Politics and religion.
Other than our families, is there anything that can cause our blood pressure to rise more than these two topics? It’s polite to not discuss these topics for fear of causing conflict, but today I’m wading into both.
What can you say about the world today? Some days I feel like we are careening wildly toward complete self-destruction of the human race and other days I feel more hopeful. I read a story about people going to great lengths to care for a child or rescue an animal and I feel like our better selves can emerge given the opportunity, but then the next moment brings news of shootings, bombings, violence etc.
Now, I have read enough history books to know that this state of this world is, in fact, nothing new. A quick glance through the Old Testament or any ancient literature will assure you that while technology has changed, people have not. We are creatures driven by the desire to protect ourselves and our own self-interests. While we face the same biological needs, the layers of identity and meaning that we clothe those needs in looks very different across cultures, nations and continents.
Besides satisfying our biological needs to stay alive, our needs for inclusion and identity are also powerful. We use all kinds of symbols to display meaning in our lives and to establish who we are and what group we belong to. On my left hand is a recognized symbol of my marriage. It indicates my identity as a married woman reminding myself and others of the relationship bond that I live within. My children went off to school today wearing University of Kentucky t-shirts. In the state of Kentucky identification as a fan of UK basketball is an important part of identity and acceptance into the group.
We use our clothes, our jewelry, our hair, even our language choices and activities as statements. These symbols can serve as an important connection with our group, but they also become defining elements determining who is in our group and who is out.
As groups interact symbols become more than just identification, but can also become rallying cries for raising arms against another group in conflict. Today we are seeing repeats of conflicts that are centuries old continue to play out in our national and international arenas. Right now in the United States presidential candidates are using age-old talk of “otherness” to stir up support for their particular agendas and claims to power.
Republican hopeful Donald Trump in a recent television ad continues his assertion that he can make America great again. The formula for this seems to be building walls and creating barriers to entry. Watch the video here if you haven’t seen it.
But The Trump won’t be able to patent this idea of building walls to keep in the insiders and keep out the outsiders – cue an image of the Great Wall of China. Determining who belongs and who doesn’t falls back into the realm of using symbols to mark our individual identity and conformity to see who fits and who doesn’t.
Right now markers of identity that are being used as fodder for political purpose and religious extremism are items as diverse as headscarves, guns, flags and tattoos. If your Facebook is anything like mine, just a quick scroll down through it will highlight a variety of ways that people are using symbols to mark their turf.
A professor in the United States recently walked headlong into this controversy. Larycia Hawkins, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College wrote a Facebook post that started a whirlwind of controversy.
On December 10, 2015, Hawkins wrote a Facebook post saying:
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. … As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.”
Since the time of this post Hawkins’ choice not only to wear the symbol of the hijab, but also her insistence that Muslims and Christians follow the same God have caused a public relations nightmare for Wheaton. Dr. Hawkins insists that the post and the act of wearing the symbol of the hijab was meant to show solidarity for Muslims in the face of the responses of those like Donald Trump’s. However, Wheaton College claims that the professor violated the college’s belief statement by making a theological claim about Christianity and Islam. While the debate about theology and academic freedom will continue for a long time, the conflict itself is indicative of the greater questions swirling through American society as well as the international arena. Read more about this story.
Christianity and Islam have long been at odds. There is little positive history of the interactions of these two religions that are claimed by a majority of the world. Add in those who follow Judaism and you have almost two-thirds of all of earth’s population that claim one of these religions that all claim a connection to Abraham. In addition to a common ancestor these three religions also all claim a connection to a common plot of land.
Jerusalem is the crossroads of these three great religions and it’s been the focal point of conflict for thousands of years as an important symbol to each one of them. For the Jews Jerusalem is the site of Solomon’s Temple. For Muslim’s it is the third most holy of sites for their faith and for Christians it is the site where Jesus walked, died and was resurrected.
Squeezing these meaningful symbols for three separate groups into one small plot of land has set the stage for what seems to be perpetual violence. Each year another round of conflict escalates. Just over a year ago Andy and I were discussing the current situation of Jerusalem and how it symbolizes in so many ways the religious, cultural and racial conflicts around the world today. The next day Andy called me and said he had an image in his head that he felt like was meaningful. He sent it to me by email and asked me what I thought about it. I told him I thought it looked like our next documentary project. The image was the one you see at the top of this article.
We began brainstorming a documentary series that would move beyond stereotypes and explore what it means to live in one of the epicenters of cultural, religious and racial conflict. We thought by focusing on the symbolism of the three days of worship – Friday for Islam, Saturday for Judaism and Sunday for Christianity – we could explore this unique city that is more than just a place, but is a religious symbol, identity marker and rallying cry for three different world religions.
After more than a year of fundraising, production, editing and preparation, we are excited to see Three coming to completion. Over the next few weeks we will be giving you updates on its completion and as well as sharing about the production process. Then in February we will be releasing Three over five weeks. Please make sure you check our weekly emails for the first look at each section as we release them (sign up here if you haven’t yet).
Author: Julie Martinez