its that you no longer have the capacity to think outside the parameters of the group.

Self-deindividuation strips away your personal identity. What you wear, what you buy, what you eat, drive, drink, think, study, and say is determined by your group. Thinking for yourself becomes impossible, because there is no self left to think at all.

Other-deindividuation strips away the personal identities of people with whom you dont agree, your so-called enemies. They become the mirror opposite of you, thinking, living, and promoting ideas that are not just different, but demonic. They are a threat to everything that is good, decent, and God-fearing. In short, they arent us.

Dehumanization explains why your enemies feel so alien: they arent really human at all. These subhumans cant be converted to your ideas; they are incapable of understanding them. And yet they seem to thrive, and to threaten everything you cherish.

Demonization reveals why this is true: the other isnt just subhuman, they are anti-human, they are demons in league with the Devil whose only passion is your destruction. Demonization follows dehumanization the way one end of a Slinky follows the other. Not only are they wrong, they are evil, and evil must be obliterated.

America today is a nation of demons. The other is everywhere. It doesnt matter if we are conservative or liberal, the disease of demonization has infected our body politic and we are rotting from within.

What happened at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church was a symptom of life in demon-haunted America.

This is from a sworn affidavit by one of the police officers who interviewed Adkisson:

During the interview Adkisson stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. Adkisson made statements that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them into office. Adkisson stated that he had held these beliefs for about the last ten years.

As any military expert will tell you, it takes time to train a person to kill. Humans are not natural born killers. We cannot just look another human being in the face and pull the trigger. We have to be trained to overcome our compassion and sense of connection with the other, and the easiest way to do that is through dehumanization and demonization.

It took Mr. Adkisson ten years to deny the humanity of his neighbors. How many other Jim Adkissons are there in America?

Hatred has been building in this country for a long time. We are ready to blow.

So what can we do? Not as a nation or a people those kinds of policy questions are beyond me. What can we do here? What can the Unitarian Fellowship of Murfreesboro do? Three basic choices come to my mind.

First, we can circle the wagons, search people for weapons as they come through our doors, and worry that every new face is potentially that of a terrorist here to do us harm. This might work for a while, but in the end we will stop coming here ourselves.

Second, we can align ourselves more fiercely with liberalism and argue more loudly against the evil right wing pundits, and loud-mouthed media demagogues, as well as your run-of-the-mill gay-bashing, misogynist, racist, and anti-human conservatives. But this only perpetuates the demonization threatening America, and does nothing to end it.

I admit to finding both of these options tempting, but in the end, a third option, the classically liberal option wins out. Instead of closing our doors, we should open them all the wider. Instead of shutting down opinionated speech we should invite our neighbors over for tea and conversation.

Indeed, if we had the money, we should take out a series of full-page ads in the Daily News Journal, one each day for a week, articulating our approach (we have no single opinion) to the most controversial issues of our most uncivil culture war.

When I sat down to prepare this talk I turned first to John Lennons song, Imagine. I had thought to build my talk around those lyrics:

Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too
Imagine all the people/Living life in peace

But I didnt do this. Why, because in the end, John Lennon is wrong. There are things worth dying for. If I am going to die, let me die for something worthwhile.

Let me die because I refuse to demonize African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, women, Muslims, Catholics, or any one else.

Let me die because I insist that the dignity of my gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered brothers and sisters be honored, upheld, and legally enforced.

Let me die because I insist upon reason even when dealing with revelation.

Let me die because I fight and vote to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and resist it being torn to shreds by a government so drunk on fear that it no longer trusts the very values it was entrusted to protect.

Let me die because I dare to love even in the face of white-hot heat.

Let me die because what I stand for is worth dying for.

Im not saying the victims of Jim David Adkisson are martyrs, though some were certainly heroes. Martyrs die for their faith, these poor people died because of it. They died because Jim Adkisson was infected with the hate that is fast becoming the life-blood of America. Jim Adkisson was as much a victim as those he murdered.

I dont feel sorry for Jim Adkisson; I feel sorry for America. I cant forgive Jim David Adkisson; only those he hurt can do that. Nor will I bury my head in the sand and say he is a lonely, troubled, and sick man deserving of pity. He is not. Jim Adkisson is part of the madness that is sweeping our nation. He is not the first to murder the demons he imagines and fears, nor will he be the last. But until you and I act to end the demonization that threatens our country, Jim Adkisson will just be a footnote to the next demonslayer who acts to save America by murdering Americans.

* * *

Five Steps Toward Ending Religious Violence

An email arrived yesterday that asked a very simple question: What can religions do to free themselves from violence? I will try to keep my answer just as simple: Nothing.

There is nothing religion can do because religion is a concept, a series of propositions and practices that in and of itself does nothing. If we want to keep religion free from violence we have to address the question What can people of faith do to keep themselves and therefore their religions free from violence? To this I would say five things.

First, people of faith must cultivate humility as the heart of faith. Religiously sanctioned violence arises when people are certain that they and only they have the truth. People of faith must learn to say, This is what I believe to be so, but I admit that there is no way to prove that I am right.

Second, people of faith must have the courage to critically investigate the ideas of faith. Critical studies of the Bible, Koran, Gita, etc. can, if done with an open heart as well as an open mind, deepen ones appreciation for and understanding of the profound teachings found in these and other holy books. Literalism kills the spirit and fans the flames of war.

Third, people of faith must engage in contemplative selfinquiry, tracing the clamor of ego back to the silence of God, that field of pure consciousness in which all things rise and return. Every religion has such practices so there is no need to borrow for another faith or invent some new tool or technique. Nevertheless I would suggest the curious read Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Gangagi to get a clear idea of what selfinquiry has to offer.

Fourth, people of faith must rid their sacred texts and teachings of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Godsanctioned violence, and racisms of all kinds. Insist that we reinforce the prophetic ideals of universal justice and compassion rather than the parochial ideals of spiritual triumphalism.

Fifth, people of faith must enter into dialogue with one another. As the tag line to my One River Foundation affirms, we build community through conversation. It is vital that we hear each others voices, stories and experiences. If we focus on our personal practices and experiences rather than the fixed dogmas of our respective faith traditions we will find common ground on which to build a just and compassionate society.

You may have other ideas to add to my list, and I would appreciate reading them, but this is a start. Though it is not one I expect many will take up any time soon.

*** *** ***


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[1] On July 27, 2008, a politically motivated fatal shooting took place at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, United States. Motivated by a desire to kill liberals and Democrats, gunman Jim David Adkisson fired a shotgun at members of the congregation during a youth performance of a musical, killing two people and wounding seven others.



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